Book Reviews

The Canadian Don Quixote
The Life and Works of Major John Richardson


John Richardson's life, like his novels, had its dark side. Victim of both economic circumstances and personal weaknesses, Richardson bounced from place to place and job to job, embroiled in litigation, addicted to gambling, engaged in dueling, but always writing. Critics still debate the worth of his work, but all agree as to its importance in laying the foundations of Canadian literature. The author of Wacousta and The Canadian Brothers may not have been heroic, but he had an adventurous, energetic life, as this biography so well reveals. Author David Beasley traces Richardson's story with both readable style and reliable research. This new, revised edition of a work first published and widely reviewed in 1977 may well prompt a fresh look at Richardson. Four lesser known Richardson novels are also available from the publisher.

Chris Raible, OHS Bulletin, Toronto



My first thoughts after reading this remarkable book were 'why has it taken so long for this full length life of such a remarkable and worthwhile figure, why has it taken so long for it to be published? Both Casselman and Riddell, early in this century, gave us brief lives; but what should have happened at the turn of the century, not now when it's almost too late, was that some David Beasley of the day came along and wrote the full length biography while so many contemporaries of Richardson were still alive; e.g., the County Clerk, McKee, of Essex County whom Casselman interviewed in 1902 and who remembered Richardson writing The Canadian Brothers in a small house in Sandwich "and had many interesting stories to relate of him." But such is David Beasley's energy that he almost succeeds in making up for our ancestors' neglect of details ripe for harvest.

Quebec has Aubert de Gaspe whose Les Anciens Canadiens has haunting similarities to Richardson's Wacousta cycle; if you were to imagine what the first Quebecois novelist should look like you might say what about a seigneur down on his luck who retreats to the country and listens to the habitant traditions. And so, Aubert de Gaspe; if you were trying to guess what the Father of English Canadian Literature should look like, might you not guess: well, half French Canadian, some Indian, and some Jacobite Scots fur-trade in view of Ontario's story in the 18th century? If you so guessed then, in the case of John Richardson, you have hit a bullseye. It's when you think of Richardson's Indian grandmother (mariage du pays) that you realize what a direct hit his ancestry is on the mix needed to write about our early world with proper understanding.

The physical events alone of Richardson's life are so varied, so bizarre that they cease to be "physical" events and become instead incidents in somebody's dream/ nightmare...our country's? First she heard the roar of Niagara Falls (river system named St Lawrence by Cartier), then she dreamed of getting the old Northwest back (Richardson at Fort Meigs, Ohio), then she watched Tecumseh die at Moraviantown and suffered imprisonment in Kentucky life for native people on reserve and St Thomas Ontario ladies shopping at Hudson's, Detroit), missed Waterloo (pictures of Wellington and Nelson in every Rosedale front parlor), her regiment shipped off to Barbados (Max Saltzman trying to annex the Grand Caymans to Canada), London and Paris (gambling, Bulwer Lytton, Lord Byron. Sir Walter Scott) she creates near a Gothic Abbey in England a hero who like herself reaches his "ful1 height" and then when challenged grows some more! (The Wars), she comes back to Canada just in time, 1838, for the Battle of the Windmill (we all get over exploring our roots and dream of joining the States), she leaves employ of the London Times and starts her own newspapers in Brockville and Kingston (most Canuck writers graduate from Milton-dominated grad schools and disappear into English Departments visited yearly by lrving Layton and Susan Musgrave): Montreal, Sandwich and Amherstburg where HE (now) wakes up to the fact (Welland Canal, Police Inspector job, wife dies) that since his character is too prickly for the Upper Canadian patronage system, he had better exile himself to America, specifically the New York Edgar Allen Poe is starving in. At least the Yanks, in contrast to the Canucks, do read. It's just before this move that he writes a good History of the War of 1812 (Coles Reprint) which, despite the fact that he was an eyewitness, often the only literary one, of quite a few esoteric backwoods conflicts, modern historians use but never acknowledge in their indexes: his whole life was like that.

The nightmare continues (surely not our country's) with New York exploiting him, publishing him in Americanized editions, hackdom, starvation, sale of his dog 'Newfoundland' just before his death in order to buy bread. At this point one hopes for a different end to our dream, a different end perhaps inspired by Richardson's Don Quixotelike tiltings with the giant windmills of American prison camps, fellow nationals who would rather buy whiskey than books, and infant civilizations still awaking.

If his life is a dream, David Beasley has anchored it very firmly in the social reality of the time, particularly in the Spanish sequence, the strangest of all Richardson's adventures. One example of this: a late Richardson erotic romance 'The Monk Knight St John is framed by an authorial visit to a chateau in the south of France near Clermont; in this biography it becomes a matter of course that David Beasley went to see the chateau. His whole work teems with such careful, loving research and this makes his biography of Richardson not only a good read but the fulfillment of what's usually called "an aching void. "

James Reaney - London, Ontario


It was in 1963 when David Beasley located, in the John Askin Papers, a footnote referring to a Canadian novelist, Major John Richardson, who died of starvation in New York City on 12 May 1852. Intrigued, Beasley began researching this individual in order to discover who this early Canadian author was and what he wrote. The result of his vast and exhaustive research was first published in hard copy in 1977. This new release of the biography of Major John Richardson, together with three of Richardson's history-based novels, is now available from the above publisher.

Like Thomas Hardy, John Richardson narrates events based on a character flaw that dictates the outcome of the story almost fatalistically. Like Sir Walter Scott, the author narrates events and the story line up to a critical point through the eyes of one set of characters, then returns in the next chapter to pick up the thread of another set of characters.

While his books and serial newspaper stories were not successful in his lifetime, Richardson's work is worthy of our notice, if only to compare with our own knowledge of the principal wars of the nineteenth century, the life of risk and danger in the gambling salons of Paris and the rough backwoods challenges of Upper Canada before 1850. Unlike Anne Langton, Susannah Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, who wrote in diary form reporting life and life skills, Richardson wrote to report through real characters, fictionalized but recognizable, in a realistic story set in a harsh and unrelenting physical world. Always interested in moral lessons and justice, Richardson "rights the record" of more than one soldier killed unjustly in battle.

Richardson's work, and consequently Beasley's work, has to be praised for attention to detail, the ability to put a scene before our eyes and an adherence to truth that allows the reader to watch in his own mind's eye a battle scene unfold with heroic and grisly scenes between North American Indians, Patriots and Loyalists. While dates are few in Richardson's novels, the knowledgeable reader with an historical background might find these republished novels interesting for their frank and honest messages.

Reviewed by Grietje R. McBride, UE, B.Sc


... a man whose life was so filled with dramatic events, whose career brought him in contact with important historical figures and episodes, and who first showed that Canadian history was interesting enough to be matter for literature. The Canadian Don Quixote is the result of a great deal of enterprising research on Beasley's part and which does supply a mass of new information on Richardson and his times.

George Woodcock, The Globe and Mail (Toronto).


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