27 March 2020

Reluctantly Revisiting Canada's Great Virus Novel

Nobody told me there'd be days like these. The Nazis in the bathroom just below the stairs are the least of my worries.

I've been spending this time of self-isolation out and about in my role as an essential worker. On days off, I wander about the woods of our secluded home gathering firewood for next fall and winter. I sometimes fear I'm turning into the Michael Caine character in The Children of Men.

The Children of Men is not be the thing to watch just now. I managed to make it through the first episode of HBO's The Plot Against America, but could take no more. Since then, it's been SCTV and old episodes of 30 Rock.

I'm in need of a good laugh these days, though I well understand the curiosity of those who've asked me to recommend Canadian novels dealing with pandemics.

The craziest by far is May Agnes Fleming's The Midnight Queen (1863), which is set in London during the Great Plague. In Tom Ardies' Pandemic (1973), part-time secret agent Charlie Sparrow combats a millionaire who looks to unleash a killer virus upon the world.

But my greatest recommendation is The Last Canadian (1974) by William C. Heine, which just happens to be the first Canadian novel I ever read. Ten years ago, I shared my thoughts about the work in a blog post, which was subsequently taken down and reworked for inclusion in The Dusty Bookcase — the book.

I'm bringing it back for the curious. Enjoy... then look for something funny.


The Last Canadian
William C. Heine
Markham, ON: Pocket Books, 1974
253 pages

In the opening chapter of The Last Canadian, protagonist Gene Arnprior leaves his suburban home and speeds along the Trans-Canada toward Montreal. A to B, it's not much of a scene, but the image has remained with me since I read this book at age twelve. The novel was the first in which I encountered a familiar landscape. Of the rest, I remembered nothing... nothing of the sexism, the crazed politics or the absurdity.

Penned by the editor-in-chief of the London Free Press, it begins with late night news bulletins about mysterious deaths in Colorado. Gene recognizes what others don't and takes to the air, flying his wife and two sons to a remote fishing camp near James Bay. As a virus sweeps through the Americas, killing nearly everyone, the Arnprior family live untouched for three idyllic years, before coming into contact with a carrier. As it turns out, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger... Gene lives on, but must bury his wife and children.

The Last Canadian is a favourite of survivalists everywhere. Someone calling himself Wolverine writes on the Survivalist Blog:
The immediate response reaction is instructive. Second there are the North country survival techniques. Third there are psychological factors of being a survivor in a situation where most others die. And there is more, dealing with post-disaster situations, though I won't go into that because it would spoil the book for you.
I won't be as courteous. Spoilers will follow, but first this complaint: the title is a cheat. Gene is not "The Last Canadian" – there are plenty of others – rather he considers himself such because his citizenship papers came through the day before the plague struck. Gene is an American who came north for work. He'd enjoyed his time in Canada, had made many friends and "had come to understand the Canadian parliamentary system, and agreed that it was far more flexible and effective than the rigidity of the American system of divided constitutional responsibility."

Reason before passion.

Is it then surprising that, there being no parliament, he's drawn back to the United States? Heading south, Gene resists all invitations of the Canadians he meets, whom he considers "eccentric" because they've chosen to stay put, supporting themselves through farming and whatever might be found in local shops. There's much more excitement to be found south of the border.

First, he stumbles into a Manhattan turf war – but that's hardly worth mentioning. As a carrier, Gene inadvertently kills a number of Soviet military types who have set up a base in Florida. In doing so, he becomes Enemy #1 of the USSR. They send frogmen assassins, set off bombs, plant land mines, and lob nuclear missiles in his general direction, but still Gene beetles on. When a Soviet submarine destroys his Chesapeake Bay home, killing the woman he considers his new wife, Gene seeks revenge.

Though he has no evidence, Gene comes to blame the Soviets for the plague (in fact, it's a rogue Russian scientist), and dedicates himself to infecting the USSR. He begins with a short wave radio broadcast directed at the Kremlin: "If the Russian people were half as smart as your literature says they are, they'd have tossed you out long ago. Because they haven't, I have to assume they're as stupid as you are."

You see, because they are stupid, Gene has decided that all citizens of the Soviet Union should die. He cares not one bit that the plague will spread beyond the borders of the country, killing the rest of Asia and Europe, never mind Africa.

