22 October 2019

Let the Margaret Murray Robertson Revival Begin!

Christie Redfern’s Troubles
by the author of “Mark Wedgewood’s Wooing,” etc. [Margaret Murray Robertson]
London: The Religious Tract Society, [c. 1866]
384 pages

Christie Redfern’s troubles are so many that they spill over into her backstory. Poor girl, she began life as the fourth child of a Scottish businessman and his loving, fertile wife. Mrs Redfern died, but not before giving birth to four more children. The role of family matriarch was then taken up by Mr Redfern’s stern spinster sister Elsie, but the aunt’s firm, yet helpful hand was not enough to prevent the decline of Mr Redfern’s enterprise. What was that enterprise? Doesn’t matter. What’s important is that it failed, causing Mr Redfern to move the family to the New World and a farm in Canada West’s Glengarry County. That Mr Redfern knew little about agriculture suggests something about his failure as a businessman. To make matters worse:
Soon after their arrival in their new home, Aunt Elsie was seized with an illness which lingered long, and left her a cripple when it went away; and her temper was not of the kind which suffering and helplessness are said sometimes to improve. It was a trying time to all.
No doubt.

So begins my latest Dusty Bookcase review for Canadian Notes & Queries. The issue in which it appears – number 105 – arrived in yesterday's post. I poured over it last night, between peeks at election coverage.

"Grand Theft Bibio," Michael Melgaard's excellent piece on book thieves, was the first to distract my troubled mind.

Ray Fawkes' adaptation of Pattern Recognition by William Gibson was a visual feast.

I couldn't have agreed more with Rod Moody-Corbett's essay on Saul Bellow.

All, as always, is wrapped in covers by Seth. Lord knows, this snap doesn't do it justice.

I ask you, how many magazines have French flaps?

Other contributors include:
Jeremiah Bartram
Jeff Bursey
Andreae Callanan
Paige Cooper
Candace de Taeye
Emily Donaldson
Deborah Dundas
Carey Fagan
Stephen Fowler
Alex Good
Brett Josef Grubisic
David Huebert
David Mason
Edward O'Connor
Rudrapriya Rathore
Yusuf Saadi
Nathan Whitlock
the late David Helwig
Christie Redfern's Troubles is just about the most depressing thing I've ever read.

Does that not make it a novel for our time?

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21 October 2019

Number 43 in a Series

The 43rd Canadian general election takes place today. The first I remember was the twenty-ninth – October 30, 1972 – which Pierre Trudeau's Liberals won by all of two seats. We may see something similar befall son Justin... who happens to be the baby pictured above between Pierre and Margaret Trudeau.

My prediction is that Trudeau fils will do a little bit better, but I'm not prepared to put money on it. I don't recall an election with so many three-way races – and don't remember four-way races  at all. Will the NDP win sixteen seats or sixty? Eric Grénier won't commit.

Can you blame him?

Me? I'll be more than happy with a Liberal minority. Lester Pearson, the greatest prime minister of my lifetime, never once enjoyed a majority. I think of Pearson – and NDP leader Tommy Douglas – each time I speak medical care. I think of Pearson – and NDP leader Tommy Douglas – whenever I see our flag. I will think of Pearson – and NDP leader Tommy Douglas – when my Canada Pension Plan kicks in. My Quebec Pension Plan, too.

Polls close at 9:30 in my riding, which means this could be a very long night. Much of it will be spent dipping in and out of Hotter Than Hell, a 2005 political thriller penned by Mark Tushingham, Senior Advisor to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Sound familiar?

It received little notice until Conservative Environment Minister Rona Ambrose forbade the author from speaking publicly. Though this made the news, I've yet to find anything by anyone who has actually read Tushingham's novel. Should be interesting – especially to we who make a habit of reading Richard Rohmer.

Does Dr Tushingham's novel give an indication of my vote?

It should.

Truth be told, at this late hour I'm torn between two candidates... neither of whom belongs to the People's Party.


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16 October 2019

A Dog's Life and Then Some

Beautiful Joe: The Autobiography of a Dog
     [New and Revised Edition]
Marshall Saunders
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, n.d.
266 pages

Like The Woman Who Did, I thought I knew this novel.

