Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Blue Pete and Canadian Nationalism

 This is perhaps the most authoritative review of the Blue Pete series. I apologize that some of the formatting of the original document has been lost./drf 
See also http://stillwoods.blogspot.ca/2014/06/lacy-amy.html

KEITH WALDEN
Journal of Canadian Studies 1989 24(2)

Popular novelist William Lacey Amy (Luke Allan) began writing his series of Blue Pete novels trying to say something serious about western development. His perceptions derived from a common English-Canadian expectation of Edenic transformation as well as firsthand knowledge of life in southern Alberta. Vision and experience did not mesh. Unwilling to question his nationalist assumptions. Amy abandoned any hope of commenting on real western society and moved Blue Pete much closer to the realm of myth.
For over three decades after the First World War, William Lacey Amy published a score of novels about the Mounted Police in the Canadian West, most of them centering on a half-breed named Blue Pete who worked with the scarlet riders. These ‘‘interminable” works, written under the pseudonym Luke Allan, are so bad in Professor Dick Harrison’s view that he refused to inflict on readers even a small sample in his recent anthology of Mountie stories.[1] Though Amy had some talent at building suspense, it would be absurd to claim he was a good novelist. His books, for the most part, were contrived, convoluted and conventional. Few readers took them seriously. Librarians did not make a point of collecting them. Critics have given them short shrift.
As Harrison astutely pointed out in his analysis of the evolution of prairie fiction, English-speaking settlers often drew on a culture that was ill-adapted to the life and landscape of the West. Imported expectations and applied values isolated and confined them, making it difficult to adjust to prairie realities.[2] This was certainly true of Amy, a classic illustration of the argument. Yet, it may be that just as inappropriate structures and assumptions were imposed on the land, inappropriate critical judgments have been imposed on literature, making its reality difficult to appreciate. What seems to bother Harrison most is his assessment that Amy simply imported the American frontier formula to Canada. Blue Pete, like the typical American western hero, worked outside the law using violence as a surgical tool to impose order. Canadian heroes, by contrast, supposedly resolved conflict by denying violence. Their authority came not from themselves but from an “ideal of civilized order” perceived to be much more important than any individual’s existence.3
Clearly, Amy was influenced by the American view of the West. The first Blue Pete novel contains not one, but two explicit allusions to the Virginian’s famous line, “When you call me that, smile."* It was hard not to be affected by materials which had tremendous international appeal and circulation. An insistence on sharp distinctions between popular Canadian and American frontier fiction is highly problematic. Amy was no different from thousands of other Canadians. He was, in fact, a typical central Canadian Protestant, and the values of that society, including nationalism, permeate his writing. It was not a slavish adherence to American forms that made his work boringly repetitive but a refusal to reconsider nationalist assumptions about the West that did not hold up under first-hand scrutiny.
When Amy began writing the Blue Pete stories, he wanted to say something serious about the development of the West. Like innumerable authors before and after who dealt with frontier areas, he was interested in the difficulty of reconciling an existing order with the imperatives of encroaching civilization. He brought to this question two sets of perceptions. The first, and most important, was the English-Canadian Protestant vision of western development. The second was his own experience of living in the West. The two were not quite compatible. After his simplistic expectations of Edenic transformation corroded, Amy backed away from romance toward myth, abandoning any possibility of commenting seriously on western society. That retreat is worth a closer look.
One reason why Amy’s work seems American at first glance is that unlike most Canadian prairie novelists, who wrote about the agricultural frontier, he wrote about the ranching frontier. This was logical: it was the West he had encountered, though for how long is hard to say. Despite his prolificness, not much is known about Amy’s life. Born to a Methodist minister and his wife in Sydenham, north of Kingston, probably in the mid-1870s, he emerged two decades later as a freshman at Victoria University in Toronto. According to class lists he spent three, possibly four years there studying arts, though he seems to have completed only the equivalent of about two academic sessions. Shortly after the turn of the century, he began publishing a newspaper in Medicine Hat, Alberta. About three years later, he left. The migratory habits of a Methodist background seemed to be deeply imbued for thereafter he travelled a great deal. Alumni records indicate he lived in England in the early 1920s, Florida in the early 1930s, Toronto in the early 1940s, and California in the 1950s.5 Wherever he called home, when he wrote about the West he drew from his own experience in one of the most important centres of the ranching business in southern Alberta.6 He knew about cows, not wheat.
