27 December 2011

A Quiet Revolution and Still Cowards Complain

The Squeaking Wheel
John Mercer [pseud.]
n.p.: Rubicon, 1966

Let's get rid of this so as to not track it into the New Year.

I came upon The Squeaking Wheel a few months ago in a London thrift shop; its bold, if inept declaration – "4TH. [sic] PRINTING OF THE BEST-SELLING BOOK ALL CANADA'S TALKING ABOUT!" – did attract.

I don't remember talk of this book; but then I was only just learning to speak when The Squeaking Wheel was first published. Sure looks like it was popular:

Four printings in three months! Two in February 1966 alone! In the Foreword author John Mercer tells us that the first two printings amounted to "many thousands" of copies. So why is this the only one I've ever seen? And why was there no fifth printing?

I'd ask John Mercer, but he's a fabrication, a pseudonym behind which two men hide. "English-speaking Montrealers who have a curious desire not to be blown sky-high to a Protestant Heaven by a few well-placed sticks of dynamite", they reveal nothing more about themselves than that they work in the fields of advertising and medicine. Even today their identities are a mystery.

More furious than funny, those familiar with Sun comment pages will recognize the John Mercer style. Irrational anger and uncontrolled ranting accompany fantastical statistics presented without citation. Quotations, even those pitching the book, lack attribution.

It's all here, including that old saw about Quebecers being horrible drivers:
It has often been said by opponents of French-Canada that one way to solve the problem of Quebec is to give every inhabitant a car and turn all the traffic lights green for one day.
Take care now. Those words come not from the authors, but the "opponents of French-Canada". Or so the John Mercer men would have you believe. The reader will soon recognize that they too are "opponents of French-Canada".

The Quiet Revolution is five years old, the Bi and Bi Commission is just beginning, and already the authors, who "have lived all their adult lives in Quebec", are fed up. Their message is clear: "Quebec is a conquered country and its people are a conquered people"... and somewhat inferior.

Again, don't you be pinning this on John Mercer. That stuff about the stripper and the hockey player comes from some politician. Who? Who knows. The men behind the pseudonym are only repeating what they've heard; they don't quite agree. Not quite.

The Squeaking Wheel was never talked about by "everyone in Canada"; not even Montreal's English and French-language presses paid much attention. Serious discussion of the book is limited to a few sentences in journalist Solange Chaput-Rolland's Reflections (Montreal: Chateau, 1968):
The pens of these English-speaking compatriots are certainly not very brave. Of course it is true that, when one describes unpleasant reality, one receives in return unpleasant insult. But liberty of speech demands the dignity and courage of that speech. And those who hurl invective at their compatriots, while keeping themselves well hidden, are not really respectable citizens.
No more need be said, except this: I don't think the cowards hiding behind the pseudonym were Montrealers. Real Montrealers know it's Lili, not "Lily"; and they know she was not French-Canadian, but American.

I'll add that Canadians know not to hyphenate "hockey player".

There, sweet Virginia, I've scraped this right off my shoes.

Lili St. Cyr
(née Willis Marie Van Schaack)

Object and Access: A bland, trade-size paperback, various printings are held by our larger university libraries, the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec, the Toronto Public Library and the Vancouver Public Library. Fifteen copies are currently listed for sale online, thirteen of which can be had for three to seven dollars. I bought mine for fifty cents. Our old friends in Vermont want US$132.93. What's so special about their copy? Nothing... nothing at all.

25 December 2011

A Merry Christmas to All

A few favourite images from the 1961 Eaton's Santa Claus Parade Colouring Book. The entire thing – 32-pages, plus "COLOUR GUIDE IN FULL COLOUR" – is available for download here from the Archives of Ontario.

Merry Christmas!

23 December 2011

Pulp Noir à Montréal

The new edition of Canadian Notes & Queries lands, and with it comes another Dusty Bookcase sur papier. This time the spotlight plays upon Ted Allan's Love is a Long Shot. Not the Love is a Long Shot for which he was awarded the 1984 Stephen Leacock Medal, but a cheap, pseudonymous pulp novel from a quarter-century earlier.

Published by News Stand Library in September 1949, two months before newspaperman Al Palmer’s Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, this Love is a Long Shot holds the distinction of being the first pulp noir novel set in Montreal. As I write in CNQ, it ain't that pretty at all. The cover depicts, but doesn't quite capture, one of the darkest, most horrific scenes in any Canadian novel.

There's more to the issue, of course, including new fiction by Nathan Whitlock, new poetry by Nyla Matuck and – ahem
praise for A Gentleman of Pleasure from George Fetherling.

22 December 2011

POD Cover of the Month: The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib

Wait, isn't that Montreal?

It seems almost cruel to again focus on Nabu Press, but what better way to begin this day, the 150th anniversary of Sara Jeannette Duncan's birth, than to take a swipe at those dishonouring her work. Using a stock photo of a Slovakian castle for a novel set in India is one thing, but what I find more interesting is the botching of fair Sara's name:
Sara Jeanette (Duncan) "Mrs. Everard Cotes" Cotes
What dog's breakfast lies beneath that cover?

First edition:

New York: Appleton, 1893

A Christmas bonus:

Further ineptitude from POD publisher Echo Library of Fairford, Gloucester. The surname is correct.

Related posts:
POD Cover of the Month: Montreal for Tourists..
POD Cover of the Month: Rila of Ingelside

POD Cover of the Month: Romany of the Snows

20 December 2011

The Harper Hockey Book Watch (Updated!)

Regular readers and suffering dinner companions will know that for years my eyes have been scanning the horizon for signs of Stephen Harper's long promised hockey book. The prime minister does love to tease, promising a work that seems forever on the verge of completion.

Today, some hope. In her regrettably named "Morning Buzz", Globe and Mail reporter Jane Taber brings news that "there is a publishing date for the long-talked about and much-anticipated prime ministerial tome one [sic] hockey history." While the pub date – "next year" – seems awfully vague, we may take cheer in the fact the source is Stephen Harper himself. "He did not say who the publisher is," adds Ms Taber, leaving the reader to speculate as to whether he refused to say or simply wasn't asked.

Now, morning buzz turning to evening hangover, I see that the prime minister's critics are having fun with his writerly habits: "15 minutes every day for eight years". Oh, by all means, go ahead and snicker. Me? I admire the man's determination as much as I do his realistic expectations. Again, Ms. Taber:
He will not make a cent on it, he said.
I dare say, our prime minister understands something of what it is to be a writer in this country.

There's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

Later that day: Postmedia's Mark Kennedy reports that the prime minister has not yet completed the book.

Take heart, after today he'll be fifteen minutes closer.

16 December 2011

Keeping an Eye Out for Pamela Fry

The Watching Cat
Pamela Fry
London: Davies, 1960

Who was Pamela Fry? None of my Montreal friends, bookish types all, have been able to answer this question. Yet the married "Miss Fry" once lived in the city and twice used it as a setting in mystery novels. Both were published by respected houses, both were lauded in the pages of the New York Times and both have been out of print for half a century.

The Watching Cat, Pamela Fry's second mystery, stumbles out of the gate with an entirely unimaginative premise: Catherine Ellis, a young, single schoolteacher from a remote Manitoba town inherits a large Montreal house from a previously unknown, eccentric uncle. Much as I'd hoped the work would quickly ready itself, Miss Fry fairly clings to cliché as the story falters forward. Poor Catherine, an orphan, enters what she expects to be an empty domicile only to encounter an evil stepmother, an unstable half-sister and a tall, dark and handsome lodger. A shady lawyer works in the background as those in the know sneak about the house looking for riches hidden away by the recently deceased funny uncle.

It all seems so forgettable, but I'll remember The Watching Cat as one of the most disappointing novels I've ever read. The author has a peculiar penchant for planting, then ignoring, seeds of a dark psychological drama. When the evil stepmother relates stories of family mental illness, Catherine begins to question her own sanity – but only for a paragraph or two. Gaslight invariably dims to a Nancy Drew mystery, as when our heroine is awoken by a scratching sound:
The noise came from somewhere very close – surely it was the other side of this very wall, the wall alongside her bed. There was someone in Uncle Jeremiah's room... She looked at the luminous dial of her watch. It was three minutes to four... But who could be in there at this time of night – and for what reason?
So boring, so bland... and yet on occasion The Watching Cat stretches to rise above it all. Catherine's half-sister, for example, proves not to be mentally ill, rather she's a heroin addict. Her pusher is boyfriend Eddie, a young medical school drop-out who is not only in on the scheme, but is probably sleeping with the evil stepmother. And there's a good deal of fun, like when small town girl Catherine, dressed in a hideous handmade green taffeta gown, attends a party populated by beats.

Nearly everything I know about the attractive Miss Fry is found in the book's author biography. Her debut novel, Harsh Evidence, published in London by Wingate (1953) and in New York by Roy Publishers (1956), is held by all of nine libraries worldwide. Harsh Evidence isn't listed for sale online, and seems exceedingly scarce – only the British Library has the Wingate edition – so you'll understand my surprise in discovering that it was translated into both Swedish (De döda tala ej, 1956) and Finnish (Kuolleet eivät puhu!, 1957) .

