27 February 2023

Go West, Young Woman

The Prairie Wife
Arthur Stringer
London: Hodder & Stoughton, [n.d]
251 pages

In the summer of 1985, I bought a copy of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and read it from cover to cover. This is nowhere near as impressive as it might seem; what I read was the original two-column 843-page edition (1983), not the two-column 1099-page second edition (2001). Nevertheless, it was through the Companion that I first learned of Arthur Stringer. The author's entry, penned by Dick Harrison, amounts to little more than a half-page. Here are some of the things I learned:
  • born 1874 in Chatham, Ontario;
  • studied at the University of Toronto and Oxford;
  • wrote for the Montreal Herald;
  • established his literary career in New York;
  • "made an enduring contribution to Canadian literature with his prairie trilogy: Prairie Wife (1915), Prairie Mother (1920), and Prairie Child (1921)."
Harrison gets the titles of the trilogy wrong – The Prairie Wife, The Prairie Mother, and The Prairie Child are correct – but never mind, what stuck with me was Prairie. As decades passed, I forgot all about Chatham, Toronto, Oxford, Montreal, and New York, and came to think of Stringer as a Western Canadian. It wasn't until 2009, when I read The Woman Who Could Not Die (1929), my first Stringer, that I was reminded he was an Ontario boy. A Lost World novel set in the Canadian Arctic, I liked it well enough to keep reading and begin collecting his work.

My Arthur Stringer collection (most of it, anyway).
Cliquez pour agrandir.
Admittedly, much of my interest has to do with his enviable popularity, the deals he cut with Hollywood, and his marriage to Jobyna Howland. This is not to suggest that I didn't like the books themselves. My favourite Canadian novel of the early twentieth-century is Stringer's The Wine of Life (1921), which... um, was inspired by his marriage to Jobyna Howland.

A second admission: I put off reading The Prairie Wife, the first volume in Stringer's "enduring contribution to Canadian literature," for no other reason that it is set in rural Canada. Before you judge, I rush to add that this Montrealer has lived in rural Canada these past two decades. Country living attracts, but not novels set in the country. This may explain how it is that I was swept up by its early pages.

The Prairie Wife takes the form of a series of entries, written over the course of more than a year to someone named Matilda Anne. Its writer, Chaddie, begins by describing a voyage from Corfu to Palermo and then on to the Riviera. She is of the moneyed class – that is until Monte Carlo, where Chaddie receives a cable informing that the "Chilean revolution" has wiped out her nitrate mine concessions. Made a pauper, Chaddie's first action is to dismiss her maid; the second is to send word to her German aristocrat fiancé:
I sent a cable to Theobald Gustav (so condensed that he thought it was code) and later on found that he'd been sending flowers and chocolates all the while to the Hotel de L'Athenee, the long boxes duly piled up in tiers, like coffins at the morgue. Then Theobald's aunt, the baroness, called on me, in state. She came in that funny, old-fashioned, shallow landau of hers, where she looked for all the world like an oyster-on-the-half-shell, and spoke so pointedly of the danger of international marriages that I felt sure she was trying to shoo me away from my handsome and kingly Theobald Gustav — which made me quite calmly and solemnly tell her that I intended to take Theobald out of under-secretaryships, which really belonged to Oppenheim romances, and put him in the shoe business in some nice New England town!
After a respectable period of mourning lost wealth, Theobald Gustav throws her over. Just as well, really, because the Paris Herald had reported on of a traffic accident that had occurred when he'd been in the company of a "spidery Russian stage-dancer." On the rebound, Chaddie proposes to Scots-Canadian Duncan Argyll McKail, whom she'd met in Banff the previous October. He is too much in love and far too practical to turn her down.

And so, this is how Chaddie, an American socialite who'd shared the company of Meredith and Stevenson, and had sat through many an opera at La Scala, ends up in a one-room shack with flattened tin can siding on the remote Canadian prairie.

Duncan – annoyingly, his bride refers to him as "Dinky-Dunk" – is a civil engineer from the east. He's got it in his mind to make a fortune through farming, and has purchased a 1700-acre parcel of land one hundred or so kilometres northwest of, I'm guessing, Swift Current.