The initial novel in the series, Blue Pete: Half-breed, published in 1921, may have been written much earlier since one segment appeared well before the war as a short story in Canadian Magazine.1 It is the most ambitious and most interesting of the works. The story has two intertwined threads. The first is a conventional romance. Constable, eventually Sergeant, Mahon, product of a respectable English middle-class family, must choose between prairie- bred Mira Stanton, physically beautiful but “a wild creature of untamed instincts and untrained mind,” and her equally attractive cousin, Helen Parsons, unaffected but possessed of a culture and intellect “incongruous with the untamed life in which they lived.”8 The decision is never really in doubt; Mahon selects the girl appropriate to his class, background and station.
The other thread, much more twisted, involves Blue Pete’s relationship with the police. Mahon discovers the half-breed just as Pete has crossed into Canada to break loose from his old associates in the rustling business. “I’m too gor-swizzled chicken-hearted fer Montany,” he tells Mahon, “an’ dead- sick o' th' everlastin’ game.”1’ Impressed by the young constable’s generosity and determination to prevent disorder, Pete goes along on a mission to recapture an escaped horse-thief, one of the gang he has just left behind. Dutch Henry, cornered in a shack, shoots Sergeant Denton who in true Mountie fashion had approached with gun holstered to make the arrest. Pete refuses to intervene at this point but swears that if the Sergeant dies he will come after Dutchy.
While Denton’s life hangs in the balance, Pete becomes an undercover police agent, drifting from job to job at surrounding ranches, disrupting the rustlers. It is work he enjoys, especially since he has become very attached to Mahon, whom he calls Boy. With this help police are able to stop much of the movement of stolen stock, though the culprits themselves remain at large. The situation is disrupted by four events. Pete’s connection with the force is discovered, making him persona non grata among both ranchers and rustlers. Sergeant Denton finally dies, obliging Pete to act on his promise to get Dutchy. Mira Stanton’s brothers, owners of the 3-bar-Y ranch, commit suicide when they are caught with pilfered cattle. Finally, Pete is discredited at a trial by an incompetent judge and the police are forced to relinquish his services. The effect of all this is to isolate the half-breed, and Mira as well, from the rest of society. Mira, who had been infatuated with Mahon, now realizes they are not suited. To free him emotionally, she allows herself to be caught with some stolen horses and is sent to prison for six months. As Pete waits for her release Dutchy’s gang returns. Mahon goes after them, and so does the half-breed who finally kills Henry to protect his friend and fulfill his oath. Badly wounded, he disappears into the bush. A police search turns up only a note from Mira, just liberated, who says they will never find his body.
For all its complications, Amy’s message was not hard to decipher. Mahon and Helen represented the future of the West. Boy, prevented from going to university by his father’s untimely death, had come to make his fortune in Canada. Opportunities proved scarce so he joined the Mounted Police, a force which, Amy made clear, was bringing more than law enforcement to the plains. “Men of birth, many of them, and all of them overflowing with the tastes that grow from education, their clean souled sense of duty and the ease with which they retained their wider interest in life and learning” were an inspiration to people like Helen Parsons. She in turn, educated in the East, was “no product of the prairie.” Her father, a prominent Calgary lawyer, came to Medicine Hat for his health. When he died she stayed on with her aunt; the ranges offered “more of the relief of outside interest.” Once committed to the West she began to master its arts, like shooting and riding. If this muted the impression that alien values were being imposed, it was clear nonetheless that she and her husband-to-be embodied the culture, refinement, civilization, and order that would transform the empty flatlands into a prosperous garden. This was made explicit by wise Inspector Parker who congratulated Mahon for making the right decision about a mate. “The West isn’t going to be always the wild thing it is even today - and you’ll want to grow up with it.” Mira, a picture “you couldn’t hang in the parlour and wouldn’t insult by putting in the kitchen, 10 would have marginalized him in western society. It is interesting that Amy reversed the usual convention by requiring a male to choose between two female suitors. This reinforced the impression that on this frontier order and domesticity would be established mainly through the actions of the Mounted Police.
