CAA Literary Awards ShortlistCreated by 49thShelf on June 9, 2012
When Charles Sainte-Beuve, an ambitious French journalist, meets Victor Hugo, a young writer on the verge of fame, he finds himself in a world of great passions, a world in which words can become swords. But, to Charles’ surprise, he is more attracted to Victor’s long-suffering wife, Adèle. When the two lovers create a scandale in Paris, Victo …
From the award-winning author of A Complicated Kindness comes a heart-wrenching yet wryly funny story about setting out on the road to self-discovery, and finding the strength to survive in the face of immeasurable loss.
Nineteen-year-old Irma Voth lives in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico, surrounded by desert and both physically and cu …
Jorge said he wasn’t coming back until I learned how to be a better wife. He said it’s okay to touch him with my arm or my leg or my foot, if it’s clean, when we’re sleeping but not to smother him like a second skin. I asked him how could that be, I hardly saw him any more and he said that’s a good thing for you. He said people always lie about their reasons for leaving and what difference does it make? I blocked the doorway so he wouldn’t leave and I begged him not to go. He put his hands on my shoulders and then he rubbed my arms like he was trying to warm me up and I put my hands on his waist.
I asked him how I was supposed to develop the skills to be a wife if I didn’t have a husband to practise with and he said that was the type of question that contributed to my loneliness. I asked him why he was trying to blindside me with answers that attempted only to categorize my questions and I asked him why he was acting so strange lately and where his problem with the way I slept with my leg over his leg had come from and why he kept going away and why he was trying so hard to be a tough guy instead of just Jorge and then he pulled me close to him and he asked me to please stop talking, to stop shivering, to stop blocking the door, to stop crying and to stop loving him.
I asked him how I was supposed to do that and he said no, Irma, we’re not kids anymore, don’t say anything else. I wanted to ask him what loving him had to do with being childish but I did what he told me to do and I kept my mouth shut. He looked so sad, his eyes were empty, they were half closed, and he kissed me and he left. But before he drove off he gave me a new flashlight with triple C batteries and I’m grateful for it because this is a very dark, pitch-black part of the world.
The first time I met Jorge was at the rodeo in Rubio. He wasn’t a cowboy or a roper, he was just a guy watching in the stands. We weren’t allowed to go to rodeos normally but my father was away from home, visiting another colony in Belize, and my mother told my sister Aggie and me that we could take the truck and go to the rodeo for the day if we took the boys with us so she could rest. She might have been pregnant. Or maybe she had just lost the baby. I’m not sure.
But she didn’t care about rules that afternoon so, miraculously, we found ourselves at a rodeo. Maybe it was the pure adrenalin rush of being away from the farm that made me feel bold but I noticed Jorge sitting there by himself, watching intently, and kind of moving his body subtly in a way that matched the movements of the real cowboys, and I thought it was funny, and so I decided to go up to him and say hello.
Are you pretending to be a cowboy? I asked him in Spanish.
He smiled, he was a little embarrassed, I think. Are you pretending to be a Mennonitzcha? he said.
No, I really am, I said.
He asked me if I wanted to sit next to him and I said yes, but only for a minute because I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
We had a conversation in broken English and Spanish but it wasn’t much of one because as soon as I sat down beside him my boldness evaporated and my knees started to shake from nervousness. I was worried that somebody would see me talking to a Mexican boy and tell my father. Jorge told me he was in town buying something, I can’t remember what, for his mother who lived in Chihuahua city. He told me that he had a job delivering cars over the U.S. border from Juárez to El Paso and that he got paid forty American dollars a car and he didn’t ask questions.
Questions about what? I asked him.
Anything, he said.
But about what? I said.
About what’s in the cars or who’s paying me or when or just anything. I don’t ask, he said. He seemed a little nervous, so we both looked around at the people in the stands for a minute without saying much.
Some people are staring at us, he said.
No they’re not, I said.
Well, actually they are. Look at that guy over there. He was about to lift his arm and point but I said no, please, don’t.
He told me he thought it was strange that a Mennonite girl was at a rodeo and I told him that yeah it was. I tried to explain the rules my father had but that he was out of town and my mother was tired and all that and then we started talking about mothers and fathers and eventually he told me this story about his dad.