It's all crazy, but the reader is not surprised. Though Heine spills an awful lot of primary colours in an effort to paint the man as a hero, concern has been growing for quite some time. Remember when he hit his wife, just so she'd understand the gravity of their situation? How about when he'd threatened to tie his young son to a tree and whip him until he couldn't stand – all because he'd fallen asleep while tending a fire? Then there's that little glimpse of Gene's psyche provided when his new love, Leila, tells him a horrific story of being kidnapped, beaten and raped repeatedly by a psychopath:
"You can't imagine the things he made me do. And he killed a man to get one of his girls."
Gene felt another chuckle welling up. In the few years he'd spent in Korea and Japan, he'd read about most of the sex things there were to do, and tried a few himself. He stifled it, however, recognizing her revulsion.
Yep, pretty funny stuff... and don't forget to add that boys will be boys.

Intent on killing billions, Gene makes his way up the Pacific Coast, dodging Soviet and American forces, before crossing the Bering Strait into the USSR. Hundreds of Americans and an untold number of Russians die as a result. His journey and life are finally ended by a clusterfuck of nuclear strikes – Soviet, Chinese, American and British – which obliterate the Anadyr basin.

Lest the reader agree with the Soviets that Gene had become a madman, Heine is at the ready to set things right. You see, Gene's actions were perfectly understandable; the British prime minister tells us so.

We're left with the image of radioactive clouds composed of the people and terrain of Anadyr. They drift across Canada, sprinkling poisoned dust over the land. Some settles on the graves of Gene's wife and children:
In time the rains washed the radioactive dust down among the rocks and deep into the soil.
Something of Eugene Arnprior, who had suffered much and had done more to serve mankind than he could ever have imagined, had come home to be with those he loved.
Thus ends what I believe to be the stupidest Canadian novel.

Trivia: Published in the US under the snicker-inducing title Death Wind, and later as – go figure – The Last American

Terrifying, either way.

In 1998, the novel was transformed into a Steven Seagal vehicle titled The Patriot. Here the action hero plays Dr Wesley McClaren, a small town immunologist doing battle with Montana militiamen and the lethal virus they've released. Sure sounds like Gene Arnprior could help out, but he's nowhere to be found. Maybe he's up on Parliament Hill taking in the House of Commons. Who knows. The Dominion to the north is never mentioned, nor is the Soviet Union, for that matter. Truth be told, The Patriot has as much to do with the novel as it does good cinema.

It can be seen, in its entirety, on YouTube:


Object: A typical mass market paperback. The cover photo is by Jock Carroll, who also served as editor of this and other paperback originals published by the Pocket Books imprint. The final pages advertise more desirable titles in the series, including:
FESTIVAL by Bryan Hay. A modern novel which reveals the rip-off of drug-crazy kids by music festival promoters.
THE QUEERS OF NEW YORK by Leo Orenstein. A novel of the homosexual underground.
THE HAPPY HAIRDRESSER by Nicholas Loupos. A rollicking revelation of what Canadian women do and say when they let their hair down.
Access: As far as I've been able to determine, The Last Canadian went through at least seven printings, making its scarcity in the used book market something of a mystery. Just two copies are currently listed online. At US$99.95 and US$133.53, both are described as being in crummy condition.

Where do these survivalists get their money?

Take heart, April is less than four days away. The President of the United States has assured us that the virus will be gone by then. Something to do with the heat, he says.

Strange days indeed. 

10 March 2020

Maria Monk and Me

I didn't know her.

How could I?

We were born one hundred and forty-six years apart, and yet I think of Maria Monk each and every day.

I offer this by way of explanation.

Things are about to become quieter and dustier here as I focus on a book I'm writing about Maria and the Presbyterian clergymen who did her wrong.

I believe an exploration of Maria Monk and the hoax perpetuated under her name is long overdue. As if to confirm, this past weekend I stumbled upon this being offered online:

In fact, the artwork used, Jean-Jacques Lequeu's And we too shall be mothers, because...!, dates from 1794. Maria Monk was born in 1816.

Still, I was tempted.

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08 March 2020

10 Canadian Books for International Women's Day

One Canadian man recommends ten unjustly neglected novels by ten Canadian women:

The Midnight Queen
May Agnes Fleming

A gothic tour de force by the country's first bestselling author, The Midnight Queen has it all: the Black Plague, the Fire of London, a killer dwarf, prostitutes playing at being aristocrats, and a clairvoyant who has nothing more than a skull for a head.
Marion: An Artist's Model
Winnifred Eaton

I was torn between recommending this and the author's later novel "Cattle" (1924). Marion won out as a roman à clef that reveals much about her family – surely the most remarkable in Victorian Montreal.