Helen and Mahon indicated the future. Blue Pete confirmed the rightness of this inevitability and pronounced the superiority of Canadian over American values. He was the outsider who substantiated the traditional view that our society is more peaceful, more ordered, more just than that to the south. To some extent Amy used Blue Pete the way Thomas Chandler Haliburton used Sam Slick, as an embodiment of the excesses of the neighbouring Republic. Some of the half-breed’s actions - when he plugged a hole through Mahon’s hat to avoid being taken into custody, for example" - illustrated typical American behaviour, at once impressive and objectionable. Slick is a more compelling character, of course, because Haliburton was a more talented writer. His creation remained ambivalent about Nova Scotian society; Sam’s bombast pilloried Yankees and Bluenoses simultaneously. For the most part, Pete accepted Canadian values so completely that he had little power to prod us with our shortcomings.
His judgment of the Dominion’s superiority was demonstrated in his decision to stay and work with the agents of order and in a willingness to curtail his violent habits. He continued to use a gun but did so sparingly and usually to protect the Mounties or affirm their purposes. When he killed Dutchy he acted primarily to save Mahon, not to exercise vengeance. In later novels, Amy stressed repeatedly how Pete tried to evaluate his conduct according to police codes of behaviour. Unlike the supposedly typical American frontier hero, he was very much controlled by the law. Though often he acted beyond its reach, society defined his goals, not himself.
Blue Pete was more than a vehicle for national self-congratulation. He was also a natural man, unencumbered by artificial social constraints, totally in tune with his environment. More than just at home with the land, he was almost a part of it, a fact underlined when he virtually disappeared into the prairie before Mahon’s very eyes.12 In many respects Pete was clearly superior to the police. His understanding of the cattle business, his ability with a gun, his mastery of horses, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of the land far exceeded their capabilities. He was not alone here; the other rustlers, especially Dutchy, shared these abilities though not to the same extent. Pete’s co-operation with the police symbolized the assent given by the more intelligent elements of the old order to the process of development. He could not block the goals of the force; it would triumph in the end. He got an inkling of this when he tried to free Mira on her way to prison: pursuit was organized so quickly after she escaped that he accepted the futility of trying to keep her at large. Still, he could have made things exceptionally difficult for the police had he opposed them. That he did not was an instinctive recognition of the value of true civilization.
As a natural man Pete was concerned with justice, not law. He was offended by the shooting of Sergeant Denton, not because a policeman was wounded but because the violence was unnecessary. Dutchy could have escaped without hurting anyone. When Pete went to work for the Mounties he made no effort to put the criminals behind bars; he simply tried to right the wrongs they committed. His willingness to be a police agent, therefore, demonstrated that in the Canadian West law and justice were essentially the same. If Amy sometimes emphasized in later novels that Pete’s methods were frowned on by the police, it was not because he sanctioned rootin’, tootin’ American cowboy behaviour. Rather, he wanted to remind readers that the half-breed was still a natural, instinctive man and that the equation between law and justice still held. This correspondence was confirmed by his readiness to teach the Mounties some of his tricks so they could do a better job. He trusted them to use the knowledge wisely. This was not a melding of values, though, only a transfer of skills. While it hinted that some valuable things from the old existence might be perpetuated, it mostly suggested that the new order would become stronger and more adept at getting its way.
As her ultimate match with Blue Pete indicated, Mira was another symbol of the wild, untamed spirit of the West. Her relationship with Mahon cast more light on the linkage between old and new forces. In disillusioning the Corporal by getting arrested, she indicated her acceptance of an inferior social role. “I ain’t in your class,” she acknowledged. There would be no fruitful union between them with offspring combining the strengths of both.13 Her success in the new environment would depend on how well she imbibed the lessons in literacy, dress and conduct which Mahon and Helen taught. Since Helen remarked on Mira’s facility in learning to read and write,14 there was some indication that the original spirits of place could adapt but they were likely to have a much diminished stature. Again, there was no blending of values here, just an exchange of skills which facilitated the grip of ordered society.
The turbulence of the old West would disappear; any regrettable loss would be compensated by the advantages of civilization. The prairie would become a prosperous, well regulated, attractive habitation. This was an optimistic projection Amy shared with thousands of other Canadians and many Britons too.15 He had likely grown up with this vision and brought it with him to the West. There was another dimension to his view of the area, however, one which came from his own experience. An undertone to the major key, it introduced nevertheless a curious chord of aesthetic and moral ambivalence which jarred with the imperialist dream of progress.