All I really understood was that his father had left his mother when he was a little boy and that one day his mother had told him he was going to meet him for the first time and he better look sharp and behave himself. She said she was going to drop him off on this corner by their house and his dad would be there waiting for him and then they could have a conversation, maybe get a meal together, and then the dad would drop him back off on that corner when they were done. So Jorge, he was five years old, decided he had better clean up his sneakers, especially if he wanted to look sharp for his dad. He washed them in the bathtub with shampoo and then he put them in the sun to dry. When it was time to go, his mom dropped him off at the corner and said goodbye and left and Jorge stood there for a long time, waiting. The sky got darker and darker. Finally it started to rain and Jorge started to worry. Where was his dad? Some men in cars drove past him but nobody stopped to pick him up. It started to rain harder. Then Jorge looked down at his shoes and noticed that they were foaming. Bubbles were floating around by his shoes and he didn’t know what was going on. He was too young to understand that he hadn’t rinsed his sneakers when he washed them with shampoo and now the rain was rinsing them for him and the soap was bubbling out of them and making them foam. Jorge felt like a fool. Like a clown. He was mortified. He was just about to take them off and rub them in the dirt on the sidewalk to try to make them stop foaming when a car pulled up and a man got out and introduced himself to Jorge as his father. He asked Jorge what was going on with his sneakers and Jorge told him that he didn’t know. That they had just strangely started foaming like that and his father looked at him and told him that shoes didn’t normally do that. Jorge had wanted to tell him that he had only been trying to look good and clean for his dad but he didn’t really know how to say that and so he just started crying out of shame.
And then what happened? I asked Jorge.
My father told me that he loved my shoes that way, that they were great, that he wanted a pair just like them, said Jorge. That made me feel a lot better. And then we went and had some shrimp cocktail. Afterwards he dropped me back off at the corner and I never saw him again.
Oh, I said. Where did he go?
I don’t know, said Jorge. But I was sure it was because of my stupid shoes that he never came back. I realized that he had lied to me. Obviously he didn’t want a pair of shoes that foamed up. Who would want that? So eventually I made this decision not to act like an idiot in life.
But you weren’t trying to be a clown, I said. You just wanted to have clean shoes to meet your dad. Your mom had told you to.
I know, he said, maybe it’s not rational. But after that I decided I would try to be a cooler boy and not try so hard for things.
I told Jorge that I was sorry about that but that I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
I guess I’ll never see you again either, he said. He was smiling. He told me it was nice meeting me and I said he could visit me in our field, maybe, beside the broken cropduster that had crashed in it, and I gave him directions and told him to wait there later that evening.
Make sure you look sharp and behave yourself, I told him. But I didn’t really say it correctly in Spanish so he didn’t get the little joke which wasn’t funny anyway and he just nodded and said he’d wait all night and all year if he had to. And I wasn’t used to that kind of romantic speaking so I said no, it wouldn’t take that long. I wanted to tell him that I had tried most of my life to do things that would make people stay too, and that none of them had worked out, but then I thought that if I said that our relationship would always be defined by failure.
Jorge came to visit me a few times, secretly, on his way between El Paso and Chihuahua city. We would lie in the back of his truck and count the number of seconds it took for jet streams to evaporate. If you happened to fly over this place you’d see three houses in a row and nothing else for miles but cornfields and desert. Mine and Jorge’s in the middle and on one side of us my parents’ house and on the other side an empty house where my cousins used to live, the space between them approximately the size of a soccer pitch or a cemetery. On a clear day I can see the Sierra Madre mountains way off in the west, and sometimes I talk to them. I compliment them on their strength and solidity, and by hearing myself talk that way I am reminded that those words exist for a reason, that they’re applicable from time to time. It’s comforting. There are a few little villages around here. Some are Mexican and some are Mennonite, we’re sorted like buttons, and we’re expected to stay where we’re put.
If Jorge visited in the evening he and I would lie in the back of his truck and stare at the stars and trace the shapes of various constellations and touch each other’s bodies very gently like we were burn victims. Jorge told me that I didn’t have to be so nervous. Don’t you want to leave this place? he said.
I think so, I said.
