18 June 2012

Ralph Connor's Beautiful War of 1812

The Runner: A Romance of the Niagaras
Ralph Connor [pseud. Rev. Charles W. Gordon]
New York: Triangle, 1939 

The War of 1812 began two hundred years ago today. I've seen the bicentennial coming for some time – easily done when the year features in the very name of the conflict – all the while promising myself that I'd tackle this Ralph Connor novel in honour of the occasion.

That The Runner is the first Ralph Connor novel I've ever read says more about him than it does me. One hundred years ago, at the time of the centennial, Connor stood with Sir Gilbert Parker as our best-selling novelist; today he's pretty much forgotten. My father had a nice collection encompassing most, if not all, of Connor 's 26 novels. They might have been handed down from my grandfather... or maybe they'd been a gift from his neighbour. I wouldn't know; I never opened a single volume. At some point in the 'seventies the whole thing was donated to our church's annual rummage sale.

This novel reminded me of In the Midst of Alarms, Robert Barr's tale of the Fenian Raids. Such lovely descriptions of the Niagara Peninsula, so much fascinating stuff about things cultural and political in 19th-century Upper Canada... but after a couple of dozen chapters, one does begin to wonder just when the fighting will start. Not soon enough. It's next off to Boston, where the reader is treated to a fancy ball followed by a number of debates between Federalists and Republicans. I learned to be patient.

The Runner moves at a slow pace, even at moments of high drama and emotion, such as when bullheaded Colonel Brookes' hotheaded son Hubert challenges thick-headed Lieutenant-Governor Francis Gore:
"Hubert, you have insulted His Excellency in my house. You must apologize or leave this house at once." (p. 154) 
"Hubert, will you withdraw your words?' (p. 155) 
"How can I? They are true." (p. 156) 
"But to-night, Hubert? Must you go to-night?"
"Yes, Mother, it is better to-night." (p. 157) 
"Good-bye! Good-bye, my son! My first-born son!"
"Go, Mother! Go! Go! You will break me up." (p. 158) 
"Have you said good-bye to Hope, Hubert?"
"To Hope? Why, yes Mother, we have said – good-bye." (p. 160) 
"Good-bye! Ha-ha! Good-bye! Why, certainly! Good-bye!" (p. 161)
Hubert, his mother, the colonel and Lieutenant-Governor Gore all have parts to play in The Runner, but the starring role belongs to young René LaFlamme. He of the title, René is – forgive me – a dashing figure. We see him first at fifteen, diving into the mighty Niagara to retrieve a ship's line that has eluded some clumsy wharfmen. Onlookers applaud. During the lengthy journey to conflict, René will save one girl's honour and another's life. He will demonstrate superior skills in shooting, fencing, fisticuffs, and will master ballroom dancing in six easy lessons. René will serve as scout and spy for Isaac Brock, help forge the alliance with Tecumseh and – on page 297 of this 481 page book – bring news to York that the Americans have declared war... At long last, those who purchased The Runner as a "beautiful historical novel of the Canadian border during the War of 1812" are rewarded.

For this reader, it was all too little, too late and, most of all, far too fanciful. René helps capture of Detroit, is a hero at Queenston Heights, kills the man who killed Brock, rescues Laura Secord and plans James FitzGibbon's attack at the Battle of Beaver Dams.

This novel has so very many faults, but the greatest lies in positioning René as a key figure in the war. No mere observer, no simple soldier, he's on par with Brock and Tecumseh.

We couldn't have done it without him.

Coincidence: Our home is right next-door to the author's boyhood school.

Object: A cheaply produced hardcover, purchased in Vancouver ten years ago for $1.75, this Triangle books edition marked the last time the novel saw print. The publisher's pitch brags that their books "cost pennies instead of dollars", yet are "complete and unabridged, printed on good paper from the expensive plates of the original editions." Don't you believe it – this morning's Globe and Mail was printed on better paper.

Access: Most of our public libraries cleared Connor from their shelves long ago. The good news is that copies of The Runner are cheap, cheap, cheap. Decent copies of the 1929 Doubleday, Doran first edition can be had for as little as US$6. At US$65, the most expensive is being offered by a greedy Connecticut bookseller. Damn Yankees.


  1. The University of Alberta has almost every book Connor ever wrote including his autobiography.

  2. Yes, it seems that our universities have been good in keeping their Connors... and I remember the Vancouver Public Library having a very good collection. On the other hand, the St Marys Public Library, just four blocks from where he went to school, has nothing. Shameful, really.

  3. I've read or at least gone through three of Connor's books, but they were just as you described them. THE SKY PILOT was probably the best of these.