There are many indications in the novel that Amy was describing an environment he knew. For one thing, there are touches of modernity, like the telephone used to warn of Dutch Henry’s escape and the car used to transport wounded Sergeant Denton, which seem out of place in an ordinary cowboy novel but not in twentieth-century Medicine Hat. For another, there are characters which closely resemble well-known Alberta personalities of the time. Paddy Norton, the lawyer from Calgary who helped discredit Pete as a police agent is clearly based on Patty Nolan, the real Calgary frontier lawyer who actually was counsel for the Western Stock Growers’ Association in the period when the novel is set.16 Inspector Parker is almost certainly drawn from the real Inspector William Parker who commanded the “Hat’s” police detachment since explicit reference is made to one of his actual cases.17 Not surprisingly, by the second novel the name had been changed to Barker.
More impressively, Blue Pete: Half-breed contains brief flashes of almost sociological discernment which punctuate the adventure narrative. Consider, for example, the description of Medicine Hat “in the early throes of industrial ambition”:
Its natural gas was spreading its fame throughout America and England, and pioneers looking for factory sites were the town’s guests from the moment of their arrival. Its unearned reputation across the border as “the breeder of weather” was being fought by a systematic propaganda that was justifying its cost. The moving spirits of the city decided to go in for sports. Professional baseball was discussed, the result being the formation of the Western Canada Baseball League, more commonly known as “The Twilight League,” because in the long evenings of the prairie the games were started at seven-thirty. Medicine Hat was out for anything that promised publicity.18 There is a ring of authenticity here, as well as traces of insight that invite speculation about what Amy might have produced had he stayed in one place.
Perhaps it was not writing skill that he lacked but frontier fortitude, for embedded in these realistic touches are clues that Amy was less than enthralled with prairie existence. Formulaic praise for the beauty and freedom of the plains was contradicted by references to “shrubless waste” and “mile after mile of the dead grass of years” on the flat landscape. The Parson’s house in town was “rather gaudily painted as an offset to the drabness of the prairie.” Moreover, the land's “bare ugliness,” as he put it in a later novel, was matched by something monotonous and stifling in prairie society.19 Mahon, he emphasized, craved “a little of the variety of [the] outside world”:
Day after day of his duties threw him among men who thought in cattle and horses, whose conversation was round-up and brands and the prospect of encroaching homesteaders, whose sports were bronco-busting and wild riding and an occasional visit to town, whose sleep was mental vacuum and whose work entailed little more. He had never been able to satisfy himself with that....20
It was a feeling Amy probably shared. Whatever the future of the West, its present was less than completely satisfying, and the novel reflected an undercurrent of tension between booster expectations and constrictive realities.
Among the things Amy seemed to be genuinely knowledgeable about was the cattle business, including its shady aspects. Beneath the routine antics of the rustlers was a firm sense of how they operated—taking large herds into the hills, breaking them up into smaller groups, building semi-permanent corrals at regular intervals to speed up the drives. Blue Pete, in his courtroom testimony, listed a dozen-and-a-half ways to change the look of a horse. Such expertise might have come from other cowboy books, but it may be that newspaper work brought Amy face to face with these practices.
The most striking aspect of his depiction of rustling was the assertion that everyone involved in the cattle business, respectable and otherwise, participated. The point was frequently reaffirmed in the story. Blue Pete was abruptly tired from Grantham’s ranch after being exposed as a police agent. He explained in court how brands routinely were overlayed to confuse ownership. Mira’s locally esteemed brothers committed suicide when their involvement in the game was discovered. All this was something more than a plot device. Amy was insistent that rustling was part and parcel of raising cows, and he reiterated the point at length in some of his later novels. In a representative example from The Vengeance of Blue Pete, the Inspector lashed out at local worthies who complained about police inefficiency:
You come blatting to me, you the biggest ranchers in the country, about justice and the prevention of crime, and the duty of the Mounted Police, when you know that if we did our duty, if we considered nothing but justice and strict law enforcement, every one of you would be in Lethbridge jail right now... I don't say you rustle in person, but you know your cowboys do. And you accept what they help themselves to in the way of unidentified stock, and often in identifiable that can safely be taken.21
The ranchers were not the only characters in the novel with suspect morals. It also featured a railway contractor who knowingly bought stolen horses, and a newly appointed judge “whose previous record in criminal cases had frequently brought him into conflict with the police.”22 Together they highlighted the honesty of the Mounties, who were not corrupt, but, as with Amy’s view of prairie life and landscape, they introduced a note of ambivalence that conflicted with the expectation of Edenic transformation. The effect of the whole book, then, was a typically Canadian evocation of an emerging pastoral utopia,23 undercut by an ongoing contest between good and evil, likely to be permanent because ordinary people lacked moral consistency. The evolution to perfection of his romantic vision was challenged by a pessimistic interpretation of human nature. His dream of the future did not mesh with the real situation of prairie life.
