Why Has Not Any English Canadian Author Ever Produced A Great Piece Of Historical Fiction
Updated: Nov 20, 2021
By Matthew Clark
There is a saying, 'The only things that improve with age are wine and memories.' Putting truth to those words is the recollection I have of the summer of 1974. It could not have been the oasis of paradise that it now seems to be when my thoughts turn to that time. While spending the working part of that day chugging logs at Mundts sawmill on Golden Lake my recreation hours saw me sneaking beers (we were decidedly underage) with my peers in forest hideaways, and generally getting into the kind of mischief that is so universal to teenagers.
However not all my time was spent on fun, and games. Our family property was dotted with 6 cabins, a product of my late paternal grandfathers' occupation in the hospitality industry (he was involved in forestry as well). Granddad rented out to vacationers interested in relaxing, and enjoying, the attractions offered on Golden Lake. My parents had taken over the property when my grandfather passed. We did not rent the cabins out. So when the desire for privacy would overcome me I would find a good book , hide away in one of the deserted cottages, and enjoy an isolated afternoon.
This was the circumstances one July day when I started on a book titled, "His Majesty Yankees." It had been on sale at the local bookstore for the ridiculously low price (even then)of 25 cents. Winner of the 1943 Governor General's award had run the advertisement on the front page, along with the authors name, Thomas Raddall. In truth, based on the unusual title, not much was expected of the story. I could not have been more wrong. Raddall had written a truly thrilling, captivating, adventure about the undertakings of David Stang, the son of a 1700's Yankee immigrant to Nova Scotia. David Stang immershes himself in the Rebel cause of the American Revolution. Like all good stories it became increasingly difficult to put it down, even if that meant forgoing the chance to drink more illicit beers, or getting into hijinks with my rabble rousing friends.
Reading "His Majestys Yankees was an opportunity rarely offered to an English Canadian. It was a chance to read an episode about one's country which was actually interesting, even exciting. Truthfully though it was not about English Canada, rather it told the reader of a Nova Scotia during a time when the Maritime entity was still a vibrant independent domain. Reading Raddalls description of these strong characters made the early seafaring history of the (now) province, both in terms of sailing, and vessel manufacturing, believable. Many years later, while taking an University history course I would discover 1887 Nova Scotians elected the first secessionist (separatist) government in Canada (no Quebecois Rene Levesque was not the leader of the first separatist government in Canada). My first thoughts on learning this fact was to think back to the characters in Raddalls story. Strong minded men, and women, trying to live life with as much individual liberty as the creator could provide.
Thinking on the fate of the Atlantic province today brings on a moment of sadness at how far its importance has devolved within Canada. Not wishing to be that depressed I switch topics and ask a question, one more relevent to a resident of Ontario than the status of New Scotland. Why has English Canada never produced a great piece of Romantic fictional literature about the country's history?
There have been, and are today, some fine English Canadian authors, Michael Ondaatje, or Margaret Atwood, come immediately to mind. Yet neither they, or anyone else I am aware of, have ever produce a great work of fiction about an episode in English Canada's past. Certainly no one has equaled Raddalls effort. Every decade, or so, I will reread "His Majestys Yankees," happily rendezvousing with an old friend. Nevertheless it is an account of Nova Scotia with citizens who frowned on any political alliance other than that with their immediate neighbours. Whether Raddall wanted to make it a tale about Canada is something I possess no knowledge of. If that was his intention then it is one of the few aspects, perhaps the only one, he failed at.
Successful historical romantic fiction contributes endurance, and loyalty, among the people,or nation, who are it's subjects. Victor Hugo's "93", and/or "Les Miserable," not only relate extrodinary hereos and villains, but of causes, and how they make nations and individuals strong. Alexander Dumas "The Count of Monte Cristo" subjects the reader to the experience of Edmond Dantes, the main character, all consuming thirst for revenge. When that thirst threatens to destroy him it is the acceptance of the Christian God, the most fundamental characteristic of 19th century French everyday life, which saves him.
