29 November 2010

The Canada Doctor: First Visit



The Canada Doctor
Clay Perry and John L.E. Pell
Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flint/[Toronto]: Thomas Allen, 1933 [?]

This is not a Canadian book, but a book about a Canadian. Or is it? The Canada Doctor is such an odd beast: a 361-page advertisement in the form of a novel that is infused with the stink of anti-Semitism.

Its authors were American. Perry and Pell penned one other book, Hell's Acres (1921), "a historical novel of the wild East in the '50s", but appear to have made more money when working apart. Of the two Pell was probably the more prosperous. In 1922, he wrote the silent film Down to the Sea in Ships, and two years later provided the "historical arrangement" to D.W. Griffith's America. The latter was a sweeping epic centred on the Revolutionary War, the former was a crummy flick that starred the stunning Clara Bow. I choose the former.

The Canada Doctor may be long, but it tells a very simple story. We open on a New York flower shop, Feidlestein's, where young Millie Waters pricks her lily white hands preparing wreaths for the bereaved. Little sister Joan spends her days at Millie's feet until her dog Crinkles dashes out the door after the shop's cat. Joan follows and is struck by a limousine. She's swept up by young Milt Feidlestein, who does damage to his face by running into the back of a truck. It's all a bit comical, but we're not meant to laugh; this is serious stuff. Joan ends up unconscious in a Manhattan hospital, while her bumbling rescuer contemplates plastic surgery.

Nearly everyone in The Canada Doctor is dealing with a health issue of some sort. The widowed Mrs Waters, mother of Millie and Joan, is bedridden with inflammatory rheumatism; their landlady, Bridget Hogan, is a fellow sufferer; neighbour Mrs Rubinoff is slowly being crippled by ill-fitting footwear; and rich guy Hector Farrington, whose limo clipped Joan, struggles with advanced arthritis and the lingering effects of a femme fatale.

The answer to all their problems just might be found in Dr Rocke, the Canada Doctor. First mentioned on page 49, he immediately becomes the subject of considerable debate. Is Rocke a miracle man, as Bridget Hogan contends, or "a toe-twister who plays upon the imaginations of women and weak-minded persons", as Farrington claims? How is the reader to know? Roche remains up in Canada – off-camera, as D.W. would say – practicing medicine in a small Ontario town not far from Cornwall. After a great deal of hemming and hawing and hand-wringing Mrs Waters, Joan, Millie, Milt, Mrs Rubinoff and her daughter Becky make their way north to see for themselves. Milt's physician, Dr Rettstein, also comes along. Oh, and let's not forget Hector Farrington, his chauffeur and his housemaid.

It's not until page 310 that we get so much as a fleeting glimpse of the title character. The Canada Doctor returns six pages later in a scene that seems designed to settle debate as to his talent. Rocke sits on a screw chair surrounded by the afflicted, moving from one to the next:
He held a stockinged foot in his hands. He rested it on one of his bent knees and with both hands made a quick movement, bending the foot. Then he released it and reached for another. His hands passed from black sock to flesh colored stocking; from cotton to silk. The flexing operation was repeated.
His movements were like those of some elaborate and precise machine, a machine which worked on gears, revolving and selecting in synchronized adjustment.
Rocke's healing hands have a particularly dramatic effect on Farrington. Resting his swollen right foot on the doctor's knee, the skeptical millionaire experiences a shock:
Involuntarily he jerked back, but the pain was momentary. It was gone. It was followed by a creeping feeling of warmth, as if blood flowed again in a chilled and atrophied member.
And so, as blood appears to begin flowing again in his member, Farrington realizes his love for Millie. Is it necessary to report that this is the climax of the novel? The millionaire and the flower girl are soon in each other's arms. Here's the passage, presented exactly as it appears in the book:
He circled her waist and drew her up to him. She became breathless... as he bent his head and kissed her soft lips... and her tears became rainbows in the sun... and the petals and apple blossoms fell upon his head and shoulders... and he did not brush them off... for her lips were like petals and the sweet scent of these flowers of Canada which have perfume was as incense to his soul...
Hard to read... and I haven't even got to the anti-Semitic stuff.


Trivia: Perry and Pell stumble when it comes to Canadian geography or should that be Canada geography? in having Hector Farrington cross the border from Vermont into Ontario. The authors tell us that from there he will be heading through Lachine and "Ste. Anne de Belleville" (Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue).

Object: Typical of the time and of publisher Hale, Cushman & Flint, the book's dust jacket is curious in that it bears the name of Toronto publisher Thomas Allen.

Access: An uncommon, though inexpensive book. Three copies are currently listed online – US$9.00 to US$10.99 – none of which have a dust jacket. Four universities in Canada have copies; eight more have it south of the border. Not found in any public library.

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