Insights into western society in Blue Pete: Half-breed were scattered and brief, submerged in the adventure narrative. But if only to a limited extent, Amy was drawing on his experience of the area, trying to translate what he had known into imaginative literature. The fact is, especially if the novel was written before the First World War, this work contains some interesting seeds of prairie realism. The dichotomy between sentimental romances and realistic depictions of prairie life may not be quite as rigid as some critics have thought.24
At the end of the first novel it was not clear if Blue Pete was alive or dead, but all the important questions had been answered. Mahon and Helen, harbingers of the future, were about to be married. The spirits of place had been defeated or had aligned themselves with the forces of the new. Some disorder existed but it could be controlled by the police. There was perhaps a little regret at the passing of old ways, but no conflict over values. The choices of western society had been decided. This made for a satisfying conclusion but it did not leave much to explore.
Amy was not ready to give up trying to say something serious about the region’s fate. He had one powerful arrow left in his quiver — racism. In The Return of Blue Pete he addressed the “problem” of the alien worker. The book is chiefly remarkable for being one of the most vitriolic attacks on Canadian immigrants and radical labour ever to reach print. The plot revolved around efforts to prevent the sinister International Workers of the World from blowing up a newly built railway trestle out of spite for not being allowed to boss themselves. Its adventure was a thin coating for hate.
The navvies, “wild Continental scum” according to Amy, were “a filthy, low-down gang of [creatures] dressed up like men and walking on their hind legs.” They were violent, duplicitous, cowardly, and completely expendable. Torrance, the contractor, chided his assistant for failing to kill any in the course of construction. One aide, he noted approvingly, “did for five in his last season.”25 Blue Pete, as natural man, confirmed the judgment that foreigners were disgusting and radical labour a dangerous fount of anarchy.
Amy made a concerted effort to explain what made the “Dago Bohunk” so objectionable. Speaking through Ignace Koppowski, leader of the International Workers, he outlined the anguish that resulted from “over-sudden civilization.” “From the crude half-lights of my own country,” wailed Koppy, “I leaped at one bound into the brilliance of civilization’s beam.... And I couldn’t stand it — few of us can”:
... not finding the milk and honey flow out to lave our ships, we start depressed and resentful. We land in a strange country with only a word of its language. No one greets us, no one holds our fumbling hands. By dirty ways we slink to dirty tenement houses to hide ourselves—where disloyalty is the air we breathe, discomfort our bed, and robbery our experience—robbed by the friends who preceded us. Half-cowed, lonely, cursing in silence the drudgery that faces us, we learn to live for ourselves alone. Helpless, we drift into the hands of our own kind, who wax rich on the sale of us in herds to work no one else would undertake. Sullen, keen to the injustice of things, but ignorant of the simplicity of redress, we fall victims to our own morbid hatreds, to anything that promises to feed our fury....26
This kind of sympathy merely diverted venom to those who had successfully adjusted. Regardless of how they fared, Amy found reasons to damn the newcomers. He offered no solution other than complete exclusion.
This was the dark side of the Protestant vision—the fear that Anglo-Saxon superiority would be polluted by the off-scourings of Europe. The depth of Amy’s prejudice was unusual, but not its premise. Just as the ranchers’ moral lapses undermined assurances about the coming elysium, so too did the immigrants. While the trestle’s completion symbolized the West’s evolutionary advance, the continued presence of the workers at the end of the novel represented a source of evil that would not soon go away. Again, Amy’s optimistic expectations ran up against the sordid facts of western life.