Walte Scotts' "Ivanhoe, and Waverly novels give romance to the days of Britains past while also questioning the anti-semitism of the Islands medeval times (in Ivanhoe), and the general religious intolerance during the early years of the British Union (1707). The general greatness of the country is not diminished by these defects because of the intense dedication these characters have to their particular cause(s). These are just a few examples of classical historical fiction to come out of the United Kingdom, and France.
Study any country's culture, whether it be the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Czech Republic, Japan, China, or the island nation of Zanzibar, and it will have a gendre of historical romantic fiction. These writings emit a powerful belief that their country is special. Not perfect, but special, which means it is good.
Back to the question. Why is there no great book of English Canadian historical fiction?
A partial answer to this question, albeit an uncomfortable one, is that to spawn rousing stories it helps if there are examples of courageous hereos and/or momentous events. Unfortunately English Canadians have not had many of either. One of its' prime ministers, William Lyon Mackenzie King, is reported to have said about the nation, "Too much geography and too little history." King was definitely not a hereo, judging on his political tenure it is doubtful he had a courageous bone in his body. So he would know from personnal experience about banal narratives. In fairness though, any man who believed he talked to deceased Prime Ministers (Wilfred Laurier was a frequent confidant) or that his dog had the faculty of speech (Pat, terrier number 2), could at least be described as intersting.
Part of the challenge an English Canadian author has in writing fictional history is that with our imperial past he/she would often end up glorifying the United Kingdom. Explorers such as Samuel Hearne, or Martin Frobisher were Englishmen (as in England) and to place fictional literature in that setting is to honour England. Such is also true of Sir Isaac Brock, the gallant military hereo during The War of 1812, and of course in the war itself. In Canada we fought for an imperial power against a (in this case) grasping Republic. To place imaginary fictional characters in that era is to tell an adventure of Empire. Raddall succeeded in "His Majestys Yankees" because the Stangs were New Englanders who became Nova Scotians. Unfortunately other English Canadians have not employed that imaginative dexterity to enthrall their countrymen and women about the past.
Another circumstance about Canadian history which discourages a fictional narrative of the past is that many of our outstanding citizens performed their remarkable achievements in the United States.If any writer tried to pen a story about, say, a figure who assists Alexander Graham Bell in some way to invent the telephone, the story would have to take place south of the border. In other ways politics hinder the would-be author. Alexander Mackenzie has been savaged in the swamp of First Nation/ Canadian relations, or neglected by present acadamia policy of nullifying consequential historical accomplishment. In elementary school social studies Mackenzie traversing the continent receives minimal mention. I have been in classrooms where the teacher has put the explorers exploits in a bad light. His success paved the way for settlement across the nation (a good thing for English Canada) but led to the exploitation of First Nations (hardly Mackenzies fault) Any would be future Canadian novelist would therefore likely have barely heard of the explorer, and what he/she did ear would be quite negative. As a result the idea of creating a yarn about some adventurous hero associated with the accomplished man, or living in that epoch, is unlikely, to say the least.
In contemporary Progressive English Canada some men and women have romanticised Tommy Douglas, the politician who introduced government controlled medicine/health. To others Nellie McClung, the woman who led the charge to have the Imperial Privy Council declare women were 'persons' who were eligible to serve in the Canadian Senate (wow, awesome), is a hero. Taking the government to court, or passing a health care law, can lead to change. However it is not the stuff of a swashbuckler. What those two mentioned characters did has occupied the attention of many non-fiction authors. Yet anybody putting a pen to a story of risk, chance , and dare, would be hard pressed to keep the readers' attention by covering a court case before the British upper crust, or the intricacies of the Saskatchewan Legislature.
