By Trevor Busch
Almost by nature, Canadian literature in the 20th century invariably carried with it the twin saddlebags of informing or enhancing Canadian identity and culture — goals which in a real sense are illustrative of the enduring Canadian fascination with defining ourselves separately as a nation. Especially when considering the influences of our giant American cousins to the south and our deep-seated insecurities about just what makes something — or someone — quintessentially Canadian.
Interestingly, today we still haven’t lost much of our passion for defining what makes something Canadian, or in laying claim by divine right to the national pastime, to the beaver, the moose, or the double-double, or indeed anything that we choose to point a finger at and say ‘There you go, that’s Canadian. That’s part of what it means to be a Canadian.’ While any number of examples could be pointed to, and while many are no doubt true examples of ‘Canadiana,’ remarkably many Canadians still struggle with defining what makes them, and their country, truly unique.
This despite the best efforts of educators and legislators for decades to infuse young minds with Canadian literature, television and radio programming, and history.
Not that this effort has been in vain or should be curtailed, but it has always carried with it a sense that Canadians — both the people and nation — were being fitted to an idealized perception of what it means to be Canadian, rather than what it might actually mean in practice on the corner of Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg, in a bar in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on a ferry crossing the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver Island, or standing on the frozen banks of the Mackenzie River delta at Tuktoyaktuk.
This phenomenon impacted much Canadian fiction throughout the 20th century, and indeed it was once possible to be a Canadian author, but for your writing to not be considered (depending on your subject matter) as Canadian literature.
This differs, for instance, from American authors who write on a wide variety of subjects, but their work is always considered to be “American” even if it doesn’t deal with baseball, bubble gum, or Chevrolets.
Not so for Canadian authors, whose literature in many significant ways must deal with specific cultural cues — beavers, hockey or the Northwest Passage for instance — for it to be considered true Canadian literature.
There are some Canadian authors, however, who stand as icons of Canadian literature because — for better or for worse — their works deal exclusively with the Canadian experience, climate and geography.
Farley Mowat, one of the world’s more easily recognizable Canadians, is something of a Canadian cultural icon himself by virtue of the enormous popularity, and sometimes controversial nature, of his work. Mowat rose to fame for his ecological and sociological polemics, such as People of the Deer (1952) or Never Cry Wolf (1963), but also wrote works targeting young audiences, written for a genre — boy’s adventure fiction — that has almost disappeared from the canon of modern fiction, at least in any similar fashion to what might have been commonly witnessed at the mid-point of the last century.
In Mowat’s The Black Joke (1962), a boy’s novel and rousing sea tale in the spirit of pirate fiction, two young boys from Newfoundland take to the sea with their father and guardian during the 1930’s for a daring smuggling operation aboard the Black Joke, with inevitable trouble and derring-do ensuing along the way.
Although a largely obsolete genre of fiction today, somewhat in the vein of Hardy Boys novels, vintage boy’s adventure fiction is still well worth a second look — for boys and adults alike. Although obviously written for the target audience, The Black Joke is nevertheless still a good story, although it would seem to lack some of the extensive character development and excellent plot design found in some of Mowat’s other young adult fiction, namely the classic Lost in the Barrens (1956), while excluding its lacklustre sequel The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966), as well as Owls in the Family (1961).
Obviously enjoying a less dedicated following than some of Mowat’s more impressive works, The Black Joke is a novel of the sea — a genre in which Mowat wrote a number of other works, including The Grey Seas Under (1959), The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float (1969), or The Farfarers (1998) — which didn’t focus as much public attention or enjoy the same popularity as Mowat’s works that focused on the Canadian North.
Like in almost all his works, Mowat (who died in 2014) is a masterful storyteller with an eye for efficient detail, but The Black Joke is something else entirely — a mixture of adventure, pirate fiction, and just the slightest touch of social commentary about Depression-era Canada, combining to make for a breezy (just 218 pages) but impactful diversion. The reader will also be treated to Mowat’s prose-related rendition of Newfoundland slang and speaking cadences, which should delight (or serve to horrify) the phonetics taskmasters.
While the plot of the The Black Joke originates in Newfoundland, fascinatingly most of the action actually takes place on St. Pierre and Miquelon, French colonial possessions that lie just off the southern coast of Newfoundland. A last holdover of the former colonial empire of New France, St. Pierre and Miquelon are one of the last bastions of a once-great empire that spanned the globe, now reduced to lonely outposts of rocky island buffeted by the unforgiving North Atlantic Ocean.
Central to the novel’s plot is St. Pierre and Miquelon’s Depression-era role as a liquor smuggling territory for evading alcohol Prohibition in the United States.
In 1931, for example, the archipelago was reported to have imported 6,871,550 liters of whisky from Canada in 12 months — supposedly for domestic consumption when at the time the island’s population barely topped 2,000. The end of prohibition in 1933 plunged the islands into economic depression. In another historical footnote, during WWII the islands sided with France’s Nazi-puppet Vichy regime (for a short time creating a nominally Nazi-friendly enclave less than 25 kilometres off a Canadian coastline) which was promptly seized by Charles DeGaulle’s Free French forces in an extensive naval operation which had as much to do with public relations as it did with strategic considerations.
A rip-roaring sea yarn infused with a pea-soup fog of Canadiana, Mowat’s The Black Joke is both an homage to the disappearing genre of boy’s adventure fiction and our obsession with making our literature “more Canadian than Canadian.” Easily readable for both young and old, The Black Joke does not disappoint.