Did more mysteries follow? The only other books I've been able to uncover by Miss Fry are The Good Cook's Encyclopedia and The Good Housewife's Encyclopedia, both published in the early 'sixties by London's Spring Books. I'll step out on a limb and speculate that a third Spring title, Cooking the American Way, is naught but a repackaging of the first.

Who was Pamela Fry? Disappointed as I was by The Watching Cat, it contained just enough quirk to keep me in the hunt for the answer.

Object: A very attractive hardcover in dark blue boards. I can't quite make out the cover artist's signature. My copy, signed with publisher card, was purchased this past autumn from a Montreal bookseller who tells me that he has never seen another. It would appear that that this, the novel's only edition, received no second printing. No Swedish or Finnish translations this time.

Access: A rare book, Canadian library patrons will find The Watching Cat at the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria. A mere three copies are listed for sale online. At US$15.77, Serendipity Books of West Leederville, Australia offers the one in best condition ("top edge foxed else v.g. in worn and sl. torn d/w"). Second place, goes to a New Zealand bookseller who is selling a slightly less attractive copy for an even twenty American dollars. A Canadian bookseller in Oakville, Ontario brings up the rear by asking C$60 for a crummy thing that lacks the dust jacket and front flyleaf. On the other hand, The Watching Cat is so uncommon that it might just be worth the price.

Further reading: I follow Juri Nummelin in my attempt to track down more about Pamela Fry. His initial investigation is found at Pulpetti.
Related post: The Mystery Writer Mystery Unravels

15 December 2011

The Pan Jalna (and the Careering Jalnawagon)

The Whiteoak books represent the idealized portrait of Canada, which all English people have. Life is hardly ever painful at Jalna. It's comfortable, it's exciting, there are domestic dramas going on. I think that Englishmen like to believe that anywhere abroad life goes on as it used to go on in England. We always like to think that life for our parents must have been wonderful and life for us is horrid. Englishmen reading about the Whiteoaks think that life is lived that way now, and we know that life is not lived that way in England – or in Canada.
– Lovat Dickson
In the final pages of his 1966 biography, Mazo de la Roche of Jalna, Ronald Hambleton remarks on the very different reception the author has been accorded by her "three most important audiences". American acclaim, brought when Jalna took the 1927 Atlantic Monthly Award for "novel of the year", faded as the series progressed. Canadians cooled as that it became apparent that de la Roche's focus was on a country that had long passed. Hambleton concludes, "in Britain her reception continued and continues to be warm."

By the mid-sixties, Pan, de la Roche's British paperback publisher since 1948, had sold more than two million copies of the series' titles. Things were still balmy on 20 May 1971, when The Whiteoaks of Jalna began filming. In The Secret of Jalna, the enthusiastic Ronald Hambleton writes of "the careering Jalnawagon, whose pace as a literary phenomenon has showed no signs of slackening since Mazo de la Roche pencilled the first lines in late 1925."

In 1972, Pan issued tie-in editions that featured stills from the series and did one more revamp. Now, the Jalnawagon runs no more... at least not for Pan. Toronto's Dundurn Press publishes the sixteen books of the Whiteoak Chronicles with a cover image of "Benares", the Mississauga home upon with Jalna was modelled. They're attractive enough, but I much prefer the Pan editions of the 'fifties and 'sixties. A visual feast:

Jalna panned:

13 December 2011

Jalna's Dirty Little Secret Exposed! (Part II)

Continuing yesterday's post on Ronald Hambleton's The Secret of Jalna, this cautionary tale concerning literary executors:

"What is the secret of Jalna?" begins the cover copy, then peppers the prospective purchaser with further questions: "Did a house called Jalna really exist? Who was Mazo de la Roche and why did she hide her origins? What kept the Jalna stories off television for ten years after her death?"

Anyone wondering as to the existence of a house called Jalna would have found the answer in Hambleton's previous book, Mazo de la Roche of Jalna (1966). A polite biography, it went far in exploring de la Roche's life and why it was that she hid her origins, all the while skirting speculation that she and life-long companion cousin Caroline Clement were Sapphic sisters.

Ultimately, The Secret of Jalna is very much a reflection the ill-conceived series. A rough gathering of short pieces on de la Roche's life, ancestry and writings, it jumps around with no real purpose. Anyone familiar with Mazo de la Roche of Jalna will find nothing new other than the answer to that fourth question, "What kept the Jalna stories off television for ten years after her death?":
In her lifetime, Mazo de la Roche stubbornly refused to permit any of her books to be broadcast on either radio or television in any sponsored broadcast; and though her will did not come right out and forbid commercial adaptations of her books, she left no doubt of her own opinion.

