13 June 2013

Reverend Kerby Treads Carefully

The Broken Tail
George W. Kerby
Toronto: Briggs, 1909

The cover promises Mounties, but this is really a collection of a prairie pastor's tales. George W. Kerby was a Methodist minister from Ontario. He came West in 1903 to shepherd the good souls of Calgary's Central Methodist Church, and seven years later became the first principal of the newly established Mount Royal College.

Reverend Kerby's stories would've come early in his prairie ministry. As such, they provide some idea of a pastor's place during the opening of the West. At the time of his arrival, Calgary, a city of six thousand or so, was one of the most populous in the North-West Territories, and the Province of Alberta was naught but a twinkle in Wilfrid Laurier's eye. Though the three stories in The Broken Trail are tinged with tragedy, the reverend is quick to defend, writing in his Preface that he intends not "to convey the impression that the West is in any way worse than the East". Rev Kerby would also like the reader to know that the facts of the stories have been in no way altered, though some liberty has been taken in adding "coloring and shading to give them a better literary value."

For the most part, I think he succeeded. The first, "A Son of Holland", begins much like a gothic novel, but with a switch in genders. In place of a heroine, the pastor presents crying Dutchman Wilbur Wolfendon. A fine specimen of a man, "tall and broad-shouldered, neatly groomed and garbed," our hero appears unexpectedly at the parsonage one Christmas Eve, desiring to unload his tale of woe.

And what woe!

Orphaned as an adolescent somewhere in the Netherlands, Wilbur is made the ward of a conniving uncle who sends him to a monastic institution in France. There he falls under the influence of a young Russian monk, Father Cyril, who shows him "many personal favors", and with whom he walks "arm in arm in the secluded haunts of the abbey." Wilbur seems ready to accept "no other home than the home of Father Cyril, and no other friend than the young Russian Benedictine", when he is visited by a playmate from childhood. Their time together brings some suspicion of uncle's motives vis-à-vis his parents' estate, and awakens a strong desire within Wilbur to return home. Father Cyril's kisses, pleas and "many endearing terms" cannot dissuade. As Rev Kerby writes, "even that, strong and true as the love of a man for a man could be, could not silence the home stirrings in his soul."

A month or two later, Wilbur flees the monastery.

Whatever is the author getting at?

Wilbur isn't entirely soured on monastic life. Indeed, Rev Kerby writes the fugitive novice believed that "only through such discipline and sacrifice that men of certain proclivities – which he did not specify – could find the joy of living." Wilbur tells Rev Kerby that monasticism is "the only thing for men with temperaments like Father Cyril", adding that "it did not suit his temperament  – he was much too masculine for that."

Wilbur returns to his uncle's home in Delftshaven, but the stay is brief. After a few weeks, under cover of night, he's drugged and abducted by evil henchmen. Poor Wilbur awakens the next morning to find that he has been committed to an insane asylum. There he stays for fifteen months, until a change of staff brings people not involved in the conspiracy.

Finally free, Wilbur succeeds in making something of himself in the civil service. He falls in love with the beautiful Isabel, sister of the very same childhood friend who visited the French monastery all those years ago. Though she loves him too, her father does not approve – everybody knows that young Wilbur was in a lunatic asylum; besides, the man has no money, no property and no title, having been cheated of all by his dastardly uncle.

Unable to marry the woman he loves, Wilbur does what any man would in following the trail of the heartbroken to western Canada. It is a mistake. The farther he gets from Isabel, the more his love grows. Sure, Wilbur has some adventures – for a time he serves in the North-West Mounted Police (that's meant to be him on the cover) – but try as he may, he just can't stop thinking about Isabel.

Sitting in the Central Methodist parsonage that magical Christmas Eve, Wilbur exclaims that Isabel's obstructive father is no more:
"Dead – I feel he is dead!" The answer was given with the authority of one who had psychical insight into the hidden things.
Wilbur then announces that he will walk across the continent to return to Isabel. The triviality that is the Atlantic Ocean makes no never mind.

"You are aware," remarks Rev Kerby, "that you are just as liable to be frozen to death in the attempt, even to reach Winnipeg, as if you were making a dash for the North Pole!"

It was at this point that I began to think I'd once read something of Wilbur Wolfendon's sad story elsewhere. A few pages later, seeing this A.M. Wickson illustration, everything clicked.

It turns out that I'd first learned of Wilbur through George Johnston's It Happened in Canada, (Richmond Hill, ON: Scholastic, 1973), a book my mother bought me when I was ten.

If Rev Kerby's claim is correct, that the facts in The Broken Trail have been in no way altered, then Johnston is wrong; Isabel did not travel to Winnipeg, rather Wilbur walked to the city – a distance of roughly 1300 kilometres – on his way to her Amsterdam home.

Or has the pastor been caught out?

"The story of the young Hollander who was walking across a continent to meet his love appeared in the press," he writes, "although the details differed somewhat from those related in my study. It enlisted the sympathy and interest of the citizens of that city, and money was immediately subscribed to enable him to finish his journey to Holland."

Differed in what way, I wonder. Is Johnston correct? Did Isabel make an Atlantic crossing?

Never mind. The biggest question I have is whether Wilbur Wolfendon really existed. Rev Kerby tells us that his trek was covered in the press, so how is it that searching his name on the web brings just two hits: The Broken Trail and a lone sentence in an old textbook?

Call in the Mounties.

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