Takeaways from Brian Busby’s The Dusty Book­case

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The Dusty Book­case: A Journey Through Canada’s For­got­ten, Ne­glected and Sup­pressed Writ­ing By Brian Busby Bi­b­lioa­sis 368pp; $22.95

For nearly a decade, Brian Busby has writ­ten about Canada’s “for­got­ten, ne­glected and sup­pressed writ­ing” on his per­sonal blog and in the pages of Cana­dian Notes and Queries, which is a nice way of say­ing he writes about books that have been rel­e­gated to the dust­bin of his­tory. These are com­mer­cial flashes- in- the- pan, sec­ond- rate or dis­owned books by well- known au­thors, crack- pot polemics, goof­ball spec­u­la­tive fic­tion and work that oth­er­wise hasn’t sur­vived the march of time. Any­one in­ter­ested in the odd, the pe­cu­liar or the just plain fun will find some­thing worth read­ing in the Dusty Book­case.1 Here Foun­da­tion­alare five highlights:

CanLit. The idea of CanLit as we know it started when Jack McClel­land be­gan pound­ing the drum of home­grown tal­ent in the late ’50s. There were, of course, Cana­dian writ­ers be­fore then, but not many have made it through to mod­ern read­ers. Still read are New Cana­dian Li­brary main­stays Mor­ley Cal­laghan and Stephen Lea­cock – and Anne of Green Gables, of course – but other than those stand­outs, foun­da­tional CanLit is more of­ten a chore on a col­lege read­ing list. Not for Busby, how­ever.

Grant Allen ( 1848–1899) isn’t much read these days, but Busby ded­i­cates a whole sec­tion to him, mak­ing a solid ar­gu­ment that he’s Canada’s great­est Vic­to­rian- era writer, an opin­ion backed by no less than Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle. Next, Frank L. Packard is on the pulpier end of lit­er­a­ture: a Cana­dian rail- worker turned nov­el­ist who was re­spon­si­ble for Jim­mie Dale, whose es­capades as the masked safe- cracker known as the Gray Seal in­spired both the Shadow and Bat­man. Busby also cov­ers Canada’s ear­li­est best­seller, May Agnes Flem­ming’s The Midnight Queen; a novel in­spired by the Fe­nian raids, Robert Barr’s In the Midst of Alarms; and even digs up some early Que­be­cois spec­u­la­tive fic­tion in Jules- Paul Tar­di­val’s For My Coun­try, orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1895. Busby shows that our early lit­er­a­ture is more var­ied and in­ter­est­ing than fron­tier di­aries or the bad po­etry of our early politi­cians. 2Don’t Be Ashamed of the

Pulp. Cana­dian pulp fic­tion and pop­u­lar nov­els seem to be Busby’s favourite, with their sor­did il­lus­trated cov­ers and sala­cious ti­tles prom­ise grip­ping sto­ries within: A Body for a Blonde, Soft to the Touch, Sugar- Puss on Dorch­ester Street, In­tent to Kill. In the years af­ter the Sec­ond World War, sev­eral Cana­dian- owned com­pa­nies jumped into the mar­ket, as pub­lish­ers such as Har­lequin ( be­fore turn­ing to ro­mance) and the News Stand Li­brary churned out quickly writ­ten, quickly pro­duced and of­ten poorly edited fic­tion to sa­ti­ate a mar­ket look­ing for mur­der, may­hem and sex.

The prom­ise of a quick buck at­tracted a lot of writ­ers for whom se­ri­ous lit­er­ary fic­tion wasn’t pay­ing the bills. Hugh Garner, who would go on to win a Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Award, put out his fair share of pulp and even re­turned to it to­ward the end of his ca­reer – but Ir­ish- born Cana­dian au­thor Brian Moore was not as happy about his early dal­liances in com­mer­cial writ­ing. Moore wrote at least seven straight- up pulp nov­els (un­der his own name or pseudony­mously as Bernard Mara or Michael Bryan), but later dis­owned them. De­spite his dis­taste, he’d fig­ured out a suc­cess­ful for­mula (“short sen­tences, short para­graphs,