"He kept saying it would be hard, for the first year or two, and there would be a terrible number of things I'd be sure to miss," Chaddie writes Matilda Anne. 

No doubt!

Harrison doesn't use the term "Prairie Realism" in his Stringer entry, but I will; The Prairie Wife is a good fit with later novels by Frederick Philip Grove, Martha Ostenso, and Robert Stead. Can we agree that Prairie Realism was never terribly realistic? Though pre-Jazz Age, Stringer's story begins as a crazy Jazz Age adventure in which a carefree debutante marries a man she may or may not love. In her earliest pages to Matilda Anne, she writes:
O God, O God, if it should turn out that I don't, that I can't? But I'm going to!  I know I'm going to! And there's one other thing that I know, and when I remember it, It sends a comfy warm wave through all my body: Dinky-Dunk loves me. He's as mad as a hatter about me. He deserves to be loved back. And I'm going to love him back. That is a vow I herewith duly register. I'm going to love my Dinky-Dunk.
Chaddie continues:
But, oh, isn't it wonderful to wake love in a man, in a strong man? To be able to sweep him off, that way, on a tidal wave that leaves him rather white and shaky in the voice and trembly in the fingers, and seems to light a little luminous fire at the back of his eyeballs so that you can see the pupils glow, the same as an animal's when your motor head-lights hit them!
There's a clear separation between the opening pages and the rest of the novel. Whimsy gives way to practicality, as Duncan chases his fortune. Remarkably, Chaddie settles on the prairie, and into matrimony, rather nicely. Harrison writes of "disillusionment as the marriage deteriorates," but this reader saw nothing of the kind. True, there are moments of discord, as in the strongest of marriages, but Dinky-Dunk and Chaddie – he calls her "Gee-Gee" – are soon in one another's arms. She does come to love her Dinky-Dunk.

The frontispiece of the A.L. Burt photoplay edition, c.1925.
I don't know what Harrison means when he writes of Chaddie's "mature resolve as she begins an independent life on the Prairies." The married couple only become closer as the novel progresses, and the two are increasingly reliant on a slowly growing cast of characters. The earliest, hired man Olie, is a silent Swede who at first can't keep his eyes off Chaddie. This male gaze has nothing to do with objectification, rather her ridiculously impractical city dress. Pale Percival Benson Wodehouse, whom this reader suspects to be a remittance man, is next to appear. He was sold the neighbouring ranch from "land chaps" in London. Nineteen-year-old Finnish Canadian Olga Sarristo enters driving a yoke of oxen. Two weeks earlier, what remained of her family had burned to death in their own shack one hundred or so miles to the north. To Chaddie, stoic and stunning Olga is like something out of Norse mythology, "a big blonde Valkyr suddenly introducing herself into your little earthly affairs." Olga is a welcome addition to the farm; every bit as capable physically as Olie and Duncan. Last to arrive is Terry Dillion, a fastidious young Irishman who had once served in far off lands with the British Army.

Together they support Duncan's big gamble, which involves putting all he has on a sea of wheat covering his 1700 acres. Threatened by draught, fire, and hail, the crop survives, making him a wealthy man. His riches are further increased by a new rail line to be built across his land. The final pages have Duncan and Chaddie poring over house-plans mailed from Philadelphia. "We're to have a telephone, as soon as the railway gets through," she writes Matilda Anne. 

The Prairie Wife is the first Stringer novel I've read with a woman narrator. Early pages aside, I found Chaddie's voice oddly convincing. This audio recording by Jennifer Perree, stumbled upon in researching this novel, reinforced my conviction. An enjoyable story, an entertainment, it left me wanting to hear more from Chaddie.

And there is more!

Stringer wrote more than forty novels, but The Prairie Mother is the only one to spawn a sequel, The Prairie Mother (1920)  – and then another in The Prairie Child (1922).

Like Dinky-Dunk, Stringer really knew how to make a buck.  

