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by Roy MacSkimming

Sir John A. Macdonald is being removed from the cramped cupboard of Canadian history for a series of contemporary airings, more than half a century after Donald Creighton brought out his impressive two-volume biography of Canada’s first prime minister. Last year, Patricia Phenix published Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald (McClelland & Stewart), and this fall we have volume one of Richard Gwyn’s new biography, John A: The Man Who Made Us (Random House Canada).

And now, a novel. What can fiction tell us about the crafty John A. that non-fiction can’t? Roy MacSkimming, author of The Perilous Trade, a history of Canadian publishing, has chosen to focus narrowly on the last four months of Sir John’s long and action-packed life, so that what the reader experiences is a “lion in winter” scenario punctuated by numerous flashbacks – to the Charlottetown Conference, to a severe gallstone attack, to the virtual abandonment of his son Hugh after his wife Isabel’s early death, to the Northwest Rebellion and his miserable showdown with Louis Riel.

The drama that captures us, though, is not the rather formulaic review of the highs and lows of Macdonald’s career. Instead it is the sight of a 76-year-old politician fighting off the warning signs of a massive stroke while simultaneously campaigning for and winning his sixth election, doing battle with the Brits and Americans over Canadian sealers’ hunting rights in the Bering Sea, and watching his Conservative government flounder in a slough of Quebec corruption that puts the recent sponsorship scandal to shame. We watch the old politician fumble on a campaign podium in Napanee, suddenly aware that his mind is muddled and his sentences are melting “into a trackless waste.” We glimpse him hiding the contorted left side of his face from Lord Stanley, the Governor General, who wants to be briefed on the Bering Sea crisis. In these moments, MacSkimming gives us imaginative access to a public life self-destructing and allows us to see the devastation this wreaks on Macdonald and on all those around him.

One can sense the author’s pleasure in capturing factual detail: for example, the redolent atmosphere of 1890s Ottawa in the springtime, “streets churned to fetid mud-and-manure soup by hooves and carriage wheels,” or the menu from the last of Sir John’s fabled dinner parties. These details are fun to read and help build up a portrait of the world in which Macdonald moved.

Ultimately, though, MacSkimming is too much of a documentarist to let his fiction take wing. He relies far too heavily on Hansard for dialogue, for example. We all know that Hansard reflects the highly artificial rhetoric of the House of Commons, not the way real people speak at all. In one excruciating instance, MacSkimming gives us – practically undiluted – nine and a half pages of Laurier’s response to the 1891 Throne Speech, followed by five and a half pages of Macdonald’s rebuttal. All but the most diehard political junkies will be begging for mercy halfway through this forced march.

And of course, as in all historical fiction, it is never entirely clear what comes out of the historical record and what the author has made up. In an important scene near the end of the book, we watch the prime minister reminiscing about Riel with his private secretary, Joseph Pope. First, Sir John regrets his government’s callous treatment of the Métis: “If we’d taken as much pains to do justice to the Métis as to punish wrong, they’d never have broken the law in the first place.” He then admits to believing that Riel was insane. Is there a factual basis for all this regret and recantation about an episode that continued to taint English-French relations in Canada through the better part of the 20th century, or is it just wishful thinking on MacSkimming’s part?

A highly sympathetic image of Macdonald does emerge in these pages, in spite of the heavy political discussions that threaten to swamp it time and again. MacSkimming makes Sir John a man you would have loved to have known and hung out with – brilliant, but wearing his erudition lightly; passionately pragmatic and unideological; clever but never cruel; self-serving, yes, but always dragging lesser mortals along in his usually beneficial wake. The Tories were completely bereft after his death, running through four replacements – Abbott, Thompson, Bowell, and Tupper – in five years, until Wilfrid Laurier picked up Sir John’s reins and guided Canada into a primarily Liberal century. MacSkimming makes it clear that he sees Laurier as the true successor to Macdonald, and that Canada was blessed with their leadership.