short chap­ters,” as he told Morde­cai Rich­ler), and the four of his nov­els Busby re­views are not nearly as bad as Moore would have you be­lieve. “Most writ­ers would take pride in hav­ing their name on its cover,” Busby says of “Michael Bryan’s” In­tent to Kill. “But then, so very few writ­ers can com­pare to Moore.” 3For­got­ten Books as Cul­tural Snap­shots. Be­cause books pub­lished along­side ma­jor, di­vi­sive events can be harshly polemic – or are tied to the minu­tiae of names and events that no longer mat­ter – they can be tough reads for later gen­er­a­tions. But they do of­fer a glimpse of the time and the sort of thoughts go­ing through the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness.

Busby cov­ers a lot of these snap­shots, with his best/ worst finds deal­ing with Que­bec in the era af­ter the FLQ cri­sis. For any­one born af­ter the ’ 70s, the vit­riol is sur­pris­ing, and shows us just how hos­tile Cana­di­ans can be. Busby turns up the big­oted Bilin­gual To­day, French To­mor­row, from 1977, in which J.V. Andrew pro­poses that Que­bec has launched a “breed­ing project,” spear­headed by Pierre Trudeau and a few oth­ers, so that the “French Cana­dian race” can take over Canada. Worse still, there’s a se­quel. 4The

Mil­lars’ Tale. Ross Macdon­ald, au­thor of the Lew Archer mys­tery nov­els, was tech­ni­cally not Cana­dian ( nor a Macdon­ald; his real name was Ken­neth Mil­lar) but was as close to be­ing a Cana­dian as can be. He moved to Kitch­ener as a baby and stuck around un­til his mid-20s, and he mar­ried a Cana­dian au­thor of mys­tery nov­els, Mar­garet Mil­lar. De­spite all this, Mil­lar had been kept out of the Ox­ford Com­pan­ion to Cana­dian Lit­er­a­ture, and ac­cord­ing to Busby, he and his wife’s place in Cana­dian let­ters isn’t on solid ground ei­ther – mostly be­cause they spent much of their later years in Cal­i­for­nia.

This might be due to the gate­keep­ers of lit­er­ary ac­cred­i­ta­tion hav­ing it in for all but a few mys­tery writ­ers, and this is a shame, be­cause CanLit could cer­tainly use the shot in the arm that Mar­garet, in par­tic­u­lar, pro­vides. The Toronto- set Iron Gates was her break­out novel, and Busby is clear that it’s a cap­i­tal­let­ters Great Mys­tery. It’s not the plots that make her, it’s her psy­cho­log­i­cal as­tute­ness and her char­ac­ter build­ing. Be­tween Mar­garet and her hus­band, it seems these two semidis­owned Cana­di­ans are well worth re­con­sid­er­ing, and per­haps invit­ing back into the fold. 5Out­side the Canon. Though the whole con­cept of CanLit may seem oc­ca­sion­ally dull, once you go beyond the canon you can find your­self lost in a sea of medi­ocrity; as long as there have been books, more bad than good have been pub­lished. Luck­ily, Busby’s done the hard work here, sort­ing through the his­tor­i­cal chaff of CanLit to find the long-lost hits.

Whether you’re look­ing for a book about a squir­rel get­ting high on magic mush­rooms (Ban­ner­tail: The Story of a Graysquirel), a gothic hor­ror tale of a Catholic or­der (Aw­ful Dis­clo­sure of Maria Monk), a story of a drug- ad­dled school­teacher in 1910s ru­ral On­tario (Up the Hill and Over), or a sci-fi book about damming the Strait of Belle Isle to turn north­ern Que­bec into the new Caribbean (Fer­mez la Porte, on Gèle), Busby has you cov­ered.

Even if you’re not in­ter­ested in read­ing the books, The Dusty Book­case’s tour through an al­ter­nate New Cana­dian Li­brary is well worth read­ing for Busby’s in­sight and good hu­mour. But if you’re the sort of per­son who spends time dig­ging through used book­shop dol­lar bins look­ing for for­got­ten gems, this is an in­dis­pens­able bib­li­og­ra­phy to the hits and misses of Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture’s past.

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