More than 100 years ago—in the era of Rudyard Kipling, