Book Reviews

Westbrook, the outlaw


Sunday, May 9, 2004 - The London Free Press

Delaware Outlaw one low-life dude

On Mother's Day, we celebrate the mother of all London region novels, a ripping yarn of a book with a title character even his mama would love to hate. Westbrook, the Outlaw is pioneering Canadian novelist Maj. John Richardson's account of the wicked life and evil ways of one Andrew Westbrook. During the War of 1812, the real-life Westbrook was a traitorous Yankee supporter. His home and distillery were on the site of what is now stock car racing's Delaware Speedway. He was a menace to his neighbours and an invaluable ally to marauding American troops because of his knowledge of the London region's byways. Richardson uses the traitor's tale as the starting point for a story rife with heaving bosoms, uncannily accurate rifles, guerilla warfare and true love.

His other novels, often about life during wartime in the wild, wild western frontier of American-Canadian relations, include Wacousta and The Canadian Brothers. They are much more admired than Westbrook, but count me as an Outlaw fan. Having just finished the 83 breathtaking pages of Westbrook, the Outlaw; or The Avenging Wolf, I can only say we are indebted to Simcoe writer and Richardson biographer David Beasley. It was Beasley who discovered the 1851 novel, languishing in an Albany, N.Y., warehouse where pages of the old New York Sunday Mercury were mouldering away. Richardson's book had been published in serial form in the paper. Westbrook, the Outlaw had been republished before Beasley's new edition. But this is the first popular and sensibly priced edition of the tale. Westbrook is a cruel man who has married seven times in all. He lives in "a log hut, of good sized dimensions, situated on the banks of the Thames." He and his assortment of wives have produced a tribe of daughters, now grown "like their father, tall and remarkably fine-looking women even handsome." Richardson hints that Westbrook, like an evil and demented Old Testament character, has an incestuous relationship with his daughters. He's bad, all right. After being passed over when officers for Upper Canada's militia are named, Westbrook is determined to extract murderous revenge on his rivals. It takes just 12 chapters for him to dispose of the militia captain he hates. The young man is married to one of Westbrook's daughters, a maid called Marian. So Westbrook kills Marian. He imprisons and rapes the captain's sister, Emily, in a forest-hut variation on the dungeon scenes of many a Gothic tale. He kills Emily and her husband, a French-Canadian cleric called Anselmo. At the end, even the novel's American raiders express relief that Westbrook is not one of them. I may have missed a few of Westbrook's misdeeds, but you get the idea. Life along the "clear and silvery Thames" was never dull where Westbrook lurked. But even Richardson's admirers are often aghast at the tortured twists of Westbrook's narrative and dialogue. Not me. Richardson's approach is not so different from the stock car drivers who race on the circuit where Westbrook's chararacters would have lived, loved, hated and died. Even when his novel spins out of control, Richardson's hand is always on the wheel.

By James Reaney - My London


This little volume will be of interest to all who concern themselves with early Canadian literature and history. The author, Major John Richardson (1796-1852), reckoned to be the first Canadian-born novelist to attain an international reputation, is best known for his novel Wacousta. "a tale of the Canadas" at the time of the Pontiac conspiracy. The present work is an historical novel on the exploits of one "'Westbrook," reasonably assumed to be Capt. Andrew Westbrook (1771-1835), who was active on the Detroit frontier in the War of 1812.

Capt. Westbrook was born in Massachusetts and taken to Nova Scotia as a child. When he was twelve years of age he removed with his parents to the site of Delaware, a village which still stands on the Thames River, near present London, Ontario. He later acquired a large tract of land at Delaware. He became fiercely anti-British after a quarrel with Col. Thomas Talbot, the patriarchal owner of vast lands in what is now southwestern Ontario. As a result, during the War of 1812, Capt. Westbrook responded to an appeal by U.S. General William Hull (1753-1825) and served as a scout (or spy) and raider for the Americans on the Detroit frontier. A six-foot-two red-haired giant of a man, he was soon feared by his former neighbours in Canada. They were fast-moving times, and Capt. Westbrook was a colourful and ruthless personality.

Richardson had a special interest in the War of 1812 (he was born in the area, probably at Fort George, Niagara-on-the-Lake), and he found ready material here for an exciting tale about that frontier war, with spies, Indians, Loyalists, and so-called American Patriots. His story in Westbrook is enlivened by such incidents as the death of Westbrook's daughter in childbirth; the casting of the child into a wolf's den; Westbrook's rape of Emily, sister of his daughter's husband, Capt. Stringer; his killing of Emily's lover; and Westbrook's shooting of both Emily and Capt. Stringer. In the end, divine vengeance intervenes when Westbrook is attacked by a wolf, and he is disowned by both the Americans and the Canadians. The "Outlaw', of the book’s subtitle certainly describes Capt. Westbrook's status in Canada, for he was outlawed under Canadian legislation in 1814.

Dr. David Beasley, Richardson's biographer and the authority on his works, says in his preface here (reprinted from an earlier edition) that Capt. Westbrook is depicted by Richardson as the personification of evil: "To Richardson, women were the embodiment of divine beauty and hence any violation of that divine beauty he conceived of as the ultimate in evil." To his all-too-brief Preface Dr. Beasley has now added, in this new edition, a splendid Introduction of six pages which tells us much more about Richardson and the background to his novel. According to Beasley, "Major Richardson was very aware of his responsibility as a writer to depict the events of his day for future generations of Canadians." There was a real person named Andrew Westbrook, and the "physical description, the ruthless spirit of the man, and his activities as a raider of Canadian settlements are true to life."

It must be said, though, that the story also has elements of fiction that enlarge upon the facts. For example, it is essential to the development of Richardson's plot that his Westbrook is reviled and renounced for his cruelty by his American compatriots. In the end he is attacked by a she-wolf and left to die a horrible and retributive death. The historical Capt. Andrew Westbrook was, on the contrary, honoured by the Americans for his services in the War of 1812 and died a natural death as a wealthy landowner in Michigan. Richardson's story is a stirring blend of fact, fiction, and Gothic horror; of high drama, and melodrama. Yet, written as it was by an actual participant in the War of 1812, it is also tied to real events and characters in that complex and internecine war.

The sensationalism in Richardson's Westbrook leaves no room for boredom, even for today's more sophisticated reader. Perhaps, indeed, the story is more suited to the present day than to the reader of the 1850s, not only because of its licence, but also because its Canadian inspiration will at last find for it a readier market serving the awakened patriotism in this country. In his own day, Richardson was not appreciated in the land of his birth (though he fared not much better in Britain and the United States), and this disturbing fact has often been pointed out by literary commentators as well as by Richardson himself - but never with more bitterness than he does in Westbrook, his last novel, written when he was in the extremes of poverty and despair. Upper Canada is, he writes, *that semi-barbarous province which, even at the present day, when affecting a position among the nations of the earth, cannot boast in literature of three native authors." It should be remembered, though, that after twenty years in Europe, it was perhaps easy for Richardson to forget that most Canadians in his native province were fully occupied as pioneers, wresting a livelihood from a new land. Today, the long-lost Westbrook may be welcomed back by a maturer audience, more appreciative of its patrimony, to its proper place in Canadian literature.

'Long-lost," I said, and so it was for 120 years till 1972. This is the first republication of Westbrook since the very limited edition of 250 copies in 1973, the year after the original parts surfaced in New York City, and only the third edition since its initial appearance in parts in 1851.

The earliest Westbrook which I have found is in the October 1852 - May 1855 Supplement to Roorbach's Bibliotheca Americana where, under Richardson's name, appears "Westbrook: or, the Outlaw" published by Dewitt and Davenport

(Richardson's New York publishers) in paper covers, for 25 cents. This would be the first monographic edition, and the entry strikes me as being specific enough to be factual; but some have even argued that Richardson never wrote such a work at all, the title "Westbrook" being only a corruption of *Wacousta," Richardson's most famous and most frequently-published novel. Such conjecture ceased, however, at least so far as the text of the story is concerned (no copy of the monograph form has yet come to light), for in June 1972, a set of the instalment parts, of Westbrook were offered for sale by auction at the Swann Galleries, New York City, as lot 19 in their catalogue, for Sale 885. These "parts", are in fact the serialized form of Westbrook, as they appeared in the New York Sunday Mercury, 14 September to 26 October 1851. They now reside in the Lawrence Lande Collection in The Library and Archives of Canada. It is from these parts that the subsequent monographic reprints are taken; if any copy of the Dewitt and Davenport edition of ca. 1853 is extant, it still awaits discovery.

We are heavily indebted to David Beasley for undertaking the task of republishing this early Canadian novel, at so reasonable a price that it can now be widely read, and for his illuminating Introduction that makes clear the literary and historical background to this absorbing tale.

William F.E. Morley - Kingston - Ontario History, Spring 2005


Westbrook the Outlaw!
John Richardson (1796-1852) was the first Canadian-born novelist to achieve international recognition. A grandson of prominent fur trader John Askin, he served in the War of 1812 while still in his teens and went on to write several novels, including Wacousta, Westbrook the Outlaw and The Canadian Brothers. I recently read Westbrook, which takes place during the War of 1812, and could barely put it down. Once you make allowances for the sensibilities and the vernacular of the times, it's a rip-roaring tale that sometimes veers into very risqué territory. (Even back then, writers and publishers knew that sex sells!) 
    For many decades, Westbrook was lost, but it resurfaced in 1972. Dr. David Beasley, who has written extensively on historical subjects, has published the novel in paperback, complete with his own preface and introduction. The book is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in early Canadian literature or the War of 1812. You can find out more about Richardson's works by visiting David's website. And be sure to check out David's newsletter on John Richardson.

Readers of Westbrook, the Outlaw usually wish to read Richardson's experiences in the Army of the right Division in the War of 1812 which can be ordered from the web site. Here is a brief description of it.

 David Beasley to launch new book

Historian and prolific author David Beasley will launch another book on March 19 at the Eva Brook Donly Museum.

This newest publication will appeal to anyone interested in the War of 1812, in particular the capture of Detroit by British forces and the subsequent invasion of American forces onto Canadian soil, said a media release.

"A Canadian Campaign: Operations of the Right Division of the Army of Upper Canada, During the American

War of 1812, by a British Officer" was originally written by Major John Richardson.

Not issued since its first publication in the 1820s, A Canadian Campaign narrates Richardson's experiences with the 41st Regiment of Foot from the Battle of Fort Detroit through the Battle of the Thames and his imprisonment in Kentucky.

Vivid descriptions of the American Indian nations fighting under Tecumseh, the hardships of the campaigns, and the tribulations of imprisonment make it a unique and invaluable contribution to the upcoming celebrations commemorating the War of 1812.

Another of Richardson's own works has been included in this same publication. Not seen since 1841, "Recollections of the West Indies" describes Richardson's military experience on Barbados and Grenada from 1816 to 1818 within West Indian society and denounces slavery with such poignant examples that the essay must have influenced English parliamentarians to abolish it.

Beasley, in the bonus essay "In Search of Richardson's Spain" retraces the march of the British Legion over the Cantabrica Mountains as described by Richardson in his Journal in 1835, contrasting then to now.

The book launch will take place at the Eva Brook Donly Museum & Archives between 2 and 3:30 p.m. on March 19.

The Museum is located at 109 Norfolk St. S. in downtown

Simcoe. Copies of the book will be available to purchase for $15; other books by Beasley are also for sale in the museum gift shop.

David Beasley wrote The Canadian Don Quixote: the Life and Works of Major John Richardson, Canada's first novelist, the definitive biography.

Inquiries about the book launch and other activities at the Eva Brook Donly Museum & Archives can be directed to 519-426-1583 or online at


*A new edition of Richardson's famous novel Wacousta
has been published by