25 June 2021

Dustiest Bookcase: P is for Price-Brown

Short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).

The Mac's of '37: A Story of the Canadian Rebellion
Price-Brown [John Price Brown]
Toronto: McLeod & Allen, 1910
332 pages

The December 1931 issue of Outlook for the Blind, published by the American Foundation for the Blind, features the most thorough biography yet of John Price Brown. It's found within a review of Laura the Undaunted (Toronto: Ryerson, 1930), the last of the author's five historical novels. Through book critic S.C. Swift we learn that Brown was born in Manchester on 30 March 1844 and emigrated to Upper Canada as a child. As a young man, Brown earned distinctions as a medical student at the University of Toronto. He came to specialize in otorhinolaryngology, an interest which would lead to the publication of his first book, Diseases of the Nose and Throat (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis, 1900).

You can read it here, courtesy of the Internet Archive. The illustrations – it is heavily illustrated – are not for the squeamish. Amongst the easier to take, this is my favourite:

Might Laura the Undaunted be even easier to swallow?* The novel's titular character being Laura Secord, it can't avoid touching on the bloody War of 1812, but S.C. Swift informs that the novel's focus is on Laura's life before that conflict. In that same review, the critic devotes several paragraphs to The Mac's of '37, beginning with a bit of background for his American readers: 
You must know that in the year 1837, Upper and Lower Canada (the present provinces of Ontario and Quebec) staged a little flurry termed a rebellion, the result of discontent at the slow progress of complete self- government. The affair in itself was not of much moment, but its results were far-reaching, since they were responsible in the long run for the birth of the present Dominion of Canada thirty years later. The Macs of '37 [sic] is a novel dealing with the rebellion. It achieved considerable popularity and is rated in present-day histories of Canadian literature as one of the best books of Canadian vintage dealing with a purely Canadian topic.
Outlook for the Blind reviewed biographies and autobiographies of the blind, so why this historical novel about the heroine of the Battle of Beaver Dams? Well, as Swift explains, John Price Brown was himself blind: "he has been without sight for close on twenty years."

The Mac's of '37 was published twenty years before Laura the Undaunted. At the time, Brown was Associate Professor of Laryngology and Rhinology at the University of Toronto. Was he without sight then? I somehow doubt it, but wonder if he didn't know he was losing his sight. Skimming over the novel, I was struck by this paragraph:

In 1914, Brown resigned his position at the University of Toronto. He was in his seventieth year. It's tempting to think of Doctor Brown as a man who, like Reverend King, gave up his vocation and turned to fiction as his sight began to fail; however, in doing so, one would be ignoring Brown's earliest novels, How Hartman Won: A Story of Old Ontario (Toronto: Morang, 1903) and In the Van; or, The Builders (Toronto: McLeod & Allen, 1906).

Swift concludes his review by claiming that Price-Brown is "doubtless the oldest living blind man creating and publishing in the literary world." I imagine he was right. King sold many more books, but was a younger man, and was three years in his grave when Laura the Undaunted appeared.

My copy of Laura the Undaunted was rescued in the melancholy final hour of a library book sale. As reflected by its state, the book was well read.

You can't fake that kind of wear. Compare its title page to that of Diseases of the Nose and Throat


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