So even if your father finds out about us the worst thing that can happen is we go away.
I know, but, I said. But then we can’t come back, really.
So, he said. Why would you want to?
Well, I said. I would miss my mother and my sister and— But Irma, he said, you could visit them secretly just like what we’re doing right now.
I don’t know, I said.
But you and I are in love, he said. We’re eighteen now. We don’t need our mothers so much.
He told me that it was like a star museum out here, there were so many of them, every different kind from all the ages, stored right here in my campo for safekeeping. He said I could be the curator of the star museum.
I’d rather not.
I was just saying stuff.
I know, I said, but I’m not good at keeping things safe.
I know, he said, I didn’t mean it for real, it was just a thing to say.
I know, I said, but I can’t be the curator of anything.
Okay, Irma. I understand. You don’t have to take care of the stars, okay? That was just stuff to say. It was stupid. I had meant to tell him, again, that I wasn’t good at keeping promises or secrets or people from leaving. I kept meaning to tell Jorge things.
On our wedding day nobody came except the justice of the peace from the Registro Civil in Cuauhtémoc, who finished the ceremony in under a minute. He got lost trying to follow Jorge’s directions to our campo and it was dark by the time he finally showed up. Jorge had brought a candle with him and he lit it and put it next to the piece of paper we had to sign and when I leaned over to write my name, Irma Voth, my veil caught on fire and Jorge pulled it off my head and threw it onto the ground and stomped the fire out. We were in a sheltered grove near my parents’ farm. The justice of the peace told me I was a lucky girl and Jorge grabbed my hand and we took off, running. He wore a white shirt that was too big on him and hard plastic shoes.
We didn’t really know what to do but after a while we stopped running and we walked around for a long time and then we went to my house and told my parents that we had got married and my mother went to her bedroom and closed the door softly and my father slapped me in the face. Jorge pinned him to the wall of the kitchen and said he’d kill him if he did it again. I went into my mother’s bedroom and we hugged each other and she asked me if I loved Jorge. I said yes. I told her that he and I were going to go to Chihuahua city now and that we would live with his mother for a while until we found jobs and our own place to live. Then my father came into the room and told me that Jorge and I weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to live in the house next door and work for him and that if we didn’t he’d turn Jorge over to the cops and that the cops would sooner put a bullet in the head of another greasy narco than bother with the paperwork of processing him. He didn’t say it in a fierce or menacing way, just in a way that made it clear and final. And then he left the house and my mother went into the kitchen and put some buns and cheese onto the table and a rhubarb platz that she cut up into small pieces.
Jorge and I sat down with her, on either side, and she held our hands and prayed for our happiness and for an everlasting love. She spoke quietly so the other kids wouldn’t wake up. After that she whispered congratulations to us in Low German and I told Jorge what she had said and they smiled at each other, I had forgotten how pretty her smile was. Jorge thanked her for the gift of me and she asked him to protect and cherish that gift. Then my father came back into the house and told us to get out and that we were no longer welcome in his home. Jorge and I walked down the road to our house and he took my hand and asked me if I believed what the justice of the peace had said, that I was a lucky girl. I looked west towards the Sierra Madre mountains but I couldn’t make them out in the darkness. Jorge’s hand was a little sweaty and I squeezed it and he was kind enough to let that be my answer.
We lived in the house for free but worked for my father for nothing. We looked after the cows so that he could work the fields and travel around from campo to campo imploring people to continue with old traditions even though the drought was killing us. The plan was that when my little brothers were older they would help him with the farm, and Jorge and I would be booted out of the house. Jorge said he wasn’t worried about that because he had other opportunities to make money and eventually he and I could follow our dream of living in a lighthouse. We didn’t know of one but he said he knew people in the Yucatán who would help us. I didn’t even really know exactly where the ocean was.
But none of that actually matters now and it’s embarrassing to talk about because Jorge is gone and I’m still here and there’s no lighthouse on my horizon as far as I can see. Jorge came and went all that year and I never knew when he’d show up but when he did it wasn’t for long so I really saw no one, except the cows.
One morning my little sister Aggie snuck over and gave me some news. She told me that filmmakers from Mexico City were moving into the empty house next to mine and our father said she wasn’t supposed to talk to them or in any way whatsoever to acknowledge them.