Historian Pierre Berton tried to turn the building of the Trans Continental Canadian Railroad (CPR) during the 1870's and 1880's into a dashing narrative. Certainly it was an impressive endevor, especially for a nation of a mere 3 million souls.Workers overcame the Canadian climate, and the barrier of the Canadian Shield, to complete the Iron Horse Highway. However Bertons effort was a factual account with the main antagonist in the story being the difficulty in securing adequate financing for the railways completion. Realistic, yet hardly enthralling. As well, a critic of the Canadian effort might point out the Americans built a comparable lenghty railway sooner, and the Russian Trans Siberian railline was far longer. Also the two most notable characters in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, William Cornelius Van Horne, and George Stephans, were sadly lacking in charisma, an important feature in classic romantic historical stories. Reading Bertons two books on the Canadian Pacific Railways construction, "The National Dream," and "The Last Spike," the reader can be forgiven for the conclusion that Berton is trying to make a tedious tale exciting. Finally, as previously mentioned, the English Canadian historians writings in this case are non-fiction, not fiction.
Another challenge (there does seem to be a lot of challenges) for English Canadian authors is finding a topic to turn into an inspiring masterpiece. Did English Canadians produce great airplanes ( a category best left alone), or manufacture culturally liberating automobiles (please do not reference the Brooklin)? Has outer space been penetrated by our rockets, or satellites. Modestly so. The world has not been saturated by our successes so it only stands to reason writers have passed on authoring our history, except in the most clinical sense.
Nevertheless Canadian (mainly English) history has not all been a monotonous repetition of the mundane. In April of 1917, in France, the Canadian Corp, under the field command of Arthur Currie captured the strategic elevation of Vimy Ridge. This was a feat which units from their World Warr One allies, Great Britain, and RepublicanFrance, had failed to do in earlier attempts. In an earlier period of our history(1885) the charge at Batouche by the Canadian militia ended the Riel Rebellion.
Neither episode has inspired the production of a English Canadian masterpiece to thrill its' citizens on a past glorious age. In these examples an arguement can be made that politics, employing the pretense of culture (does English Canada even have a culture?) stonewall any attempts to admire our past. Exxaggerated concern for Francophone, and First Nation, sensitivities result in our ignorance of the bravery of the Canadian militia at Batouche. Indeed, sometimes these courageous men are despicably villainized. Vimy Ridge, on the other hand, was a glorious victory which Canadian Historians, such as the previously mentioned Pierre Berton, portray as a battle for Canadian independence from Britain. This even though Canada at that timewas allied with the United Kingdom, against the Central Powers who were led by Kaisar Germany. German troops shot our soldiers that day. Not British. With that mysterious logic it is no wonder the April 1917 victory has been left untouched by the writers of fiction.
Indeed one could contend that politics has distorted not only the history of Englsh Canada, but the loyalty of its' citizens as well. It is common sense, rather than profound logic, to state that few writers will romanticize a country whose inhabitants have a tepid loyalty to their nation. English Canadians are not allowed to have any villains except themselves. Who would want to pen an adventure about such a people? The answer is very few. Raddall had a deep admiration for his fellow Nova Scotians, past, and present. When writing about Canada, such as the French and Indian War(s) series, edited by Thomas Costain, his expressions became much more sanitized.
Fiction writers find inspiration within themselves, but they are also entertaining readers. How do you entertain readers with literature concerning a country whose constituency has a loyalty to their nation which is a mile wide but an inch deep. To have hereos there must be villains! The two go together. Yet English Canadians are prohibited by their political and societal leaders from having any enemies, unless they are stereotypically universal. Facists, Rural Folk, and the dozen or so slave owners spread across the land during the emancipation year 1833, can be loathed. To portray any character from outside that group as a force for evil is to invite widespread condemnation from politicians, media, and most other groups of note. Alas, in contemporary times it can even invite indictment under draconian hate speech laws.