I did not.

My wife didn't want to hear me talk about Beautiful Joe because she thought too she knew the novel and would find it upsetting. The inspiration for this "autobiography" has a park named in his honour in Meaford, Ontario. Because we've found his story so disturbing, we've never visited.

There are disturbing things in Beautiful Joe – many, many things – but they don't always concern its hero. The worst of it comes in the earliest pages. A nameless cur, he enters this world as one of a litter of seven. His owner, a brute of a dairy farmer named Jenkins, lives in near poverty because he is too lazy to attend to his cows. One of his own children falls ill from his contaminated product, and one of his customers dies, but neither event causes Jenkins to change his ways. Then comes a passage that is not for the sensitive reader:
One rainy day, when we were eight weeks old, Jenkins, followed by two or three of his ragged, dirty children, came into the stable and looked at us. Then he began to swear because we were so ugly, and said if we had been good-looking, he might have sold some of us. Mother watched him anxiously, and fearing some danger to her puppies, ran and jumped in the middle of us, and looked pleadingly up at him.
     It only made him swear the more. He took one pup after another, and right there, before his children and my poor distracted mother, put an end to their lives. Some of them he seized by the legs and knocked against the stalls, till their brains were dashed out, others he killed with a fork. It was very terrible. My mother ran up and down the stable, screaming with pain, and I lay weak and trembling, and expecting every instant that my turn would come next. I don't know why he spared me. I was the only one left.
Nothing prepared me for that hellish scene, but I knew enough about the novel to brace myself for more blood and violence.

Beautiful Joe with his mother, brothers, and sisters,
as depicted by John Nicholson in the Jerrold's edition (c. 1907).

The grieving mother never recovers from the loss of her pups. Though only four years old, poor nutrition has worn her down and made her weak. Beautiful Joe brings his mother scraps, but she only turns them over with her nose... until one day, she licks him gently, wags her tale, and dies:
As I sat by her, feeling lonely and miserable, Jenkins came into the stable. I could not bear to look at him. He had killed my mother. There she lay, a little, gaunt, scarred creature, starved and worried to death by him. Her mouth was half open, her eyes were staring. She would never again look kindly at me, or curl up to me at night to keep me warm.
The milkman gives Beautiful Joe a kick. When the dog fights back, Jenkins calls for an axe:
He laid my head on the log and pressed one hand on my struggling body. I was now a year old and a full-sized dog. There was a quick, dreadful pain, and he had cut off my ear, not in the way they cut puppies' ears, but close to my head, so close that he cut off some of the skin beyond it. Then he cut of the other ear, and, turning me swiftly round, cut off my tail close to my body.
     Then he let me go and stood looking at me as I rolled on the ground and yelped in agony.
A cyclist hears the dog's cries, comes upon the scene, and beats Jenkins to a pulp. This passerby, Harry, takes the maimed creature to the home of his uncle and aunt, Rev and Mrs Morris, where he is slowly nursed back to health.

To be frank, I wasn't sure I could take too much more, but then I didn't know Beautiful Joe. I had thought it was the story of a maimed dog, who after a near lifetime of trials, tribulations, and adventure finally finds a loving home. I did not expect the manse be that home. An enlightened couple with five children, Rev and Mrs Morris believe that care for the lower creation teaches kindness, generosity, empathy, selflessness, and all sorts of other good things. Our hero joins a menagerie, consisting of rabbits, canaries, goldfish, pigeons, bantams, a guinea pig, a cat, and another dog. He's given the name Beautiful Joe because he's so ugly.

In many ways, Beautiful Joe's story ends in the third of the novel's thirty-five chapters, with his arrival at the Morris home. While he does experience a few moments of adventure – a train derailment, the rescue of abandoned farm animals, an encounter with a burglar (who turns out to be Jenkins!) – the great dramas of his life are in the past. The dog leads a quiet, uneventful life, largely in the company of Miss Laura Morris, devoting the bulk of his autobiography to relaying conversations he's heard regarding the proper and improper treatment of animals.

