29 April 2024

Of Cannibals and Christians

The Great Taboo
Grant Allen
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891
271 pages

Reviewing Gilbert Parker's The Right of Way a while back, I expressed my opposition to the idea of starting a novel with dialogue. "'Not guilty, your Honor!'"   italics and all – is its first line.

The first line in The Great Taboo is "'Man overboard!'"

Better than "Splash!" I suppose.

The man who has gone overboard is, in fact, a woman. No one knows this better than English civil servant Felix Thurston. An instant earlier he'd grasped Miss Muriel Ellis' slender waist as a wall of water struck the deck of the Austalasian:

The wave had knocked him down, and dashed him against the bulwark on the leeward side. As he picked himself up, wet, bruised, and shaken, he looked about for Muriel. A terrible dread seized upon his soul at once. Impossible! Impossible! she couldn't have been washed overboard!

Thurston dives into the "fierce black water" – I should've mentioned it is nighttime – intent on rescue. Lifebelts are flung in their general direction and a boat is lowered, its light playing upon the waves, but to no avail. After an exhaustive search, the crewmen return to the ship. Their captain is philosophical:

"I knew there wasn't a chance; but in common humanity one was bound to make some show of trying to save 'em. He was a brave fellow to go after her, though it was no good, of course. He couldn't even find her, at night, and with such a sea as that running."
In fact, Mr Thurston did find Miss Owen; Felix and Muriel cling to each other even as the captain speaks. Buoyed by lifebelts, the pair drifts toward a reef that bounds Boupari, "one of those rare remote islets where the very rumor of our European civilization has hardly yet penetrated." As the new day dawns, Felix begins to make out signs of habitation. He's well aware that the Polynesian islands are home to "the fiercest and most bloodthirsty cannibals known to travellers." And so, he is on his guard as smiling, friendly souls paddle to transport the two castaways from reef to islet.

Felix and Muriel are not eaten, rather they're made the King of Rain and Queen of Clouds. The two are considered gods, subservient only to the high god Tu-Kila-Kila. They are also deemed "Korong," a word the civil servant, who is otherwise conversant in Polynesian languages, knows not.

Here the reader has an advantage in that the word was chanted repeatedly during the roasting of two Boupari inhabitants mere hours before Felix and Muriel's arrival. Still, it is surprising that the King of Rain and Queen of Clouds, who seem fairly sharp, need be told its meaning... and by a parrot, no less!

Grant Allen was all too dismissive of his novels, but I'm not. The best part of worthwhile nineteenth-century Canadian fiction was written by Allen. That said, I have been dismissive of his adventure novels, Wednesday the Tenth (aka The Cruise of the Albatross) included. Published the same year The Great Taboo, it too features cannibals.*

But I wonder, could it be that The Great Taboo is something more than an adventure novel? Allen's preface is by turns intriguing and amusing:

This reviewer is aware of Frazier's The Golden Bough (1890-1915), but has not read it. I'm familiar with Andrew Lang, but not his Myth, Ritual, and Religion (1887). Henry Ogg Forbes's A Naturalist's Wanderings in the Eastern Archipelago (1885) and Julian Thomas's Cannibals and Convicts (1886) are both new to me, as they would have been to Allen in the years preceding The Great Taboo.

I haven't had time to read those books, but have read Mary Beard's review of Robert Fraser's 1990 The Making of ‘The Golden Bough’: The Origin and Growth of an Argument (London Review of Books, 26 June 1990), in which she writes that The Great Taboo "turned Frazer’s metaphorical journey into a literal tale of travel and adventure." It is, in her words, "a crude and simplified retelling of The Golden Bough," and "important for our understanding of the immediate popular reception of Frazer’s work."

In the end, Felix and Muriel are not consumed by cannibals. As the genre dictates, they escape Boupari, marry, and return to England. The final scene is also the best. It takes place in the London drawing room of the Mrs Ellis, Muriel's aunt by marriage, in which the newlyweds are confronted with the taboos of their own island.

The last sentence is much better than the first.

