Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


 

Mr. Thomson’s Old Man Savarin*


 

Canadian artistic impulse has hitherto manifested itself chiefly in poetry. The appearance therefore of a volume of short stories by a Canadian is a matter of peculiar interest, and should be hailed with familiar satisfaction. This country is rich in material for fiction, so rich that there is enough of it to furnish all the novelists in the world if they only had access to it; and we are waiting for some of our own countrymen to develop the talent and energy to take hold of it. Of the fourteen stories which make up Mr. Edward W. Thomson’s book Old Man Savarin, nine are on Canadian subjects, and they give some idea of the variety of scene which presents itself to the student of Canadian life. We pass in review sketches of the quaint French riverside manners of the Upper Ottawa, the wild life, the survey and the lumber camp, a story of the mystery of mingled races in "Great Godfrey’s Lament," of the humorous peculiarities of the Highlanders of Glengarry in "The Privilege of the Limits," the character of a queer old Waterloo veteran in a western Ontario village, and a burning touch of the intense U.E. Loyalist spirit of former days in the tale of "John Bedell." These stories are written not by a foreign litterateur who has scoured this country on the hunt for new sensations, but by a Canadian who has lived in the places the very scent of whose pines and the pure breath of whose atmosphere he brings before us, and worked with the people whose simple humanity and genuine talk lend humour and life to his pages.

These are genuine stories, some of them very humorous, and told with delightful skill, as that of the "Privilege of the Limits," in which an old Glengarry Highlander manages to escape for a few days from a debtor’s prison without infringing the letter of the rules; some of them tenderly pathetic and full of sweet and delicate humanity, made doubly interesting to us by truth of local colour, as "McGrath’s Bad Night" and "Little Baptiste," and "The Shining Cross of Rigaud."

Mr. Thomson is not one of those writers who depend for the success of their pieces upon a studied deftness in the use of language or the piling up of artificial phraseology. His mode of expressing himself is very simple— often extraordinarily simple, but it is the kindly offspring of genuine conception, and direct spontaneous feeling, and sometimes in his easy way he will give forth a stroke of imagery containing a world of meaning in a single phrase, often something particularly apt to a Canadian ear, as where Angus McNeil says of Godfrey, that "the blue eyes of him would match the sky when you’ll be seeing it up through a blazing maple on a clear day of October," or of his father that "he was always silent as a sword." Mr. Thomson has also a clear grasp of character, as is instanced in the very definite pictures he gives us of the old Highlander McTavish, of the McNeils in "Great Godfrey’s Lament," and of John Bedell, a character which will be quite well appreciated by anyone who knows the old refugee folk of the Niagara District.

But Mr. Thomson’s stories are not all Canadian. There is an ingenious tale of a stratagem by which two Russian Nihilists escaped capture by the police, and three tales of the American Civil War, also manifestly the fruit of personal experience. These last are amongst the most effective in the book. The reader will not soon forget the deadly scenery, the strain and excitement of "The Ride by Night," and the following sentences of description from "Drafted" will serve to show how Mr. Thomson can write:

Beyond the screen of pines Harry could see the tall canvas ridges of the officers’ cabins lighted up. Now all the tents of the regiment, row beyond row, were faintly luminous, and the renewed drizzle of the dawn was a little lightened in every direction by the canvas-hidden candles of infantry regiments, the glare of numerous fires already started, and sparks showering up from the cook-houses of company after company.

Soon in the cloudy sky the cannonade rolled about in broad day, which was still so grey that long, wide flashes of flame could be seen to spring far out before every report from the guns of Fort Hell, and in the haze but few of the rebel shells shrieking along their high curve could be clearly seen bursting over Hancock’s che[e]ring men. Indistinguishably blent were the sounds of hosts on the move, field guns pounding to the front, troops shouting, the clink and rattle of metal, officers calling, bugles blowing, drums rolling, mules screaming—all heard as a running accompaniment to the cannon heavily penetrating the multitudinous din.

 

* Old Man Savarin and Other Stories. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Co. [back]