Beautiful Joe is at its heart a work of propaganda, written with the hope of winning an 1893 contest sponsored by the American Humane Education Society. In this Saunders was successful. I wonder whether this dedication would've featured had the novel lost:

As old novels go, Beautiful Joe offers the twenty-first-century reader a particularly focused glimpse of another time. I'll take away some knowledge of Bands of Mercy, organizations that were entirely new to me. I'll also remember the distaste shown fox hunting.

(I have a hard time these days listening to "Slave to Love.")

The novel ends abruptly with Beautiful Joe as an old dog: "I thought when I began to write, that I would put down the events of each year of my life, but I fear that would make my story too long, and neither Miss Laura nor any boys and girls would care to read it." The last adventure Beautiful Joe describes begins when he hears an amusing account of a man named Bellini and his performing animals. Curious, he visits the troupe – monkeys, dogs, ponies, goats – who are penned in a stable adjacent the town's hotel. Beautiful Joe is on his way home when he learns of a fire at that same hotel. He runs back:
In front of me I heard such a wailing, piercing noise, that it made me shudder and stand still. The Italian's animals were going to be burned up, and they were calling to their master to come and let them out. Their voices sounded like the voices of children in mortal pain. I could not stand it. I was seized with such an awful horror of the fire, that I turned and ran, feeling so thankful that I was not in it.
The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature informs that the version I read was revised so as to make it less violent.

I don't have the fortitude of an nineteenth-century child.

Object and Access: One of the biggest selling Canadian novels of all time, there are over eight million copies out there. Mine was obtained in 2017 through a small donation to the St Marys Public Library (a two hour and fifteen minute drive from Meaford's Beautiful Joe Park). Most of the twenty-two uncredited illustrations have been coloured in by a previous owner. Might it be Georgie, who in 1944 received it as a Christmas gift?

Beautiful Joe entered the public domain decades ago, and the print on demand vultures have moved in. Formac publishes the only one of the few editions coming from a real publisher. Part of its Fiction Treasures series, it features an introduction and notes by Gwendolyn Davies. Price: $16.95.

Prices for used copies of Beautiful Joe are all over the place. Three booksellers are offering true first edition, published in 1894 by the American Baptist Publication Society, beginning at US$250; of these, at US$500, the one to buy is a copy inscribed by Saunders to "a fellow Nova Scotian."

The most expensive copy is a print-on-demand edition offered by a crooked Texas bookseller at US$1207.17.

Addendum: Karyn Huenemann of Canada's Early Women Writers points out that Broadview publishes an illustrated edition edited with an introduction by Keridiana Chez. Price: $18.95. The cover suggests Beautiful Joe before Jenkins reached for that axe.

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12 October 2019

An Old Thanksgiving Ode by James McIntyre

For the weekend, Thanksgiving verse from James McIntyre, the poet who gave us 'Ode to the Mammoth Cheese'. This version, taken from Poems of James McIntyre, published in 1889 by the Ingersoll Chronicle, serves to remind that Canadian Thanksgiving was once celebrated in November. It was moved forward after the slaughter of the Great War and the recognition of Remembrance Day.

We Canadians have so much for which to be thankful.

                 September came and with it frost
                 The season's pasture it seemed lost,
                 And the wondrous yield of corn
                 Of its green beauty it was shorn. 
                 Frost it came like early robber,
                 But gentle rains came in October,
                 Which were absorbed by grateful soil;
                 With green once more the pastures smile. 
                 And cows again are happy seen
                 Enjoying of the pastures green,
                 And flow of milk again they yield
                 From the sweet feed of grassy field. 
                 And we have now a fine November,
                 Warmer far than in September;
                 The apple, which is queen of fruits,
                 Was a good crop and so is roots. 
                 The rains they did replenish springs,
                 And it gratitude to each heart brings,
                 When we reflect on bounteous season,
                 For grateful feelings all have reason.

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10 October 2019

Celebrating Constance Beresford-Howe

McGill student Constance Beresford-Howe had just received her BA when word came that she'd won the Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship Prize.

Old McGill, 1945
The accomplishment was duly recognized in the 12 May 1945 edition of the Montreal Gazette:

Beresford-Howe was back at McGill working on her MA when The Unreasoning Heart (1946) was published. That same academic year she wrote Of This Days Journey (1947), her second novel.

