20 March 2014

Alberta Gothic

Winnifred Eaton
New York: A.L. Burt, [1925?]

There's an award-winning book waiting to be written about Montreal's Eatons. Sixteen in all, headed by artist father Edward and his Chinese wife Lotus Blossom, they were anything but the typical Victorian Canadian family. The children were raised in poverty – again, Edward was an artist  – but managed to do fairly well for themselves. Sara performed on the stage, Grace practiced law and Edith, a journalist, holds the distinction of being the first Asian-North American writer of fiction.

It was the eighth Eaton child, Winnifred, who had the greatest public profile. Casting herself as Nagaskai-born Onoto Watanna, she exploited the public's fascination with things Japanese in a series of romances with titles like The Wooing of Wisteria (1902), The Heart of the Hyacinth (1903) and Daughters of Nijo (1907).

A late career novel, in a great many ways "Cattle" marked a departure for Eaton. Here her fragrant, falling cherry blossoms are replaced by grain and the harsh, hardscrabble reality of prairie life. The first of her novels to be set in Canada – Alberta to be precise – it is populated by an odd assortment of Americans, Scots, Chinese and English remittance men. Ontarians, too.
Alberta is, in a way, a land of sanctuary, and upon its rough bosom the derelicts of the world, the fugitives, the hunters, the sick and the dying have sought asylum and cure.
Its heroine, Nettie Day, is one of a very few characters to have actually been born in the province. A "slow-moving, slow-thinking girl, simple-mind and totally ignorant of the world", she cares for nine siblings on her widowed father's failing ranch. When dad dies, all but Nettie are dealt to neighbouring farms and orphanages. She has no other choice but to work for Bull Langdon – "I'm willing' to take her along with her dad's old truck." – who's looking for a girl to help his sickly wife with housework.

A former schoolteacher, Mrs Langdon is perhaps the most positive figure in all of Canadian literature:
She had an ingenious faith, imbedded from tracts and books that drifted into her hands in her teaching days; she denied the existence of evil, pain or illness in the world, and when it pushed its ugly fist into her face, or wracked her frail body, she had a little formula that she bravely reciterd over and over again, like an incantation, in which she asserted that it was an error: that she was in the best of health, and the everything in the world was beautiful and in the image of God.
After a few months, Bull sends his frail wife off to rest in Banff. No sooner is she gone than he rapes fifteen year-old Nettie; the next day he informs her that she will be the next mistress of his ranch.

"Cattle" is remarkable in that it is far more brutal and disturbing than any other Canadian novel of its time; that it is by a woman who had made a career writing romances makes it all the more so. Amongst its characters we find a self-loathing, androgynous "man-woman" and a "half-breed" bastard boy whose father's beatings have rendered "half-witted". That father being Bull Langdon.

There are many deaths, including that of another of Bull's illegitimate children, an infant he kidnaps and all but tosses to his hired hands:  "… there was a great swelling on the forehead, where he had fallen off the seat of the car to the floor. Its whole body, in fact, was bruised from the cruel bumping of that long mad ride".

I haven't mentioned the Spanish Flu Pandemic or that a character is gored, thrown and rent into pieces by a prize Hereford bull.

While Eaton's dark story is in no way a roman à clef – thank goodness – it draws on knowledge gained through her second marriage to Alberta rancher Francis Reeve. She published just one more novel, His Royal Nibs (1925), also set in Alberta's cattle country, before heading off to Hollywood.

Yes, Hollywood.

Now, who's going to write that book on the Eatons? Why hasn't it been written already?

Title and Author: "Cattle" or Cattle? The quotation marks used on the cover and spine of my copy disappear on the title page. Going through contemporary advertisements, I see a similar lack of consistency.

There also seems to have been indecision regarding the marketing the book, with American editions giving credit to both Winnifred Eaton and her nom de plume (in parentheses).

Curiously, advertisements for Musson's Canadian edition give "Winnifred Reeve (Otono Watanna)" as the author, though only the latter is credited on book itself.

The Canadian Bookman, December 1923
Dedication: "To my old friend Frank Putnam", American editions state. The Canadian is more interesting:

An American journalist and occasional poet, Putnam dedicated Love Lyrics (Chicago: Blakely, 1898), a slim volume of verse, to "Otono Watanna". Eaton provided the Introduction.

A bonus:

Stephen Leacock, The GoblinFebruary 1924
Object: A cheap reprint from bargain book publisher A.L. Burt, bound in red cloth with gold gilt lettering, with frontispiece by George W. Gage. The last leaf features a partial list of the publisher's most recent offerings. Titles by Canadians Arthur Stringer, L.M. Montgomery, Frank L. Packard and Bertrand W. Sinclair figure.

Access: First published in 1923 by Hutchinson, in the UK, and Musson, in Canada. The Canadian first has a jacket, I've never seen. An Ottawa bookseller is offering a copy for US$115. Well worth it.

The American first was published in 1924 by W.J. Watt. A Minnesota bookseller is offering a Near Fine copy in Very Good dust jacket (right) at US$175.

We of limited means can read the Musson edition online here.

Fifteen of our academic libraries have copies, but only two of our public libraries, Calgary and Toronto, serve. Montreal? Forget it.


  1. Nicely reviewed and quite an unusual story. Puts one in mind of Dorothy Scarbrough's West Texas novel The Wind, also published 1925.

    1. Many thanks for the kind words, Ron. Thank you also for pointing me in the direction of The Wind (no pun intended). Interesting, but not surprising, to see that folks in Texas were none too happy with the novel. I don't have a sense that Albertans reacted in a similar fashion to "Cattle". I expect this was because hardship was caused by a villain and not the environment. I should add - spoiler - that "Cattle" has an absurd, rushed and incongruous happy ending, which lessens the blow.