Favourite sentence:
The trouble with Platonic love is that it's always turning out too nice to be Platonic, or too Platonic to be nice.
I can't help thinking of Terry's attitude toward Olga. He doesn't actively dislike her, but he quietly ignores her, even more so than Olie does. I've been wondering why neither of them has succumbed to such physical grandeur. Perhaps it's because they're physical themselves.
Trivia: In 1925, The Prairie Mother was adapted to the silver screen. A lost film, the trade reviews I've read are lukewarm, mainly because there is no gunplay. Chaddie is played by comedic actress Dorothy Devore, one of many who fell in making the transition to talkies. New to me is Herbert Rawlinson, who played Duncan. Olga is played by Canadian Frances Primm, about whom little is known, A pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff plays Diego, a character that does not feature in the novel. Most interetsing to the silent film buff is Gibson Gowland (Olie), the man who played McTeague in Erich von Stroheim's Greed.

Motion Picture Magazine, December 1924 
Object: My copy was purchased last year from a bookseller located in Winterton, Lincolnshire. Price: £9.00. Sadly, the jacket illustration is uncredited.

The rear pushes all three books in Stringer's trilogy, The Prairie Child not yet available in a bargain edition. The flaps feature a list of other Hodder & Stoughton titles, including works by Canadians Ralph Connor (The Sky Pilot of No Man's Land [sic]), Hulbert Footner (The Fugitive Sleuth, Two on the Trail), Frank L. Packard (The Night Operator, The Wire Devils, Pawned), Robert J.C. Stead (The Homesteaders), and Bertrand W. Sinclair (Poor Man's Rock).

Access: The Prairie Wife first appeared in 1915, published serially over four issues of the Saturday Evening Post (16 January - 6 February). That same year, it appeared in book form in Canada (McLeod & Allen) and the United States (Bobbs-Merril). Both publishers used the same jacket design:

Evidence suggests that The Prairie Wife is Stringer's biggest seller. A.L. Burt published at photoplay edition tied into the 1925 Metro-Goldwyn Mayer adaptation. Is that Boris Karloff as Diego on the right?

At some point, Burt went back to the well to draw Prairie Stories, which included all three novels in Stringer's prairie trilogy. As far as I've been able to determine, The Prairie Wife last saw print in The Prairie Omnibus (Grosset & Dunlap, 1950), in which it is paired with The Prairie Mother

Used copies of The Prairie Wife can be purchased online for as little as US$8.95.

15 February 2023

The Girl Off the Train

One Way Street
Dan Keller [Louis Kaufman]
London: Hale, 1960
190 pages

Toronto boy Paul Saber has had a rough ten years. The earliest were spent as a commando in the Pacific theatre. After the fighting stopped, just as Paul prepared his return home, he received a "Dear John" letter. And so, Paul remained overseas, building an import-export business in Saigon. One presumes it was through this endeavour that he somehow ended up at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu:
"I wasn't a combatant, but I got mixed up in the whole mess and was captured by the Reds. It took me a year to escape back to Saigon, by that time there was little more left of my business than enough to pay my passage home."
He might've saved some money by taking a more direct route. Rather than cross the Pacific to Vancouver, Paul makes for Halifax, then travels the final leg to Toronto by train. He's only just set foot on the platform at Union Station when the jostling crowd forces an embrace with a fellow passenger:
"I am sorry," I apologised. "I'm afraid I lost my balance."
     She smiled. "It was as much my fault as yours, everyone is in such a rush."
This is a Canadian novel.

Toronto has changed. Not only is there a subway, the Royal York, at which Paul has a reservation, has undergone a significant expansion. Standing in its lobby, he spies the woman whose warm body he'd held at Union Station. She did not book ahead, meaning she's out of luck in getting a room. The helpful front desk clerk manages to secure accommodation at the Bentley, a much lesser hotel, and she sets off. Paul is so taken by her beauty that he follows at a discrete distance as she negotiates the city's darkened icy streets. Some might call it stalking. In any case, it's good that he did because she's pulled into an alley by two men. Paul rushes to the rescue, kneeing one in the groin as the other runs away.