She also told me that she had a new dream of becoming a singer of canciones rancheras, which are ballads of love and infidelity and drunken husbands. She had new dreams every day.
I missed Aggie. I missed her big laugh and her little tricks. I missed listening to her practice her swearing deep under the blankets so our parents wouldn’t hear. She has white-blond hair and a brown face from the sun and blue eyes that are so light they’re almost translucent, like a wolf. She told me that the sun and the moon are the two eyes of God and when one disappears the other one pops up to keep spying on us. When we can see them both at the same time we’re in big trouble and all we can do is run. Since I married Jorge she hadn’t been allowed to talk to me, which is why she had to sneak over, but it wasn’t really sneaking, not entirely, because our mother usually knew when she was coming and sometimes sent things along.
According to my father, Jorge was more interested in searching for sensations in Chihuahua city than taking care of the cows and the corn in Campo 6.5. He had other reasons for not liking Jorge but the real reason was that I’d married a non-Mennonite. A long time ago, in the twenties, seven Mennonite men travelled from Manitoba to the Presidential Palace in Mexico City to make a deal. They’d been offered this land for cheap and they decided to accept the offer and move everyone from their colony in central Canada down to Mexico where they wouldn’t have to send their kids to regular school or teach them to speak English or dress them in normal clothing. Mennonites formed themselves in Holland five hundred years ago after a man named Menno Simons became so moved by hearing Anabaptist prisoners singing hymns before being executed by the Spanish Inquisition that he joined their cause and became their leader. Then they started to move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese. Different countries give us shelter if we agree to stay out of trouble and help with the economy by farming in obscurity. We live like ghosts. Then, sometimes, those countries decide they want us to be real citizens after all and start to force us to do things like join the army or pay taxes or respect laws and then we pack our stuff up in the middle of the night and move to another country where we can live purely but somewhat out of context. Our motto is from the “rebuke of wordliness,” which is from the Biblical book of James: Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
I once made the mistake of asking my father if it didn’t make sense that in all those years from then to now some Mennonite girl would fall for a Mexican boy and want to marry him. It’s called integration, Dad, it’s not a big deal. I mean if you accept their cheap offer of land . . . But he had stopped listening to me ages ago. The last real thing we talked about was the absurdity of life on earth. He was thinking about something he’d read in an old newspaper that had somehow managed to float into our field from El Paso or somewhere. We were in the truck on our way to Cuauhtémoc and he asked me how I thought it was possible that a crowd of people could stand on the street in front of a tall office building and cheer a suicidal man on to his death by encouraging him to jump. I was surprised by the question and said I didn’t know. What does that say about us? said my dad. That we’re cruel, I said. Then my dad said no, he didn’t think so, he thought it meant that we feel mocked, that we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous. And we want him to die immediately so that the pain of being confronted with our own fear and ignorance will also, mercifully, end. Would you agree with that? my dad asked. What? I said. I didn’t know what he was asking me. It’s a sin to commit suicide, I thought. I said no, I still think it means we’re cruel. My dad said no, it doesn’t mean we’re cruel. He got a little mad at me and stopped talking to me for a while and then as time passed never got back into the habit.
My father had lost his family when he was a little kid, when they’d been driven off their farm near the Black Sea. His parents and his sisters had been slaughtered by soldiers on a road somewhere in Russia, beside trees, and buried quickly in the ditch. My father survived by singing some songs, German hymns I think, for the soldiers, who thought it was cute, this little blond boy, but eventually the novelty of that wore off and they foisted him onto some other fleeing Mennonite family who adopted him and brought him to Canada to help with the animals and baling. He hated his adopted family and ran away when he was twelve to work on some other farm where he met my mother and eventually married her. That’s all I know about that because by the time it occurred to me to ask him questions about it he had stopped talking to me. I tried to get more details from my mother but she said she didn’t know any more than that either.
We’d had fun, me and him, you know, typical farm fun, when I was young. He made me a swing that I could jump from into hay and he understood my grief when my favourite chicken died. He even brought me to the fabric store to buy some flannel to make a burial suit of little trousers and a vest and hat for my chicken and he let me bury it outside my bedroom window rather than tossing it into the rubble fire like the other dead ones. But it was colossal and swift like the sinking of the Titanic the way all that disappeared when he moved us overnight to Mexico.