* Five years ago, I posted a Grant Allen top ten in which The Cruise of the Albatross takes the final spot. At the time, I'd read all of twelve Allen novels. I've now read eighteen. The Cruise of the Albatross has fallen to fourteenth position.
Trivia: Being of a certain age, I couldn't read the title without thinking of the Great Gazoo. The name Felix Thurston reminded me of this more famous fictional castaway:

Object and Access: My first American edition was purchased four or five years ago. I cannot remember how much I paid, but it couldn't have been fifty dollars. The true first is the British first. Published in 1890 by Chatto & Windus, I see evidence of a second printing the following year.

No copies of either is listed for sale online today. It would appear that there have been no other editions.

The Harper & Bros edition can be read online here courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Related posts:

17 April 2024

Morley Callaghan's Red Ryan Rocket

More Joy in Heaven
Morley Callaghan
New York: Random House, 1937
278 page

It's been decades since Intro to CanLit II, my second introduction to Canadian literature. Like Intro to CanLit I, the  course covered four works; all novels, all written by men. Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night was my favourite, but I do remember liking They Shall Inherit the Earth. We were told that its author, Morley Callaghan, was “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world.” Here our professor was quoting Edmund Wilson. He made much of this, but at  twenty the name Edmund Wilson meant nothing to me.

They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935) sits in the middle of a run of three novels considered Callaghan's best. The first, Such is My Beloved (1934), involves a handsome young priest – in fiction all young priests are handsome – who befriends two prostitutes. It vies with the third, More Joy in Heaven, as Callaghan's best known novel. They Shall Inherit the Earth is not nearly so well known. You can understand why. They Shall Inherit the Earth is a story about a father and son who, to quote the cover of my old NCL edition (right), are "forced to re-examine the nature of individual conscience and responsibility." It has no sex workers, nor does it have a bank robber.

More Joy in Heaven has both.

Its protagonist, Kip Caley, isn't a prostitute, but he had robbed banks – so many banks that he was sentenced to life and twenty lashes. In prison, Caley underwent a transformation of some kind. There's no suggestion that he found God, though Caley did find Father Butler, the prison chaplain. Somehow, the worst man in Canada becomes the most beloved.

Callaghan is lazy.

The novel opens on Christmas Day, the day of Caley's release from Kingston Penitentiary. Father Brown is present, as is Senator Maclean, who had fought for a pardon.

Caley returns to his hometown, Toronto, where he takes a job at a hotel and nightclub that caters to sporting types. The senator arranged it all. A greeter, a position in which he never feels comfortable, all Caley has to do is welcome patrons. Everyone wants to meet the reformed man; it's great for business. Kip Caley is the toast of the town, but as months pass he seems more the man of the hour.

More Joy in Heaven is a good novel, but the greatest fiction is found on its copyright page:

Contemporary reviewers were not fooled.

Callaghan modelled Caley on Norman "Red" Ryan, a career criminal who had been killed by police on 23 May 1936, eighteen months before publication. It was big news.
The Globe, 25 May 1936
Like Caley, Ryan was held up – no pun intended  – as a model of reform. He was fêted and given plumb jobs,  including a weekly radio show, only to be gunned down ten months later during the botched robbery of a Sarnia liquor store.

The Big Red Fox, Peter McSherry's 1999 Arthur Ellis nominated biography of Ryan, is recommended.

More Joy in Heaven is also recommended, as is They Shall Inherit the Earth.

I'm guessing Edmund Wilson would concur.

Trivia: Ernest Hemingway covered Ryan for the Toronto Daily Star and had himself considered writing a novel with a character modelled on the man. I've often wondered whether Papa mentioned the idea to fellow Star reporter Callaghan.

 I purchased my copy, a first edition, in 1989 from a cart at the Westmount Public Library. Sadly, it lacks the dust jacket (above), but then what can you expect for $1.00.

Access: The novel remains in print, though I suspect the copies have been sitting in Penguin Random House for over a decade now. What's offered features the 2007 New Canadian Library cover design... and, well, the New Canadian Library is long dead.

The 1960 and 2009 NCL editions.
More Joy in Heaven was one of the earliest NCL titles. Hugo McPherson wrote the introduction to the first NCL edition; Margaret Avison wrote an afterword for the last. Penguin Random House LLC is asking $19.95, though used copies are far cheaper. First editions listed online start at US$20 (sans dust jacket) and go all the way up to US$150. For my money, the best buy is a Very Good to Near Fine copy offered by a Winchester, Virginia bookseller. Price: US$110.