Having unleashed this invective, he did not have much more to say about the evolving reality of the prairie. He was in a rather tight conceptual bind. Either he could admit that the simplistic Canadian dream of the future was wrong, and explore the ramifications of this, or he could go on repeating his old message and his established pattern of action with good defeating evil in the progressive establishment of Eden, knowing the chances of this happening were ever more remote. He chose the latter. However, when he returned to Blue Pete after writing several conventional police novels without the halfbreed, the essence of his creation had shifted.
According to Northrop Frye, the extremes of literary design are bounded by realism and myth, with romance in between. The characters of romance, though clearly superior to ordinary mortals, retain some resemblance to human reality. The world they inhabit, though missing many of the frustrations, ambiguities and embarrassments of everyday life, is still recognizable as the world of normal people. The more fabulous the depiction of romantic characters, the more dissociated they are from regular society, geographically and emotionally, the more they begin to show a mythic colouring.27 Even if not formally invested with divine qualities, they may become so distant and unbelievable that the connection with familiar existence becomes exceedingly tenuous. What Amy did when he returned to his creation was to move Blue Pete significantly closer to myth. There were still occasional flashes of insight into prairie sociology, still occasional warnings about vile immigrants, but now Pete worked alone, performing implausible feats at the fringes of society with little to say about what transpired within.
One indication of the change is the disappearance of any love interest in the plots. Mira, as Pete’s wife, continued to drift in and out of the action, especially to rescue her husband from danger, but she became part of the adventure machinery. Helen put in a brief appearance in The Return of Blue Pete, then vanished. With her went much of Amy’s opportunity to discuss domestic and community developments. To compensate for the elimination of romantic involvements, he increased the suspense in his plots. Once embarked on a case, Pete would lose his gun or his horse, get captured by Indians or become lost in a blizzard. Each of these circumstances complicated and delayed the completion of his mission. With this improbable mastering of trial after trial, Pete began to assume mythic proportions while the novels took on the episodic structure common to quest adventures.
As love and domesticity faded, so did the Mounted Police. By no means were they banished completely. Pete’s actions remained firmly tied to Mountie causes but almost always now he worked alone while members of the force became additional obstacles to overcome. Sometimes police had to be avoided because they suspected him of a crime; sometimes they had to be protected. Either way, they were used not so much to comment on what the West was or would become, but just to build tension.
When Pete left the police behind, action increasingly occurred in a world clearly divorced from the normal realm. Whether the Cypress Hills, the Rockies or Montana, normal rules of civilization did not apply. The danger in these places changed somewhat as well. Now the threat was more likely to be an Indian rather than a rustler or a foreigner. Amy was no more charitable toward native peoples than he was toward immigrants. His analysis of their situation was identical. Both groups were composed of backward misfits, resentful of those who should control them. He drew a few favourable portraits of individual Indians, but made clear these were exceptions.28 Whatever the reasons for the advent of these new villains — it may have had a lot to do with reader expectations—the effect was to direct attention to a group that was perceived to be at the margin of real society.
Changes in the setting were accompanied by changes in the treatment of Blue Pete. For one thing, a much greater emphasis was put on the specialness of his gun and horse. The pistol, unremarkable in the first novels, became almost an extension of the half-breed—so important that it alone enabled him to complete his tasks. If lost or stolen, before anything else it had to be found; no other weapon would do. Whiskers, his horse, a remarkable beast from the start, became even more unusual. She seldom required direction and appeared to know every thought in her rider’s mind. Though exceptionally small, she had greater strength and speed than any other mount. Inanimate objects that had special powers, strange and wonderful little animals capable of amazing feats—these belonged to a fairy-tale universe, not a real one.