Up the Hill and Over
Isabel Ecclestone Mackay

A story of cocaine addiction, opium addiction, love and loss in small town Ontario. Social historians may find Mackay's Blencarrow (1926), in which domestic abuse figures, more interesting, but this novel has the better plot.

Irene Baird

A quiet, understated, pastoral novel, this wasn't quite my thing. I include John because it was so well received in its day, and in recognition of those drawn to quiet, understated, pastoral novels. By the author of Waste Heritage.
Do Evil in Return
Margaret Millar

Margaret Millar ranks with husband Kenneth as being amongst the greatest Canadian writers of her generation. The plot is driven by a woman doctor's refusal to perform an illegal abortion. Do Evil in Return is remarkable for its time.
Shadow on the Hearth
Judith Merril

A Cold War nightmare, Merril's debut novel centres on what happens to a nuclear family when the bombs begin to fall. The novel is not so much about war as it is the way governments use crisis to control their citizens.

The Cashier [Alexandre Chenevert]
Gabrielle Roy

Another novel written under the influence of the Cold War, Alexandre Chenevert was to have been the follow-up to Bonheur d'occasion, but ended up as Roy's third novel. A story filled with angst and fear, it almost seems more suited to today.

M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty
Frances Shelley Wees

A novel of domestic suspense centred on a woman's attempt to clear herself of her husband's murder. Set in post-war suburban Toronto, cocktails and adultery figure.

Best Man [Doux-amer]
Claire Martin

A tale of obsessive love set within the publishing world, Martin's protagonist is an editor who falls hard for aspiring novelist Gabrielle Lubin. As a writer, she's not much good, but his work transforms her into a critical darling.
A Stranger and Afraid
Marika Robert

The author's only novel, on the surface it concerns a woman who finds refuge in Canada after the horrors of the Second World War. Below the surface, it's about sexual expression and the protagonist's attraction to sado-masochism.

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02 March 2020

The Man Who Clung to an Upward Bottom

The Man from Nowhere
Anna T. Sadlier
New York: Benziger Bros, 1918
187 pages

Has anyone out there read Anna T. Sadlier? If so, can you tell me whether The Man from Nowhere is typical of her novels? Do you know it?

Here's a summary:

Brothers Harry and Fred Tremaine are spending the summer at the family's seaside villa, outside an unnamed village not far from their New York City home. As Mr and Mrs Tremaine are holidaying abroad, the boys are in the care of former nursemaid Hannah, who now serves as housekeeper. Coachman Mike is on standby, and will come in handy as the action begins.

Harry and Fred are on the beach, digging a sand tunnel, as young locals Bill Masterton and Paddy Wallace look on. It's Ben who sets the plot in motion:
“Paddy, look out yonder!”
     Paddy looked and uttered an exclamation:
     “Cricky, Ben!” he cried, “it’s a boat, a catboat, I guess, and what — "
     He said no more, but ran with a quick, instinctive movement down to the water’s edge. “It’s bottom upward!” he cried, “that’s what it is.”
     “By Jingo!” was all Ben said, as he strode after his friend. By mutual consent, they seemed to ignore the city boys, who could not be expected to know anything of such an emergency.
Ben takes charge, dispatching Paddy and the Tremaine brothers to help round up the crew of the local lifeboat. The craft sets out for the overturned vessel, upon which balances a desperate man.

Father McNeirny shows up to comfort the anxious amassing crowd. When a wave hits, sweeping the desperate man out of sight, the priest offers conditional absolution.

The man resurfaces, is rescued by the lifeboat, and Mike rushes him to the Tremaine summer villa. Hannah has prepared a bed in which, exhausted, the rescued man sleeps soundly as the four boys keep watch. When he awakens, he toys with the boys' fears that he might be a thief looking to make off with the Tremaine family silver, and then sets out on a walk from which he never returns.

During the remainder of the summer, the village experiences some very strange happenings. The first occurs when Harry, Fred, Ben, and Paddy come upon a food hamper, clearly left for them, at the end of a crabbing expedition.

The others are tied to Father McNeirny's annual picnic, at which "it was jestingly suggested that those present should severally or individually put their wishes upon record, and a secretary was actually chosen for the purpose."

You know, the usual picnic pastime.

Next thing you know, the wishes are fulfilled. Ben receives a complete fishing kit, Paddy is sent fifty dollars, Hannah gets a silk dress, and the village is given an anonymous donation to be used in the construction of a community hall. Most important of all, Father McNeirny receives a new set of vestments in anticipation of the bishop's next visit.