From the Hardcover edition.
Spotlighting an extraordinary career, this autobiography reviews the author’s accomplishments workingand playingalongside some of Canada’s greatest writers. These humorous chronicles relate the projects he brainstormed for writer Barry Broadfoot, how he convinced eventual Nobel Prize contender Alice Munro to keep writing short stories, his …
From STEPHEN LEACOCK 1869–1944
Professor, Humourist, and Immigration Agent
In my experience, every humorous writer finds that his or her public confidently expects them to be a happy person, facing life with a wry chuckle, and perhaps a slow, smiling shake of the head. To his great credit, Leacock tried to shoot down this view. He wrote: “If a man has a genuine sense of humour he is apt to take a somewhat melancholy, or at least a disillusioned view of life. Humour and disillusionment are twin sisters.”
Robertson Davies (who knew more than most people about the expectations placed on successful authors in their private lives) wrote in his 1981 introduction to The Penguin Stephen Leacock, “I have written a good deal about Leacock, and I believe that I was the first to press the point that he was not necessarily a man of continuously sunny, carefree temperament…. He had, in fact, the temperament of a humorist, and they are by no means unfailingly sunny people.”
Leacock’s life was not short of events that would have disillusioned anyone. His family (of, eventually, eleven children) came from England to rural Ontario and a life of genteel poverty (the boys were not allowed to go barefoot in the summer, like the other local kids; a matter, Leacock later said, “of caste and thistles”). The father, Peter, was a Catholic whose runaway marriage was never accepted by his wife’s Anglican family (and to make matters worse the bride was older, and may have been pregnant). Peter was excellent at provoking pregnancies, but less Productive with his work on the farm near Sutton, just south of Lake Simcoe. He is politely described by the notable Leacock scholar David Staines as “a man of sluggish character.” In fact, he was so bad that Stephen and his brothers threw him out of the house (one version involves that Victorian staple, a horsewhip, and there were rumours of drunken violence in the marriage), telling him to stay away, which he did. Lack of money forced young Stephen to drop out of university for a year. For ten years he laboured as a schoolmaster, and, in the words of Robertson Davies “disliked the work heartily.”
Although he went on to enjoy great professional success and prosperity, in his marriage he lost his wife to cancer when she was forty–five, and never remarried. His beloved only son, “Little Stevie,” remained miniature, so tiny that he barely attained a height of five feet, and became an embittered drunk, his escapades hushed up by the local community. Even the teaching life Leacock loved, where in his tattered gown he could put on an Eccentric Old Professor show for his students, was taken from him when McGill briskly removed him from the faculty when he reached sixty–five — a crushing blow: “I was then retired, much against my will, on grounds of senility, having passed the age of sixty–five.” It should not have been a surprise, of course, since he had voted, many years earlier, for precisely that retirement provision.
And what a perfect Leacock funny story that would be: a middleaged professor, certain that old age will never come to him, votes for compulsory retirement at sixty–five, then reacts with outrage when it is applied to him. Leacock’s coolly classical view of human nature, in which people routinely fall prey to false hopes and small hypocrisies, believing that they are exceptions to the follies of human nature, provided him with his profitable living as a humorist. But it did not protect him here, in his own life. He did not die a happy man.
So what remains? In Montreal there is, of course, the Leacock Building at McGill, and the portrait in the University Club. Margaret MacMillan’s excellent 2009 short biography (Stephen Leacock, in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series) notes that in Toronto there is a Scarborough high school named after him, which was attended by young people arrested as accused Islamic terrorists in 2006: a stranger–than–fiction example of how the old Victorian imperialist’s conservative Canada has changed.