To date Anglo Canadian writers have not produced a heroic piece of historical fiction. What of the future? Is there a chance of a Maple Leaf version equivalent to "The Three Musketeers,"or "Captain Blood," emerging to thrill the Public of The Great White North over the next few decades?
If one believes heroic times spawns heroic stories the answer is a pessimistic no. Recently our nations directors of its' much vaunted government managed health system mandated the general public to hide in their basements from a virus with a survival rate of 99.96% for those who happen to get the affliction. Whether the action was wise or not can be debated, but it definitely was not a valorous strategy. During this same period religious men and women of the cloth decided to render unto Caesar by letting the state dictate behaviour in God's house of worship. Amicable, yes. Courageous? No! This appeasement was echoed throughout the academic industry, yes industry, as educators meekly went along with the states decrees to shut down classroom learning. Thus students were given a subpar education through electronic media. Secure? Yes. Inspiring? No!
With the taming of health, religion, education, where is spirituality, the forbearer of risk, and risk, so necesary for adventure, to come from? If these wonderous ingredients go missing from our everyday lives, where does the artist get reference to invent them in fiction? How does the reader relate to what the writer is trying to tell him/her? In the case of English Canada, based on past, and present performance, the answer appears to be that will not happen. There will be no yarns to inspire, just the banal attitude of muddling through.
Some will look proudly on champion Canadian athletes (adults playing children's games), or lecture Americans, and Brits, on their imperfections (While ignoring the wise question once put forward by journalist Richard Gwyn "If Canada is so great why do so many of its' citizens right across the country want their province to secede from the country?). English Canada will continue to exist. As always its ruling hierarchy will be dull, bland, pompous, and insecure. An incestuous group so busy self congratulating themselves on miminal achievements, they will ignore the fact they continue to suffocate their constituencies culture, preventing any historical rendition which rouses human spirit. Culture in the country will continue to be a mind numbing television documentary.
Is there a solution? What actions, what causes need to occur so the nations' people can look at themselves and feel pride in a glorious past? Could we, both individually, and collectively, creat conditions so prevalent in other countries, which motivate writers to thrill readers on past events.
I believe the solution is to stop trying. Canada has been around long enough. There has been plenty of time to create a culture, one that went beyond 'not being American.' This countrys' moral, and political leaders, have settled for the ordinary. Let us leave the ordinary behind, and look for a new allegiance to find the exceptional. When the countrys' political leaders call on the population to elect a new government, give up on Canada by giving up on them. Liberals, Conservatives, New Democratic Party, Green Party, leave them all at the curb. Make the new political movement one of disruption.
Westerners, Albertans, Saskatchewonians, Manitobans, find that fringe separatist party and vote for it. You are never going to get the respect you desire within Canada, as an Ontario resident I can tell you that. If you want to tell the world about yourselves you must manage yourselves. Ignore the claim that such a want is intolerant, and leave. You, and perhaps the world, will benefit. Hopefully in a good piece of Western historical fiction.
Isolated inhabitants of Northern Ontario, start your own political parties at both the provincial, and federal level, to create your own province. Being on your own might be the motivation needed to fulfill the promise , both in quality of life, and culture, that as a group you have failed to achieve up till now. As part of a Southern Ontario-Southern Quebec centric federation, Northern Ontario has wallowed in insignifigance, only important for the minerals contained in the land. You will produce neither culture, or wealth, until you take control for yourselves, and away from others.
No Anglophones in Canada have suffered more than English speaking Quebecers. While your peers in the English provinces bend over backwards to appease francophones in their jurisdictions they allow you to be subjugated by disgraceful authoritarian decrees from Francophone Quebec. Any protest by you to this tyranny is deemed inconvenient, or perversely, intolerant on your part. This will not change. Again, as a resident of Ontario I know this to be true. Your only hope to escape this culture morass is, strangely, to unite with the Quebecois to quit the country of Canada. An independent Quebec will fracture the francophone community, providing the chance for Anglo Quebecers to become a politically decisive minority. With political weight will come cultural muscle. A byproduct of this situation will be the opportunity to tell each other, as well as foreigners, about your exploits. Right now English Quebecors are politically burdensome, only to be acknowledged during general elections. Hold your noses and vote Parti/Bloc Quebecois.
