Showcase of Canadian literature circa the World Wars
Published in 1958, Cavalcade of the North is a volume of fiction and essays by 26 Canadian writers, edited by George E. Nelson. Prior publication information is not provided for every entry in the collection, but for the roughly half that do include copyright notes the original publication dates range from 1912 to 1956, with the majority falling in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Among the 26 works included here are two full-length novels. Hugh MacLennan’s 1941 novel Barometer Rising is a gripping dramatization of the tragic Halifax Explosion of 1917, in which a ship full of munitions destined for European battlefields exploded in the city’s harbor, leveling entire neighborhoods. The second novel, Jalna by Mazo de la Roche, was originally published in 1927 and became the first book in an extensive series chronicling the multigenerational saga of a farming family in southern Ontario. This Cavalcade also includes one novella-length work, The School on the Little Water Hen by Gabrielle Roy, about a family residing on a remote island in northern Manitoba and their quest for a decent education. Fortunately, all three of these longer works are very good, and they alone amount to almost 450 pages of worthwhile reading.
The remaining shorter works vary greatly in quality, and not all are fiction. A few are stories from the history of Canada, such as “Vignettes of French Canada” by Thomas B. Costain, an assortment of biographical sketches from the 17th and early 18th centuries; “This Stubborn Breed” by Joseph Lister Rutledge, concerning the Acadians in the 1750s; and “The Awakening” by Bruce Hutchison, about Canada’s entry into World War II. Also in the nonfiction category is “Read!” an essay by Lord Beaverbrook about self-education and individualism.
Of the remaining fictional selections, two of the best are related to World War II. In “The Czech Dog” by W. G. Hardy, a Canadian woman befriends a Czech refugee and former member of the anti-Nazi underground, while “Resurrection” by Thomas H. Raddall is a thriller about shot-down pilots trapped on the coast of Greenland. “Four Men and a Box” is a brief but excellent tale about jungle explorers in an unnamed, exotic locale. Closer to home, Patrick Waddington delivers a charming, Twilight Zone-ish yarn about a mysterious forgotten neighborhood in Montreal, “The Street That Got Mislaid.” “The White Mustang” by Edward A. McCourt is a John Steinbeck-ish story about a mythical white horse, while “The White Musky” by Scott Young (Neil Young’s dad) is a fisherman’s tale about a mythical white fish. The scope of the selections cover a wide variety of settings, populations, and walks of life. Canadians of French and British extraction get about equal time, with a wee bit of the Irish thrown in. Only one story features First Nations characters: the Jack London-esque “A Prairie Vagabond” by Sir Gilbert Parker.
Had such a collection been published a half century earlier, one probably couldn’t have discerned much difference between Canadian, British, and American literature. By World War II, however, a distinctively Canadian literature had begun to come into its own, drawing from the British and French cultural traditions but with healthy doses of homegrown North American individualism, boreal naturalism, and nationalistic pride. This maturing Canadian style is showcased admirably in this collection. For American readers with little knowledge of the literary scene north of their border, Cavalcade of the North is a very good introduction to the world of Canadian letters. Not every story is great, but the volume is full of fortuitous discoveries. I will definitely be reading more of MacLennan, de la Roche, and Roy.
Stories in this collection
(Novel-length works have been reviewed individually. Click on titles below.)
Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan
Rigamarole by Morley Callaghan
Mrs. Golightly and the First Convention by Ethel Wilson
A Prairie Vagabond by Sir Gilbert Parker
The Worker in Sandalwood by Marjorie Pickthall
The Czech Dog by W. G. Hardy
Read! by Lord Beaverbrook
Jalna by Mazo de la Roche
Dieppe by Lionel Shapiro
The Princess and the Wild Ones by W. O. Mitchell
Resurrection by Thomas H. Raddall
The Street That Got Mislaid by Patrick Waddington
We Hire a Witch by Kenneth McNeill Wells
The Awakening by Bruce Hutchison
The Movies Come to Gull Point by Will R. Bird
The School on the Little Water Hen by Gabrielle Roy
White Musky by Scott Young
Vignettes of French Canada by Thomas B. Costain
The Little Ghost by Gwen Ringwood
The Speculations of Jefferson Thorpe by Stephen Leacock
Some Are So Lucky by Hugh Garner
Beating the Smuggling Game by Thomas Chandler Haliburton
This Stubborn Breed by Joseph Lister Rutledge
The White Mustang by Edward A. McCourt
Four Men and a Box by Leslie Gordon Barnard
The Wake by Patrick Slater