The Princess Lounge, Royal York Hotel, 1954
He ushers the woman back the Royal York – the Princess Lounge, to be specific – where they down martinis, get to know one another, and fall madly, wildly, deeply, exasperatingly in love. No exaggeration. One Way Street is one of too many novels in which characters fall in love at first meeting.

Or is it second meeting? Does the bump (no grind) at Union Station count?

Paul's new love is beautiful blonde Patricia Bailey, a sophisticated and svelte Montrealer who models furs for a living. In the midst of their flirtations, Paul offers to exchange his room at the Royal York for hers at the Bentley. Patricia accepts. Because Patricia is a lady, she does not invite Paul in for a nightcap. Because Paul is a gentleman, he leaves the Royal York, trudging through frozen Toronto to the Bentley. Paul takes her room, and dreams of a new life with his new girl.

He awakens to find the Bentley in flames. Eighty-two will perish, but not our Paul. He ties together bedsheets and scales the outside of the building to the room one storey below. A body with bullet hole in the forehead lies on its floor, but given Paul's immediate circumstances, it is ignored. Paul makes for the hallway and is rescued by firefighters, but not before saving a young woman from certain death.

Our hero's recovery is a slow one; much of it is spent slipping in and out of consciousness. He emerges to find himself in the home of a prominent physician named Kahn. Seems a good thing, until Paul realizes that he's being held captive.

Because this is a mystery novel, further descriptions of the plot will only serve as spoilers. Still, there are things worth noting.

Let's begin with beautiful Patricia Bailey, who is not only a model, but a Montreal model. She's sharp as a tack, quick as a fox, and remarkably loyal. After she accepts Paul's marriage proposal – during what is either their second or third meeting – Patricia reveals that she comes from an extraordinarily wealthy family. Daddy is eager to give her anything and everything, but Patricia wants to prove that she came make it on her own. In short, Patricia Bailey is a fantasy figure, with the emphasis on figure. 

One Way Street should be of interest as one of the first mystery novels set in Toronto, but it is not. Union Station and the Royal York figure as settings, but Keller doesn't describe either. Remove these – along with fleeting references to the Toronto Star, the King Edward Hotel, the Ford Hotel, Front Street – and One Way Street could have been set in any other Canadian city.

The alleyway assault on Patricia aside, every crime in One Way Street is related to the heroin trade. This revelation, leads back to a character whom Paul confronts as the novel draws to a conclusion. He is "not without influence" in Toronto:
"I've moved heaven and earth, done everything in my power to get the narcotic laws changed, without success. There's only one way left open to me. If I can set up a clinic, get it operating successfully; prove that the drug addict is not necessarily a menace to society providing he is under medical care and is ensured a supply without having to murder or steal for it; then, when I'm caught, maybe people will sit up and take notice."
At the end of it all, this character, not Paul, proves to be the novel's greatest hero.

Pierre Poilievre will disagree.

The front flap copy errs in placing Vietnam in the Middle East.

This may explain Paul's return to Toronto via Halifax.

Object: A very attractive hardcover in brown boards. The woman on the jacket is meant to be Patricia, right? If so, she should be a blonde with green eyes. Did you notice the two men in the alleyway? Are they the men who tried to mug her? I'm not so sure. Patricia never wears a yellow dress, and no woman would venture outside like that in a Toronto winter. Still, I like the illustration and wish the artist was credited.

My copy was purchased last year from a bookseller in Rochester, Kent. Price: £80.00.

The jacket offers no information about the author – more here – but it does have adverts for several other Hale novels.

Access: One Way Street enjoyed one lone printing. There were no further editions. As of this writing, four copies are being sold online. At the low end is a jacketless copy going for US$50.00. The most expensive is another jacketless copy going for US $427.44. Look in the middle and you'll find two signed copies, with jackets, at US$110.00 and US$187.50.

You know which to buy. 

Library and Archives Canada has a copy, as does the University of Calgary.