Eight more novels followed, the most celebrated being The Book of Eve (1973), the first volume in her Voices of Eve trilogy.

Tomorrow evening, the Writers' Chapel in Montreal will be holding an event in celebration of the life and work of Constance Beresford-Howe, culminating in the unveiling of a plaque in her memory.

Collett Tracey and Jeremy Pressnell, the author's son, will speak.

A wine and cheese reception will follow.

The Writers' Chapel
St Jax Montréal
1439 St Catherine Street West (Bishops Street entrance)

Friday, October 11th at 6:00 pm

This is a free event.

All are welcome!

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07 October 2019

George Segal Gets His Man

Final words on Tom Ardies' Kosygin is Coming (aka Russian Roulette).

It's a rare thing for a Canadian thriller to be adapted to the screen. To think that two from 1974 – Charles Templeton's The Kidnapping of the President and Tom Ardies' Kosygin is Coming – reached that great height! Is the better known The Kidnapping of the President? I ask because the novel sold more copies and I remember it being broadcast on CFCF, Montreal's CTV station.

It starred local boy William Shatner.

I don't remember CFCF airing Russian Roulette, the adaptation of Tom Ardies' Kosygin is Coming,  but I'm betting it did.

Of the two novels, Kosygin is Coming is by far the superior. The adaptation is better, too, in part because it throws out the silliness and lazy writing of the final chapters.

Lazy writing?

I didn't address this in my review of last Tuesday. How's this for an example?
McDermott got out of the car and called the constable over. He questioned him as to whether a drunk in a stolen car had been taken into custody recently in the vicinity of the hotel. The officer replied that some sort of arrest had been made around the corner on Burrard. McDermott decided he should check there first before going into the hotel.
Ardies is one of three names credited with the screenplay, the others being Stanley Mann and Arnold Margolin. Mann was known for adaptations of The Collector and The Eye of the Needle, and would go on to write Conan the Destroyer. Margolin is best remembered for episodes of My Mother the Car, The Andy Griffith Show, That Girl, and Love American Style. He also co-wrote Snowball Express, which I enjoyed at a friend's tenth birthday party.

As far as I know, Ardies never wrote another screenplay. Our loss, because he has a knack for dialogue. The first line between RCMP Special Branch man John Petapiece (Denholm Elliott) and protagonist Timothy Shaver (George Segal) is lifted straight from the book:

"Still pissing down?"
Shot in the winter, Russian Roulette doesn't show Vancouver at its best. The city comes off as a dreary, depressing place – so very different from the one in which I lived during the nineties and aughts.

Elliott's presence speaks to the casting. Segal is great as Shaver, the self-assured RCMP officer who has no idea of his limitations. Entrusted by Petapiece to take political agitator Rudolphe Henke out of circulation during  the upcoming visit of the Soviet Premier, he walks up to the man's apartment building with length of rope in hand.

Was he intending to tie Henke up for the duration?

I guess. 

Henke is portrayed by Val Avery. It's a non-speaking role, but he's established as a villain by tormenting kids playing street hockey.

The scene is one of the few that isn't in the novel.  For the most part, Russian Roulette is faithful to Kosygin is Coming. The departures come in the pages that didn't make it to the movie.

In Russian Roulette, Richard Romanus' role is Raymond Regalia.

Louise Fletcher plays RCMP switchboard operator Midge, in the very same year she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Film buffs will find a flawed film with some of the best casting of any movie. Vancouverites will appreciate Russian Roulette for what it captures of the city as it was in the mid-seventies. Students of the Cold War will be interested for its depiction of the conflict.

Remember when the Russians couldn't be trusted?

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01 October 2019

A Russian is Coming! A Russian is Coming!