I expected Italian and French translations, but have found only a Russian: Радость на небесах. The first in a three-novel Морли Каллаган volume published in 1982, it also features Тихий уголок (A Fine and Private Place) and И снова к солнцу (Closer to the Sun).

Why those novels, I wonder?

I read More Joy in Heaven for The 1937 Club.

After all these years, the only other 1937 title I've reviewed at The Dusty Bookcase is John by Irene Baird.

Related post:

16 April 2024

Of Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns, and David Richard Beasley

Canadian Authors You Should Know is a self-published book written by a man who counts himself amongst those you should know.
   Is that not absurd?
   It was doubly so for this reviewer because I do know David Richard Beasley.
So begins my review of Canadian Authors You Should Know, now available in the Spring edition of The Dorchester Review. Beasley's book is one of the most idiosyncratic works of CanLit scholarship I have ever read. His Canadian authors you should know number eight, of which these are the first seven:
John Richardson
Herman Whitaker
Frederick Philip Grove
Wyndham Lewis
Norman, Newton
Thomas B. Costain
Jamie Brown

The eighth is David Richard Beasley.

I knew six. Herman Whitaker (1867-1919) was new to me. A Brit, he spent spent much of his twenties in Canada before leaving in 1895 for California. The first of his three novels, The Settler, was published ten years later.

I've never considered writers just passing through Canadian, so was more interested in what Beasley had to say about Vancouver's Norman Newton (1929-2011), another author who was new to me.

Just think, all those years I'd lived on Davie Street, immersed in the literary scene, President of the Federation of BC Writers, and I'd never once heard Norman Newton's name.

And so I purchased a copy – sight unseen – of The Big Stuffed Hand of Friendship, Newton's fourth and final novel. 

Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969
Black matte with a foil overlay, as an object it hasn't aged particularly well. Never mind. Look closely at the jacket and you will see this:

Oh, Canada.

08 April 2024

04 April 2024

A Man of Peculiar Notions

Dennison Grant: A Novel of To-Day
Robert Stead
Toronto: Musson, 1920
388 pages

Robert Stead's fourth novel, Dennison Grant follows The Bail Jumper, The Homesteaders, and The Cow Puncher. So, who is Dennison Grant? A cowboy? A cattle rustler? A hired hand? A rodeo clown?

This is not a novel for the impatient. The titular character doesn't appear until the fifty-fifth page. He sticks around for another two before literally riding away. Dennison Grant reappears fifty-four pages later – page 111, for those keeping track – at which point he begins to dominate the narrative.

Grant's first appearance has to do with his work as ranch foreman for a man named Landson. He's been tasked with overseeing the cutting of hay on a vast expanse of what may or may not be Crown land to the east of the Alberta foothills. Y.D., a neighbouring rancher, has had the very same idea, and so there is conflict. From the start, Grant comes off as a polite, level-headed gentleman. Frank Transley, Y.D.'s foreman, comes off nearly as well.

Standing in the wings is Zen, Y.D.'s twenty-year-old daughter. She is a minor character at first, but is soon elevated to the main stage through unwanted attention from George Dranzk, one of her father's hired hands. 

An impulsive idiot, Dranzk has the idea to set Landson's bails alight so as to win Y.D.'s favour... and with it Zen's hand. The fire spreads quickly, threatening both harvests as both Y.D.'s team and Landson's try to bring it under control.

The novel's most dramatic scene unfolds away from the inferno. Zen rides into the hills so as to warn a local farming family. On her return, she has the misfortune of encountering Dranzk. He tries to force himself upon Zen, and both end up in a river, struggling until the former can struggle no more:

Her hand reached the lash. With a quick motion of the arm, such as is given in throwing a rope, she had looped it once around his neck. Then, pulling the lash violently, she fought herself out of his grip. He clutched at her wildly, but could reach only some stray locks of her brown hair which had broken loose and were floating on the water.
   She saw his eyes grow round and big and horrified; saw his mouth open and refuse to close; heard strange little gurgles and chokings. But she did not let go.
   "When you insulted me this morning I promised to settle with you; I did not expect to have the chance so soon."
   His head had gone under water.... Suddenly she realized that he was drowning. She let go of the thong, clutched her horse's tail, and was pulled quickly ashore.
Here Stead touches the cape of Alberta Gothic, yet Dennison Grant is not a gothic tale; it is a message novel, a story of ideas and ideals embodied in the titular character. In his second coming, Grant happens upon Zen as fire threatens. The pair find refuge on a stoney hilltop overlooking threads of golden flame under the night sky.