In addition, Pete became ever more deformed and grotesque. When first introduced he was a bit cross-eyed, unkempt, had a bluish tinge to his skin, and wore outlandish clothing. As a character he was exaggerated but not unbelievable. To Mahon he resembled a London stage cowboy.29 By the late 1920s, after a succession of broken limbs and gunshot wounds, his appearance was distinctly peculiar: “His head hung forward, as if clearing the way, and one of his great rounded shoulders slouched perceptibly lower than the other. He covered the ground with amazing speed, with a noiselessness even more amazing. His crossed eyes darted from side to side, his blue-black face was still expressionless.” Later, his nose got badly smashed; later still, he was attacked by a cougar and told he would carry the scars in his head for the rest of his life.30 Despite the injuries, none of his skill or speed was diminished. From a colourful, unusual cowboy Pete became a shambling, misshapen, good-natured giant. Perhaps his progressive deformities were meant to parallel changes in the landscape as the work of civilization unfolded, but symbol or not he left the edge of reality and became a mythic archetype. The West itself, plagued by an unceasing supply of villains, remained stuck in the process of becoming a pastoral garden. The tension between the expectation of evolution and the permanent struggle between good and evil remained, though the triumph of progress seemed ever more remote.
Why did Amy move toward myth? Why did he give up trying to say anything substantial about the prairie situation? Dissatisfaction with western existence must have been a factor. After all, he left. Once gone, his perceptions, frozen in an era long since passed, became increasingly anachronistic. To compensate for the absence of authentic insight he drifted more completely into fantasy. Indeed, the later Blue Pete books should not be thought of as regional novels. The decision to leave, in turn, may have been conditioned by concurrent realizations of his limitations as a serious writer and of the ease of earning a living by grinding out pulp fiction. His British publishers and international audience were largely indifferent to the real character and future of the Canadian West. They did not care if situations were improbable as long as they got adventure.
Still, this does not fully explain why Amy abandoned a more realistic romance formula. Even with an unwillingness to probe the distance between inherited vision and actual experience, he could have maintained his original vision. Other authors managed to produce adventure without moving so fundamentally into make-believe.31 Like many of them, Amy could have centered on the Mounted Police, keeping more of an attachment to real society. Instead, his imagination gravitated to myth.
Why? Was there something in Amy’s outlook that made even romance unsatisfying? Since little about him is known, the question is impossible to answer, yet his contradictory view of the West — evolving towards pastoral harmony but infected at its very core with seemingly permanent imperfections is intriguing. Amy was writing at a time when cosmological thinking was profoundly unsettled. In the aftermath of Darwin, the paradigm of evolutionary advance was inordinately compelling, yet the anticipation of progress which it reinforced was undercut by deeply rooted conceptions of nature, including human nature, as a fixed commodity. Many people may have been troubled, for example, by an inability to mesh notions of inevitable progress with traditional understandings of evil as an inescapable presence in the world. Coming, presumably, from a rigorous Methodist background, this may have been Amy’s dilemma.
Since it is situated close to the world but not mixed in it completely, romance allowed him to bridge the difference between what he wanted life to be and what he knew it was. He could say something about the actual situation of the West without having to square completely dream and reality. It is possible that as Amy began to realize how difficult it would be to transform the prairie into the garden he expected, how difficult to produce order, justice and freedom in an unstable world, the assurances of romance seemed more fragile. To sustain his optimism he gravitated toward myth, looking for comfort in something well beyond ordinary humanity.32
When romance would not hold Amy retreated toward myth. It was an appealing destination, arrived at by many others travelling a variety of paths. The resurgence of myth has been a distinguishing characteristic of the present century. Ironically, by withdrawing into timeless, archetypic formulas, Amy demonstrated his fundamental modernity. It did not make him a good novelist, to be sure, but it may suggest he should not be dismissed out of hand as an uninspired hack who merely grafted American motifs onto a Canadian setting. Though Blue Pete ossified into a predictable adventure hero, he began as something more: a conscious affirmation of the inevitable, necessary and beneficial transformation of the West. Canadian nationalism was the force that conceived him and an unwillingness to disturb nationalist assumptions trapped him in an archetypal netherworld.

NOTES
[1] Dick Harrison, ed.. Best Mounted Police Stories (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1978), 16.
2 Dick Harrison, Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1977), X and passim.
3. Harrison, Unnamed Country, 160, 161.
4. William Lacey Amy [Luke Allan], Blue Pete: Half-breed (New York: McCann, 1921), 91, 140.
5. University of Toronto Archives, Class and Prize Lists, P78-OI58-2, 1888-1899 and Department of Graduate Records, A73-026-007-32. See also Vernon B. Rhodenizer, Canadian Literature in English (Montreal: n.p.. 1965), 721.