To those in the Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), and NewFoundland/Labrador, I say start your own separatist political parties federally, and provincially. Then vote the candidates representing those parties into power. This is your best collective hope to nullify former Prime Minister Stephan Harpers' claim the Atlantic provinces have a defeatist culture. He was right, which was a good part of the reason Maritimers, and Newfoundlanders/Labradoreans were so mad at him.
To vanquish such a condition, and return to the cultural dynamism, general vibrancy, and sturdiness your region displayed during the 18th, and 19th centuries requires adieu to Canada. Anglo Canada suffocates all uplifting culture, all that instills passion. You end up settling for a few alms, stolen from a despised west, given manipulatedly by entitled mandorins in Ottawa. No great ideas, or wonderful adventures, can gain traction under such a domain. Productive labour, fine arts, along with any other nectar of life, wither in English Canada. To achieve great things demands exit from the federation.
Ideally my fellow Southern, and Eastern, Ontarioans would never participate in any general poll. That is to say, they would do the right thing by not voting at all, in any election. Due to the bland, trivial nature of politics in Upper Canada most of us citizens do not possess the rational point of reference to make an intelligent voting decision. Yes, I am one of the exceptions. Since however most Ontatioans will not abstain from casting their ballot the next logical suggestion is that each one of the voters choose a fringe party candidate to exercise your franchise. Hopefully a disrupting election result, even a wacky one, will knock Southern and Eastern Ontarioans, out of the cultural stupor which has shrouded them for so long. Ontario once had attempts at historical culture. The wonderful poet Pauline Johnson (First Nation/English Canadian Nationalist) comes to mind. "Born in Canada Beneath the British Flag" is, for instance, one of her catchy verses. She is now unknown to Ontario readers today. Alexander Muirs "The Maple Leaf Forever," is a moving anthem. Shamefully the songs words were altered in a fit of cowardice by cultural bureaucrats. This is the provinces formua for culture, especially in the area of historical fiction. Avoid contraversy through mediocrity. Fittingly Ontarioans stillborn artistic state has been accompanied by economic stagnation, and now demise. Partition, disruption, separation, are the solution.
In todays' societal climate of addressing all segments of its' members no matter how ill informed the addressee is about them, I will now make an appeal to First Nation individuals. This essay will be limited to saying I know little about you, but the little I do know makes me pretty sure that before you can take on the world, in culture or any other endevor, you first must take on your chiefs, band councils, and elders. Even if Canadian society came up with the perfect Society/First Nation relationship system(never have, never will) First Nation members would still be in the same predicament they are at present. Get your own house in order. When that happens the same genius, and tenacity, which got you through the trials of the past will allow you to add to the worlds' culture. Including in romantic historical fiction.
As for the denizens of the Territories (Yukon, Northwest, Nunavut) it would be just too offensively insincere to offer my advice. I know so little about you.
British Columbians ways, and ideas are known to me but are so mystifying, and rationally unfathomable, that any comments on my part are useless. This is, I believe, a condition I share with just about everybody else in the world outside of your mountainous entity.
Any other constituency not appealed to ( i.e. French Canadennes, Quebecois, Acadiens, Francophones across Canada) are reminded this is a paper for English Canadians, not you.
So in conclusion we return to the original question. Why Is There No Great English Canadian Historical Fiction Story? And the answer is!!! Who cares!English Canada is like the bachelor who never made a commitment, avoided difficult moral situations, laboured at routine employment, yet tried to mask his passionless existance by stating opinions loudly, while never, ever giving vent to that part of the brain which elicited imagination. His death offers relief to his neighbours, just as the death of Canada will offer liberty, and culture, to its' inhabitants