Takeaways from Brian Busby’s The Dusty Bookcase
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.