06 February 2023

A Woman Cheated

The Cannibal Heart
Collected Millar: Dawn of Domestic Suspense
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2017

In Margaret Millar's bibliography, The Cannibal Heart falls between It's All in the Family and Do Evil in Return. As a light and lively novel for children, the former is her most unusual; the latter, which deals with the tragic consequences of a refused abortion, is both her most controversial and most timely. The Cannibal Heart isn't so noteworthy. Of the fourteen Millars I've read to date, it ranks below the average, which is to say that it is merely very, very good.

The novel takes place almost entirely on the grounds of a large California oceanfront estate rented by the Banners: Richard, Evelyn, and their active eight-year-old daughter Jessie. The property belongs to a Mrs Wakefield, whose efforts to sell have been thwarted by a draught. Her employees, cook Carmelita and caretaker husband Carl, live with their adolescent daughter Luisa in a three-room apartment above the garage.

Someone spoken of, but not seen, Mrs Wakefield grows as a figure of mystery in the initial chapters. She at last appears as an attractive thirty-something widow worthy of sympathy. In the space of the previous two years, Mrs Wakefield has lost her husband John, as well as Billy, their only child. John was a naval engineer, a wealthy man whom Mrs Wakefield met as a schoolteacher from a small Nebraska town. Their child, Billy, was... well, let's say Billy is revealed gradually. 

But then things in Millar novels are always revealed gradually.

It's suggested that the Banners have come from the East Coast to recover from some sort of domestic disturbance. Might Evelyn's issues with jealousy be related? Even when alone, Evelyn and Richard maintain the pretence that the move has to do with expanding Jessie's horizons.

We come to know Mrs Wakefield intimately. The life she shared with her husband is something of a blur, but her experience giving birth to Billy and the days that followed are too clear for comfortable reading.

As always, Millar delves deeply into the inner lives of its characters, children included. Fifteen-year-old Luisa, a minor character (no pun intended), is a good example. Like most teenagers, she dreams of life far from her parents. In her fantasies, she's a singer with beautiful blonde hair, fawned over by handsome men with lots of money. But this can never happen in the way she imagines. Reality intrudes, reflected in the words of her father, who recognizes that she has been born "half-mulatto, half Mexican."

Syndicate Books, Millar's current publisher, lists The Cannibal Heart as a novel of suspense. It isn't. The Cannibal Heart belongs with Experiment in Springtime and Wives and Lovers, the two (and only two) novels the publisher categorizes as "OTHER NOVELS." As I wrote in a previous review, in these people do bad things; as do we all. While the reader might anticipate murder – after all, Millar was a mystery writer – nothing of the kind occurs. No character commits a criminal act, though one comes close. That that same character is the most sympathetic, most wronged, and most cheated, leads me to wonder whether I'm not right to thinking The Cannibal Heart below average Millar.

"For an old friend, a fine critic, and an ever-imaginative angler, Harry E. Maule."
An editor at Random House, Harry Edward Maule (1886-1971) accepted Millar's 1956 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Beast in View.

Object and Access: A bulky trade-size paperback, Dawn of Domestic Suspense is the second in the attractive (if cramped) seven-volume Collected Millar. The Cannibal Heart was the last to be read; the others have been reviewed in previous blog posts:
The Cannibal Heart is the ninth of Margaret Millar's twenty-six novels. It was first published in 1949 by Random House; Hamish Hamilton issued a British edition the following year. The Random House jacket (above right) better reflects the novel.

The Cannibal Heart was not a commercial success. It had spent over three decades out-of-print when, in 1985, International Polygonics issued the first paperback edition. A Thorndike large print edition followed fifteen years later.

As might be expected, The Cannibal Heart is uncommon in our public libraries. That serving Kitchener, the city in which Margaret Millar was born, the city in which she was raised, the city in which her father served as mayor, does not have a copy.

The Collected Millar remains in print. Used copies of The Cannibal Heart listed online begin at €6 (a first edition lacking jacket). At US$225, the most expensive is the same edition in "fine, bright dust jacket." Do not read the bookseller's description as there is a spoiler. 

The Cannibal Heart has enjoyed two translations: French (Le coeur cannibale) and German (Kannibalen-Herz).