Who might be the source of all this magnificence?

Can you guess?

Why, it's the man who was rescued from the sea!

Turns out that he's a famous billionaire who had become a recluse following the untimely deaths of his wife and children. The great reveal is provided by Father McNeirny:
"What I have to tell you first is deeply shocking, especially to our Catholic instincts. Boys, he went out there into those waves with the deliberate purpose of destroying himself.”
     Exclamations of horror broke from the lads. The Tremaines particularly, in their sturdy and enlightened Catholicity, felt loathing of that capital crime, that unpardonable sin, which done deliberately, makes even the mercy of a Redeeming God unavailable.
But, of course, the boys' good work helped save the wealthy man from eternal damnation.

And now, the billionaire has decided to convert to Catholicism.


from The World's Columbian Catholic Congresses and Educational Exhibit
(Chicago: J.S. Hyland & Co., 1893)
The doctrinaire was expected. Before opening this book, I knew Anna T. Sadler to have been one of Canada's most popular religious novelists. I'd read others – Margaret Murray RobertsonLaure Conan, W.H. WithrowRalph Connor – but nothing prepared me for the religiosity of The Man from Nowhere. Consider this passage, in which Father McNeirny grants the shipwrecked billionaire absolution:
“God bless you and do, Father,” cried an old woman, from whose aged eyes tears were streaming.
     Every one waited respectfully. Even Protestants or other outsiders who had no hold whatever upon Christianity regarded him curiously. They drew a kind of comfort from the mysterious power which, as it was quietly whispered around, he was about to exert over that human soul which might be even then slipping from its bonds and losing its hold upon earthly life. The priest had with him the stole which he had but lately worn when administering the Sacraments to a dying person in the calm obscurity of a little inland village. He put this about his neck and knelt a moment in prayer, and the Catholics — of whom there were many present — knelt likewise, while others raised their hats or bent the knee, sympathetically. Fred and Harry afterward declared that they had never prayed so hard in their lives as then. After that slight pause the priest arose and said in a clear, distinct voice:
     “By the power which the Church confers upon her ministers, the power derived from Christ, I am about to give this man conditional absolution.’’
     There was a dead silence, broken only by a giant wave breaking upon the shore. The priest raised his hand and every one present, forgetting all controversial differences, was impressed by the tremendous power of the act.
     “I absolve you,” he said in Latin, “from all sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” To which he added: “May the Almighty God have mercy on you and forgive you your sins and bring you to life everlasting. Amen.”
     A kind of peace and quietness fell over the scene with the performance of that holy act. Women and even strong men, overcome by the solemnity of the occasion, wept audibly, while the priest, sinking once more upon his knees, prayed aloud and begged the  people to pray for the rescue of the unhappy being thus buffeted by the waves or for the salvation of his soul. The air seemed to vibrate with those burning words of supplication wherein people of all creeds or of none felt impelled to join. It used to be said long afterwards in the village that the whole incident was better than twenty sermons and it brought back more than one stray sheep to the fold. It showed the relative values, the little space which divides time from eternity and made every one realize, with a strange new force, the almost infinite power of the priesthood.
I ask again, has anyone out there read Anna T. Sadlier? Is this typical of her novels?

If so, I won't bother reading another.

If not Sadlier, should I try Janette Oke?

Object: I see evidence of two printings: one in red cloth, the other in olive. My (olive) copy includes a twelve-page list of "BOOKS OF DOCTRINE, INSTRUCTION, DEVOTION, MEDITATION, BIOGRAPHY, NOVELS, JUVENILES, ETC. PUBLISHED BY BENZIGER BROTHERS." Amongst its five hundred or so titles, I spot a dozen by Sadlier: Names That Live in Catholic Hearts, Women of Catholicity, The Pilkington Heir, The Red Inn of St. Lyphar, The True Story of Master Gerard, Mary Tracy's Fortune, The Mysterious Doorway, The Mystery of Hornby Hall, Pauline Archer, A Summer in Woodville, The Talisman, and my favourite title, Wayward Winifred.

Access: All of three copies are listed for sale online, the least expensive – US$12.00 – being a first edition. At US$35.00, the most expensive, claimed to be a first edition (in olive boards), has a "slight musty odor." My advice is to purchase the cheapest.

Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library, and three of our university libraries hold copies.

The novel can be read heregratis – courtesy of the Internet Archive.

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