6. Sec David H. Breen, The Canadian Prairie West and the Ranching Frontier, 1874-1924 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983).
7. William Lacey Amy, “Blue Pete: The Sentimental Half-breed,” Canadian Magazine, Jan. 1911, 269-74.
8. Amy, Blue Pete: Half-breed, 152, 50.
9. Ibid., 16.
10.              Ibid., 52, 51, 213, 210.
11.              Ibid., 68.
12.              Ibid., 21.
13.              Ibid. , 204. Though she remains a character in later novels as Pete's wife, there is no mention of children. The older spirits of place are ultimately sterile.
14.              Ibid., 127.
15.              See Doug Owram, Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of West, 1856-1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980).
16.              See Henry J. Morgan, The Canadian Men and Women of the Time (Toronto: Briggs, 1912), 854-55. Amy's portrait of Nolan may have come from a 1903 trial in Medicine Hat involving a round-up captain for the Stock Growers' Association who was charged with theft as part of a prolonged dispute between large and small ranchers. See D.H. Breen, “The Mounted Police and the Ranching Frontier,” in Hugh A. Dempsey, ed.. Men in Scarlet (Calgary: Historical Society of Alberta/McClelland and Stewart West, n.d.), 129.
17.              See Hugh A. Dempsey, ed., William Parker, Mounted Policeman (Calgary: Glenbow-Alberta Institute. 1973); and Amy, Blue Pete: Half-breed, 211.
18.              Amy, Blue Pete: Half-breed, 85-86.
19.              Ibid., 22, 11, 54; William Lacey Amy [Luke Allan], The Tenderfoot (London: Jenkins, 1939), 126.
20.              Amy, Blue Pete: Half-breed, 178.
21.              William Lacey Amy [Luke Allan), The Vengeance of Blue Pete (London: Jenkins. 1939), 65.
22.              Amy, Blue Pete: Half-breed, 178.
23.              See Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden (Toronto: Anansi, 1971), 238-39.
24.              See, for example, Harrison, Unnamed Country, 100.
25.              William Lacey Amy [Luke Allan], The Return of Blue Pete (New York: Doran 1922) 108 64, 39-40.
26.              Amy, Return of Blue Pete, 360, 362.
27.              Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press
1973), 136-51.
28.              See, for example, William Lacey Amy [Luke Allan], Blue Pete’s Dilemma (London: Jenkins, 1945), 9; and Amy. Blue Pete: Indian Scout (London: Jenkins, 1950), 140.
29.              Amy, Blue Pete: Half-breed, 14.
30.              William Lacey Amy |Luke Allan], Blue Pete: Detective (London: Jenkins, 1928), 14: Amy, Blue Pete: Rebel (London: Jenkins, 1940), 68-69; Amy, Blue Pete’s Dilemma, 140.
31.              See Keith Walden, Visions of Order: The Canadian Moimties in Symbol and Myth (Toronto: Butterworths, 1982).
32.              William Lyon Mackenzie King also had difficulty reconciling a belief in the possibility of spiritual and material evolution with traditional religious conceptions of sin. He, too, had a highly romantic outlook, evident in such things as his idealization of women and predilection for chivalric heroes like Sir Galahad. When King's responsibilities increased, romantic optimism no longer seemed enough to sustain his confidence. He turned to spiritualism, asking the forces controlling destiny, or at least aware of its direction, to help make sound decisions in matters where lines between good or evil were not easily drawn. Like Amy, he sought comfort in something beyond ordinary humanity. This tension between evolutionary and dualistic cosmological conceptions as a key to understanding the progressive mentality may be worth more thought. On King, see Joy Esberey, Knight of the Holy Spirit (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), 43-58, 161-62; Ramsay Cook, The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada (Toronto- University of Toronto Press, 1985), 198-200: Reginald Whitaker, “Liberal Corporalist Ideas of Mackenzie King,” Labourite Travail 2 (1977), 137-69; and Whitaker. “Political Thought and Action in Mackenzie King," Journal of Canadian Studies 13 (Winter 1978-79), 40-60.

Keith Walden is a member of the History Department at Trent University.


No comments:

Blog Archive

Countries we have visited

About Me

My photo

As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.