By way of contrast, there is the Stephen Leacock Museum at Old Brewery Bay in Orillia. Built in 1927 from his book royalties as the world’s most popular humorist, it is a fine example of a rich Canadian’s lakeside cottage. It was Leacock’s base for fishing and sailing and other summer pursuits, which included paying proper respect to the site’s convivial name. But it was also a research base, though his excursions into Orillia as a famous but unaffected local writer did not have the desired effect. The town barber once complained about the summer visitor’s shameless use of hot local gossip as material for his writing. The complaint predictably ran along the lines of “How the hell was I to know that he was going to take that stuff and …”
Time has healed these wounds, and the Leacock Museum has become a tourist asset. Despite the spread of nearby houses (a scandal worth a Leacock story), the house itself is protected by its site on a point on Lake Couchiching, in tree–shaded grounds. The building is preserved as an old–fashioned cottage, with dark wood panelling throughout its interior, and comes complete with a library, straw hats on pegs, and ancient tennis racquets apparently ready for service. As you tiptoe through the two–storey house, upstairs and downstairs, peering at book Titles, or at the papers on the desk in the study, or at the dishes in the kitchen, it’s hard to avoid the Goldilocks sense that the owners will return at any moment.
#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
An exciting story, passionately told and rich in detail, this major biography is the second volume of the bestselling, award-winning John A: The Man Who Made Us, by well-known journalist and highly respected author Richard Gwyn.
John A. Macdonald, Canada's first and most important prime minister, is the man who made Confederati …
In thirty days, for weal or for woe, the Confederate Government will be inaugurated. By the exercise of common sense and a limited amount of the patriotism which goes by the name of self-interest, I have no doubt the Union will be good for the Country’s weal.
—Macdonald to Newfoundland politician Ambrose Shea, June 3, 1867
Confederation Day, on July 1, 1867, passed tolerably well. All across Ontario, large crowds turned out to watch the parades and fireworks, listen to concerts by military bands, eat free steaks carved from oxen roasting on spits, sit through speeches by politicians, and cheer on games of cricket or croquet, with sack races for the children. The excitement was equally high in the English sections of Montreal. In Nova Scotia, though, several newspapers bordered their front page in black, and the government forbade distribution of the governor general’s proclamation. In Quebec, the crowds were sparse, Montreal’s powerful Bishop Ignace Bourget delayed expressing even grudging approval for Confederation until the day had passed, and George-Étienne Cartier’s own newspaper, La Minerve, informed readers that Confederation provided a direct route to “l’indépendence politique.”
All that really mattered was that Confederation had happened. For the first time ever, colonials had written their own constitution. They had done so despite having only two federal models as guides, in Switzerland and the United States. In Britain, the only role model that mattered, sovereignty was singular, residing in its entirety in the king in Parliament. The constitution itself, the British North America Act, if breaking no new ground politically or legally, was nevertheless in some respects remarkably ambitious. To join the Maritimes to the old Canada in fact as well as in law, the new dominion pledged to build a railway across the five hundred miles of wilderness between Quebec City and Halifax. It also declared itself ready to extend all the way to the Pacific—which, if the western colonies agreed, would make the country the second largest in the world after Russia.
John A. Macdonald was the man behind this extravagant commitment. Cartier, his Quebec ally, had originally opposed it, concerned that it would add too many anglophones to the new nation; George Brown, his long-time opponent but an irreplaceable partner in the Confederation project, preferred a mini-federation that excluded even the Maritimes. Macdonald himself had been skeptical at first, fearing that the West would attract immigrants away from the still under-populated Ontario. But then he had changed his mind: “The Americans must not get behind us,” he wrote to a friend. With the purchase of Alaska from Russia early in 1867, the United States had already turned its gaze northwards; other attempts to expand beyond the forty-ninth parallel were certain to follow.* The first came in December of that same year, when Minnesota senator Alexander Ramsey placed a resolution before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations proposing that Canada, in return for a favourable trade pact, “cede to the United States the districts of North America west of longitude 90 degrees.” The resolution failed, but the larger contest between Canada and the United States over dividing North America had begun. One country had to lose.
The contest was hopelessly unequal. The United States was much larger, incomparably richer, far more developed and, with the Civil War won, confident and energetic. Above all, after a near century as a nation-state, it knew what it was, while the new dominion did not. A great many Canadians didn’t even want to be Canadian, whether Canadiens in Quebec or, as would soon become apparent, Nova Scotians too. The uneven mix of support, indifference and resistance within the country to even the idea of a larger Canada, along with the U.S. interest in annexing its northern neighbour, measured the task ahead for Macdonald.