Hambleton goes on to add: "Today, the creator of the world of Jalna is dead, and the world is no longer self-renewing."


Following de la Roche's 1961 death, repeated efforts were made to turn the Whiteoak Chronicles into a series. By 1970, two-thirds of her estate – represented by adopted children René and Esmée – were on board; the hold out was companion Caroline, "the only inheritor of the attitude of mind of her late cousin."

The paragraphs that follow are the most peculiar and revealing of the book. The reader is told: "Caroline Clement knew that Mazo, had she been living, would certainly not have agreed; but now, after ten years? For Caroline Clement is herself an old woman, subject to illness, easily tired yet plagued by insomnia, living on without Mazo."

Hambleton sketches a disturbing picture of an elderly, blind, frail woman being wooed over afternoon tea by Head of CBC Television Drama Fletcher Markle, George Desmond of the network's copyright department and story consultant April Sinclair (who was present "because of her English accent; it would help to put Caroline at ease"):
Caroline was sent flowers, talking books, and cassettes of her favourite music to hear during her solitary hours.
Then, after the agreement was signed, Mrs. Sinclair was given the task of telling Caroline Clement that other material was being added to up-date the Whiteoaks, since after all, Caroline had been invited to attend a private showing of the pilot episode together with the rest of the family. (She refused to attend, and gave it as her wish that no member of the family, nor her friends John Gray and Lovat Dickson, attend either that or any other arranged showing.)
Caroline heard her out, then said nothing for a long moment. At last she asked, in a quiet, numbed voice, "Can I do anything to stop it?"
April Sinclair said no.
Nothing more need be said, except for this: The series deserved to fail.

The Globe & Mail, 3 March 1972

Object: A 175-page mass market paperback, printed on heavy paper, with 122 illustrations and a Whiteoak family tree. My copy, purchased a few months ago from a London, Ontario bookseller for one dollar, features a few spidery notations relating to Miss de la Roche's grandparents.

Access: Held by the Toronto Public Library and roughly half of our universities. Fifteen copies are listed for sale online at prices ranging in price from US$1 to US$99.16. Condition is not a factor. A Burlington, Ontario bookseller adds the book to the sixteen title Whiteoak Chronicle. "Later and/or first printings" of the Pan paperback editions, all are "Good or better with most being better". Price: US$200. Good luck to him.

Related posts:

12 December 2011

Jalna's Dirty Little Secret Exposed! (Part I)

The Secret of Jalna
Ronald Hambleton
Toronto: Paperjacks, 1972

I remember Jalna... rather, I remember The Whiteoaks of Jalna. The television adaptation of Mazo de la Roche's sixteen-book soapy saga ran on Sunday nights from January through April in 1972. A nine-year-old aspiring architect, I'd lie on the floor, sketching the house by the glow of our Viking colour TV. My mother, much more attentive, did her best to follow along with the aid of a Whiteoaks family tree she'd clipped from the pages of Weekend Magazine.

The Whiteoaks of Jalna was to have been our Forsyte Saga. CBC Television Drama poured nearly everything it had into the project, draining resources and, ultimately, crippling future productions. With a total budget of $2,000,000, 'twas such a big deal that even an elementary school student such as myself knew it was coming. The Secret of Jalna, thrown together in anticipation of the series debut, captures some of the excitement. Here, for example, is the book's poorly laid-out reproduction of an undated Toronto Star headline:

"Jalna pilot bombs" would have sufficed.

Polite company does not speak of the series. In Turn Up the Contrast, her history of CBC Television drama, Mary Jane Miller devotes all of two paragraphs to this most of monumental of flops. Still, I think she sums things up nicely: "The problem was that Jalna readers, who wanted their old familiar story, were treated to an ill-conceived experiment in narrative structure complete with flashbacks, multiple plot strands, and intercut time frames, all edited in haste as the air date approached. Of course they were frustrated by this. Viewers unfamiliar with the novels were simply confused."

Blame belongs, in part, to lead writer Timothy Findley.

The Whiteoaks of Jalna never made it to beta, VHS, laserdisc – you won't find it on DVD, Blu-ray or Netflix. YouTube has no clips, and there are not more than a couple of images online. I'll add this photograph, drawn from the book, capturing the wonderful Kate Reid in hideous 'seventies attire.

The series aired for a second and final time two years later. Windsor Star critic Ray Bennet speculated: "The great fiasco may have some camp appeal by now." He was wrong. But then camp appeal grows with time.

How soon is now?

Related posts: