The hilarious plot of playwright and novelist Allan Stratton’s The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish takes us on a roller-coaster ride through Depression-era flim-flam evangelism. The title character is a motherless girl desperate to escape her impoverished life and the cruelty of a dissolute father. Mary Mabel’s life is forever changed by the appearance of Brother Percy Brubacher and his crooked friend Floyd. A self-described “preacher,” Brother Percy has arrived in town to “minister to the locals.”
A freak accident occurs that results in the death of a boy. Mary Mabel lays her hands on the lad and revives him, initiating her career as a miracle worker. Arch-hustler Floyd soon pounces on the opportunities the “Miracle Maid” represents. Thrown under the wheels of media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s publicity machine, Mary Mabel forms a tentative friendship with scrappy reporter K.O. Doyle. Events soon escalate amid a greedy and devious cast of characters, but while Mary Mabel finds fame and fortune, she also abhors the treachery that securing such a lifestyle entails.
Stratton’s expertise at black comedy is very much in evidence in this novel. His ability to make extraordinary events seem somehow plausible, combined with his mastery of wit and language, leaves us shaking our heads at one moment, and laughing out loud the next. Like many a modern humourist, Stratton’s real talent lies in his honest – and sometimes grisly – depictions of human foibles, coupled with a recognition of how easy it is to slip over to the dark side.
Although Mary Mabel, the somewhat unwitting pawn in a cruel and deceptive game played by Floyd and the others, is at the heart of this shady farce, we ultimately learn very little about her. As a result, we do not come to understand her any better than do those who seek to exploit her.
Notwithstanding this drawback, The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish contains a good deal of resonance for our modern age. As we laugh – and often shudder – at the antics of Stratton’s con artists and the gullibility of their victims, a sense of familiarity begins to creep over us. Ultimately, Stratton is reminding us that the lure of hype and the potential for deception are as prevalent today as they were in the era the novel dramatizes.