Russian Roulette [Kosygin is Coming]
Tom Ardies
Toronto: PaperJacks, 1975
207 pages

Tom Ardies' thrillers fall into two neat categories: those published under his own name, and those written under the nom de plume "Jack Trolley." The latter books had a far better time with the critics. Balboa Firefly, his first Trolley thriller, received a star review in Publishers Weekly (31 October 1994), with the uncredited reviewer lamenting that it had been sixteen years since Ardies' last novel. Kosygin is Coming, filmed and reissued as Russian Roulette, received a lesser welcome in the pages of Kirkus (11 January 1973):
Some rather indeterminate idiocy about Timothy Shaver, temporarily suspended from the Mounties, who is assigned to keep Kosygin safe when he comes to Vancouver on an official visit by maintaining the surveillance of a professional protester (also possibly CIA). He disappears. So will this – essentially a cheerfully nonstop non sequitur.
I share this because Russian Roulette reads much like the work of two different hands. The first 155 pages promise the great Canadian Cold War Thriller, while the final fifty-two read like an uninspired parody.

Alexai Kosygin
1904 - 1980
Corporal Timothy Shaver, RCMP, is our hero. Suspended without pay for slugging a superior, he's called to a dank Vancouver bar run by war amputees. There he meets a Special Branch man named Petapiece, who offers the corporal a means of keeping his job. Soviet premier Alexai Kosygin will soon be making an eight-day visit to Canada, and the KGB is concerned about the Vancouver stop. Shaver's assignment, should he choose to accept it, is to make scarce a small-time agitator named Rudolphe Henke, whom the Soviets consider a security risk. It's hard to understand their concern. An ageing drunk, Henke's days are consumed by reading newspapers, attending demonstrations, and masturbation.

Petapiece could have been more forthcoming about Henke. Unbeknownst to the Soviets, there's a reason why the Special Branch doesn't take the threat seriously – it is for this reason that they've thrown it to a disgraced low-level like Shaver.

And yet, the assignment proves too much. Shaver's initial plan is to befriend his target by passing himself off as a sympathetic ex-Toronto Telegram reporter. but Henke sees through the ruse and spits in his face. Plan B is to simply show up at Henke's rooming house, flash his badge, take the man into custody, and hope that the Civil Liberties Union (read: Civil Liberties Association) isn't made aware. He breaks in, only to find evidence of a kidnapping. Shaver lies in his next visit to the war amps bar, telling Petapiece that he's got Henke hidden away somewhere.

Shaver's subsequent desperate search for the shit-disturber is interrupted by an attempt on his own life by an assassin imported from Detroit... because, you see, things aren't quite as Petapiece portrayed.

There are no spoilers in my criticism of the final chapters. Vancouverites know that theirs are not the streets of San Francisco. The long, slow crawl over the Lion's Gate Bridge is nothing like the chase scene in Bullit. Would gunshots and a car set alight by incendiary devices divert a foreign leader's motorcade? I suggest they would. The final two pages, in which a wedding is announced, are particularly painful.

I haven't given this novel its due. The premise is strong, the plot is clever, and the intrigue high. It's easy to understand the interest in bringing it to the screen, just as it's easy to see why PaperJacks brought out a movie tie-in. Sadly, the novel has been out-of-print ever since. The Kirkus reviewer was right –the novel has disappeared. Despite the flaws, it deserved a much longer life. It deserves to be read today.

Trivia: Kosygin did indeed come to Canada. A reformist, his 1971 eight-day visit was seen as an effort to thaw the Cold War. Ardies may have taken some inspiration from an assault on the Soviet Premier, which took place while walking with Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau on Parliament Hill.

Object: A poorly produced mass market paperback, the best that might be said is that it held together in the reading.

But then our new puppy got a hold of it.

Access: The 1974 first edition, Kosygin is Coming, was published in Toronto and New York by Doubleday. The following year, Angus & Robertson published the novel in the UK. Under the title Russian Roulette, movie tie-in editions were published by PaperJacks (Canada) and Panther (UK). I can find no evidence of any American edition after the Doubleday.

Library and Archives Canada and eight of our academic libraries have copies of Kosygin is Coming. The Vancouver Public Library does not. For shame.

Copies of Kosygin is Coming are plentiful and cheap. Ignore the New Hampshire bookseller asking US$80. Russian Roulette is cheaper still. Pay no more than three dollars.

Interestingly, the only translation has been to the Chinese: 最危險的一日 (1977). It would appear the Russians weren't interested.

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