08 December 2017

The Season's Best Books in Review – A.D. 1917: The String of Canadian Patriotism is Fingered

The "Globe 100" of its time, I've long been interested in the Globe & Mail's "Season's Best Books in Review," which ran annually in the early part of last century. Regulars may remember me writing about it here and here. After all these years, I thought I knew the feature, and so was taken aback by the opening paragraphs of the 1917 edition, published one hundred years ago today. Unlike others, it begins with a focus on children's books, as recommended by Miss Lillian Smith of Toronto's Reference Library. E. Boyd Smith's The Story of Noah's Ark tops the librarian's list, followed by new illustrated editions of Uncle Remus, The Black Arrow, Kidnapped, and The Prince and the Pauper.

The Great War, the subject of the three previous introductions, intrudes only briefly – "There are war books for boys, though Miss Smith declares that girls, too, read them constantly. One of the best of these is 'The Post of Honor' by Richard Wilson" – and then it's back to Pinocchio, The Real Mother Goose, and the "Mary Frances" books by Jane Sayre Fryer.

Lest anyone think Canadians were beginning to tire reading of the war, I point out that the most prominent element of the feature's first page is "The Dead," by early casualty Rupert Brooke.

Brooke was himself over two years dead by then. A more recent loss – May 7, 1917 – was Bernard Freeman Trotter, whom McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart positioned as "the Canadian Rupert Brooke." He wasn't, of course, which is not to say that his poems do not affect. Consider "A Kiss":

Several column inches are devoted to Trotter's lone book, Canadian Twilight and Other Poems of War and of Peace, which was published just in time for Christmas gift giving. It came in its own box.

Of the seventy-six books listed in the 1917 "Season's Best," twenty were about or directly inspired by the war... and of those, the one I'd most like to add to my collection is Crumps: The Plain Tale of a Canadian Who Went. A book I've put off buying for far too long, it was written and illustrated by editorial cartoonist turned soldier Louis Keene. He seems to have been a lucky man, but not lucky enough, returning from the war with a mangled right hand. Here's hoping he was a lefty.

Keene is one of ten Canadians whose books made the thirty-one title non-fiction list. An impressive showing, but it pales when compared to our poets:
The year 1917 has been fruitful of good verse. Poetry was given a marked impetus at the beginning of the year by the publication a few weeks before of John W. Garvin's "Canadian Poets" (McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart). This notable work, which as steadily made its way in Canada, the United States and Great Britain, was recently referred to by the editor of The Poetry Review, London England, as a "monumental collection," and as "the one permanent celebration of the jubilee of the British North American Provinces."
Such was the force unleashed by Garvin's "permanent celebration" (last printed in 1917) that Canadian poets took up all twelve spots, pushing aside Eliot's Prufrock, and other observations, Gurney's Severn and Somme, Sassoon's The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems, Yeats' The Wild Swan's at Coole, and posthumous collections by Alan Seeger and Edward Thomas. Lt Trotter's Canadian Twilight and Other Poems of War and of Peace is joined by:
In a Belgian Garden - F.O. Call
Marching Men - Helena Coleman
Irish Lyrics and Ballads by Rev James B. Dollard
The New Joan - Katherine Hale
Songs of Ukrania by Florence Randall Livesay
Idylls of the Dane - Irene Elder Morton
The Piper and the Reed - Robert Norwood
Songs from a Young Man's Land by Clive Phillips-Wolley
Carry On - Virna Sheard
The Shell - A.C. Stewart
Heart of the Hills - Albert Durrant Watson
The 1916 "Season's Best" had wonderful things to say about new talent Robert Norwood, and his praises continued to be sung in 1917, but it seems much of the love had moved on:
Of recent years no Canadian poet has made more solid progress than Albert D. Watson of Toronto. His 'Love and the Universe' (1913) established him among the leaders of the new school of Canadian verse; and 'Heart of the Hills', recently published, contains several poems of great originality and power. Of these, the most outstanding is 'To Worlds More Wide.' It is aglow with a divine spirit and message.

In best "Season's Best" tradition, Canadian fiction is given short shrift. The most that can be said is that the fiction list leads with an enthusiastic review of Ralph Connor's The Major:
There is in it every element required: noble men, lovely women, a villain or two; also the string of Canadian patriotism is fingered, not tone harped upon; and there is an attempt to show the influence on a man of his early training and environment.
Discussion of The Major is several paragraphs longer than any other novel. And why not? After all, Connor was then our biggest author, outselling even Gilbert Parker and L.M. Montgomery (whose Anne's House of Dreams failed to make the list).* Other novels considered to be of note include works by foreigners H.G. Wells, Mary Robert Rinehart, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Phyllis Bottome, J.C. Snaith, Stephen McKenna, William MacHarg and Edwin Balmer. I'm sorry to report that only one other Canadian novelist, Basil King, is so much as mentioned. The description of his latest, The High Heart, is brief: "A love story of a Canadian governess with the war as a background."

I'm not quite sold on The Major or The High Heart. This may have something to do with the 1916 "Season's Best" dismissal of Canadian fiction as stagnant and undeveloped. But then, under "Books for Juveniles," the feature's final section. I came upon a novel that sounds as exciting as anything by J.C. Snaith. I refer here to Frank Lillie Pollock's Northern Diamonds, described as "an exciting and realistic story of three Canadian boys – one a young medical student, a big Scotch-Canadian – who comes with a wondrous tale told him by a sick Indian of the discovery of diamonds found in the country north of the Abitibi River, a packet of which had been left in a certain cabin; the Indian leaving hurriedly on an alarm of smallpox, deserting the prospectors a like strait. The boys are, of course, fired with the idea of of resuming the precious stones. The account of the start with steel-shod toboggan, piled high with 'grub,' and on skates to fly the frozen waters; and carrying snowshoes for their many portages; the making of camps, the game shot, the perils of land and water; the fight with the ruffians who come to the cabin; an especially exciting chase after a deer by 'Jack Light'; the trapping of some black foxes; the fearful cold; all go to make up a capital boy's book for a holiday gift."

Indeed! This boy would like to receive a copy as a holiday gift.

But, I wonder, would Miss Smith approve?

Lillian Smith
* Other Canadian novels that did not make the list include Frank L. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (not surprising) and Up the Hill and Over by Isabel Ecclestone Mackay (somewhat surprising), both of which are reviewed in my new book.

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