Despite a few glitches, Confederation Day passed better than tolerably well for Macdonald personally. It invested him with a quality he had long been lacking—gravitas. He now had the title of Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, rather than, as earlier, Premier, the Honourable John A. Macdonald*. As further augmented his persona, after a decade as a rackety widower, he again had a wife, and so a portion of that prized Victorian virtue of respectability. She was Susan Agnes Bernard, twenty-one years his junior, whom he had married the previous February in London.
He was now, at fifty-two, in full middle age. He had changed little. He had no grey hairs. His torso was still angular, his indifference to food offsetting his excessive intake of liquor. He never exercised beyond walking the short distance to work, but his energy remained exceptional. He put in long hours and was still capable of ferocious bursts of effort. Even on holiday at the cottage he later bought in Rivière du- Loup, he diligently went through the official papers from Ottawa and replied to incoming letters until the early afternoon.
Liberal MP Charles Langelier, who sat across from him in the House of Commons in the 1880s, left the best description of Macdonald from these years: “His eyes lively and his look pleasant. A charming smile, an enormous mass of curly hair, a slim build, his walk an elegant nonchalance, and a nose that made up his whole glory.” Nature had indeed given Macdonald the priceless political asset of being distinctive. Wherever he went— out on the hustings, attending some grand public event or talking to urchins on the street—he was recognized and attracted a crowd. In political cartoons too, especially those by the brilliant J.W. Bengough in the weekly satirical magazine Grip, he jumped right off the page into the consciousness of readers. Bengough could be savage about Macdonald’s political and administrative misdeeds but not about him personally, casting him in the engaging roles of a naughty schoolboy, a street-smart scamp, an artful dodger.
A large part of Macdonald’s distinctiveness was of his own deliberate invention. In an era when shrub-sized beards were the style, he was always clean-shaven; he wore attention-getting clothes, such as bright red cravats and trousers with large checks. As time went by—the influence of a chatelaine, no doubt—he more often wore grey trousers and a matching Prince Albert jacket, although still with a red cravat. But that mass of hair and glorious nose ensured that almost everyone knew him at once. During his one trip out west, by train late in life, an old-timer, unaware who he was, described him as a “seedy beggar.” Macdonald, overhearing the comment, shot back, “Yes, a rum ’un to look at, but a rare ’un to go.”
Langelier was also correct in his description of the new prime minister’s “elegant nonchalance.” Macdonald’s habitual response to the flaws and follies of humankind was an amused insouciance. In the House of Commons, he typically reacted to some assault on his policies or his morals with a quip, the best of which made his outraged opponent laugh at himself. Wit, spontaneous and unrehearsed, was his hallmark: accosted by a suffragette demanding to know why he but not she had the vote, he pondered and then replied, “Madame, I cannot conceive.” Although all politicians are actors, or ought to be, few have been so utterly at ease in their skin as Macdonald was. He accepted himself for the bad as well as the good, never apologizing for his drinking or for his procrastination in making decisions. As Sir Joseph Pope, his last and ablest secretary, put it, “He knew every chord of the human heart; he understood every passion that swayed man’s nature.” This acceptance made him a good politician, but it was also innate. He understood women well and enjoyed their company, even though, lacking the vote, they were of no consequence politically. They, in return, “worshipped him,” in the judgment of editor John Willison of the Liberal Toronto Globe.
Macdonald’s knowledge of people earned him a collateral political gift—he knew how to manipulate them. By Confederation, he had won over to his side a former Liberal leader and premier, John Sandfield Macdonald, and a former Liberal cabinet minister with a strong following, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. His first cabinet included three Liberal front-benchers, lured there to sustain the illusion he was leading a Liberal-Conservative coalition.* Several Liberal members of Parliament deliberately avoided talking to him for fear he would seduce them into crossing the floor. One Liberal MP, talking to him in some corner of the Parliament Buildings, was overheard to say, “Oh Sir John, I do so love you. If only I could trust you.”