The Bookman, Spring 1921
Here Grant reveals himself to both Zen and the reader as an Easterner, the eldest of two sons born to a man with a rough parcel of land made valuable by the growth of a city and ravenous developers. Papa Grant used his windfall to found a brokerage firm, thus turning the money into even more money. This was not for Dennison, which is why the name of the family firm is Grant and Son, not Grant and Sons.  

Dennison Grant came west where the work is physical, yet at the core of his being he's a thinking man of "peculiar notions." Grant shares these with Zen as a full moon arcs slowly overhead:
"I have observed," he said, "that poor people worry over what they haven't got, and rich people worry over what they have. It is my disposition not to worry over anything. You said that money is power. That is one of its deceits. It offers a man power, but in reality it makes him its slave. It enchains him for life; I have seen it in too many cases — I am not mistaken. As for opening up a wider life, what wider life could there be than this which I — which you and I — are living."
Listening in, it sounds like the worst of first dates with Grant talking only about himself. This is Stead's failing; the author doesn't recognize that his audience knows Zen's backstory while Grant does not. And yet, it somehow works. This reader came away fully convinced that the two were taken with one another. 

Blame it on the moon.

As depicted on the Hodder & Stoughton jacket, Zen does fall asleep, but this is the result of exhaustion. It's not every day a young woman escapes a prairie fire and kills a man. 

My copy of Dennison Grant has no dust jacket, but I don't think I'm missing much. The best image I've found comes from an advert in the 18 November 1920 edition of the Calgary Herald-Journal:

Dennison Grant is indeed an "intensely human, interesting, worth-while story of men and women as big of spirit as the big out-of-doors in which they live."

Zen is no anomaly. The women in Denison Grant are invariably intelligent and independent. Y.D.'s right cheek bears a scar from a branding iron wielded by a young woman in defence of her father. He later married that same young woman, who in turn bore and raised Zen. Another strong woman, a city girl named Phyllis Bruce, is in Grant's future.

"It's [sic] action centres largely in the West, in Calgary and the Foothills" is amusing. No scenes are set in Calgary or any other western city for that matter. In fact, Calgary is not mentioned at all, except as "the principal cow-town of the foothill country."

A good eighty pages take place in an unnamed eastern city on a lake (read: Toronto), to which Grant returns after his father and brother are killed in an automobile accident. Of a sudden, a man who rejects accepted notions of unearned wealth, finds himself with something between six or eight million dollars.

What is he to do? 

I will not spoil things.

Dennison Grant is not for everyone. I recommend it to those interested in post-Great War Canada. This Montrealer, the son of a Calgarian, was fascinated by the preconceptions expressed by Westerners toward Easterners and vice versa. I had no idea they stretched back so far. 

Grant expresses his ideas, even though he knows they are not fully formed. He's thinking aloud... after saving Zen, before Y.D., when hiring a lawyer, and during what I'd taken to be a date at a fancy restaurant with Phyllis Bruce. Forget my disappointment, just imagine hers! 

It can be tiresome, but no more so than any message novel. Dennison Grant is to Stead what John Galt is to Ayn Rand.

The Russian émigré and Social Security recipient would've hated Dennison Grant, which makes me like it all the more.

Object and Access: A bulky hardcover, typical of its time, I can't for the life of me remember just when or where it was purchased. I have no idea how much I paid, but it could not have been more than two dollars. Evidence suggests that it once belonged to one James Rutherford, whose signature graces the front free paper. Over fifty James Rutherfords are listed in the 1921 census.

I see no evidence that the Musson and Hodder & Stoughton editions enjoyed more than one printing. That said, H&S did reissue the book in 1924 as Zen of the Y.D.: A Tale of the Foothills. That same year, it was serialized under the same title in the Ottawa Citizen.

At the time of this writing, one copy of the Musson edition (sans jacket) listed for sale at US$17.00. Neither H&S edition is in sight.

Thankfully, it can be read online here at the Internet Archive.