Recovering Maritime Popular Fiction
- Margaret Marshall Saunders (Author)
Beautiful Joe. Formac (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- W. Albert Hickman (Author)
The Sacrifice of the Shannon. Formac (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cecily Devereux
Although book reissues have proliferated with the expansion of internet access, and many out-of-print and past-copyright works are increasingly widely available in electronic form, paper reprints continue somewhat surprisingly to appear, indeed, to have been on the rise—in Canada, at any rate. Broadview Press has been issuing new and reprint editions of a range of texts in English for several years; Formac Publishing in Halifax has begun a new series of reprints, with Formac Fiction Treasures. The series is regional in its scope: it is “aimed at offering contemporary readers access to books that were successful, often huge bestsellers in their time, but which are now little known and often hard to find” and which are written by Maritime writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Two of the once-popular works republished by Formac in 2001 are Margaret Marshall Saunders’ Beautiful Joe and The Sacrifice of the Shannon by W. Albert Hickman. Beautiful Joe is the better-known of these two novels: Marshall Saunders’ story of a dog—told by a dog—appeared in 1894, initially submitted to a competition held by the American Humane Education Society—whose two-hundred-dollar prize it won—and subsequently becoming one of the most widely read novels by an English- Canadian writer of the nineteenth century: it is often identified, as it is in this edition, as the first English-Canadian novel “to sell more than a million copies in the author’s lifetime.”
Beautiful Joe is not plot-driven: the narrative is constructed as a series of linked vignettes, initially imagined, we are told, by the eponymous narrator, as a year-by-year account of his life following his rescue from an abusive owner, but becoming instead a loose chain of accounts of human behaviour to animals, observed by animals.
Beautiful Joe is deliberately and unselfconsciously didactic: its overt purpose is to instruct people, especially children, in the importance of kindness to animals, something that the work suggests is an index of human’s behaviour to one another and thus of the well-being of societies. Saunders’ novel, although its sentimental appeal will have diminished, continues to be of interest, in part because its didacticism is suggestively comparable to the kind of instructional objective that motivates so much contemporary children’s literature, in part because its arguments for finding a balance between human and animal life are, if not exactly current, nonetheless ongoing in environmental debates. Beautiful Joe is a case-book of a particular kind of nineteenth-century North American social reform—protecting animals, training children to be kind to one another through caring for animals, temperance, dress reform (at least, abolishing the harvesting of feathers for women’s hats and dress), anti-urban living (the city is repeatedly invoked as a site for social problems). The introduction by Gwendolyn Davies, general editor of the fiction series, is particularly useful: clear and concise, the introduction situates the novel in relation to Saunders’ own life and work. W. Albert Hickman’s only novel, The Sacrifice of the Shannon, first appeared in 1903, identified in the author’s preface as a story based on his own experiences on the Minto, an ice-breaker in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Most of the story’s action—and there is a lot, and it is exciting—occurs on the icefields between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, as the ship of the title, the Shannon, races to rescue a trapped steamer. This novel is a great read; it is also an interesting work in terms of its relation to early twentieth-century constructions of gender and place in popular and genre fiction: the icebreaker’s race, like the yacht race that begins the story and sets up the later contest, is embedded in a love story that repeatedly draws attention to shifting ideals of masculinity and femininity and their performance. Ian Johnston’s introduction is brief and useful, providing information about the little-known Hickman and about the context for the story.
Formac Fiction Treasures, thus far, is a superb series. The value and interest of these recovered Maritime works inheres not only in their drawing renewed attention to a range of popular texts produced in eastern Canada and with a broad circulation through North America, but in their potential collective focus on the construction and representation of place. There is not, it should be noted, a lot of information for scholarly readers in the texts—only a short introduction, and no textual notes— and, while it would be nice to have more by way of apparatus, such editions would not be as accessible or as affordable as these are.
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MLA: Devereux, Cecily. Recovering Maritime Popular Fiction. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 165 - 166)
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