The bond between him and his own MPs and supporters was even closer, of course, almost intimate. Scarcely any of them ever turned away from him, mesmerized by his charm and the hours he spent in the Commons listening to the incoherent addresses of backbenchers and then praising them lavishly. He distributed patronage plums, either directly to his supporters or to others they wished to please. In fact, though, many got nothing—yet, as Willison noted, they still “went through fire and water for him,” because they loved him.
As for ordinary Canadians, they, according to the journalist M.O. Hammond, “flocked to his railway coach, they hung about his carriage, and they invaded his hotel rooms.” Macdonald’s own analysis was even better: “They prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.” He made them laugh, never talked down to them, and paid them the compliment of always speaking spontaneously, never from a text, and usually without notes. To make his points, he ambled along in a conversational style, waiting until a heckler intervened to give him the chance to be rude about Brown or to “hive the Grits.” Macdonald treated all people as his equal, whether a coach driver or a British duke. He once walked out on George Monro Grant, the principal of Queen’s University and one of the country’s most eminent men, so he could talk to a barber.
Grant had persuaded Macdonald’s sister Margaret to invite him to her Kingston house so he could have a private after-dinner conversation with the visiting prime minister, no doubt about university funding. Through the meal they chattered amicably, but before any business could be done, Macdonald slipped away. When Margaret remonstrated with Macdonald later, he explained that he had gone to a pub to converse with a barber “who controls thirty votes”—in contrast to Grant, who, like all high-minded intellectuals, “prefers to make up his own mind.” The everpolitical Macdonald made sure this story leaked out.
After Confederation, he gained another asset. The event turned him into Canada’s first celebrity—the only one until Toronto’s Ned Hanlan won the world rowing championship in England in 1879. People wrote to him not just to ask for patronage or to complain about some policy, but also to tell him their personal concerns. Among Macdonald’s responses to these letters is one to Francis Jones of Kemptville: “I have your letter of the 25th informing me that there are suspicious strangers about Smiths Falls. Many thanks for the information. I shall cause immediate inquiries to be made.” Another, to an E. Stone Wiggins, reads: “I am not a sufficient mathematician to be able fully to appreciate your long sought for solution to the bisection of an Angle by purely mathematical means.” In a country where the people across its expanse had so little in common, Macdonald belonged to everyone. He was both their leader and their friend.
All these attributes diverted attention from the most considerable of Macdonald’s qualities: he was exceptionally intelligent, with a subtle and capacious mind. Usually, Macdonald sheathed his intelligence, so as not to block voters’ sight of him. He only brandished it offstage, as when he held his own in private discussions with Britain’s ablest public figures, including a late-night, brandy-fuelled review of politics and literature with Benjamin Disraeli, his “twin” in wit, theatrical looks and Machiavellian guile. His schooling had ended at sixteen, but he never stopped learning. Pope described him as an “omnivorous” reader; he read not just politics, law and biography, but novels and poetry. He dropped lines from Shakespeare, Milton, Sheridan, Trollope and Dickens into his speeches, not to impress but to illuminate an idea or advance an argument. When he reached the town of Victoria on his western tour, he remarked that there “the day is always in the afternoon”— an apt allusion to Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters.”
Once, while praising the “good memory and a vicious fluency of speech” of a leading Conservative member, he dismissed the MP’s career prospects because he was “altogether devoid of reading.” He most certainly had his defects. He drank far too much, regularly going on prolonged benders. “John A. carried out of the lunchroom hopelessly drunk,” the senior official Edmund Meredith recorded in his diary after one early cabinet meeting. (Besides cold beef and mutton, sherry, port and whisky were all available in the cabinet room, and at reduced prices.) Macdonald also had a quick temper. On one occasion he suffered a defeat in the Commons after he ruined a make-up meeting with a key, wavering MP by showering him with abuse over past wrongs. He could be cynical too, as when he exclaimed, “There is no gratitude to be expected from the public; I learned that long ago.” And he could be crass. In 1872, in advance of an imminent election, Macdonald enacted legislation to protect the legal status of unions, but wrote soon after to the editor of the Conservative Mail newspaper, reminding him that it was one thing to attack capitalists but “when the present excitement is over, you must look to them & not to the employed for support.” Over time, he became careless about administration, describing his early attempts to advance efficiency, long since abandoned, as those of “a devil of a reformer.”
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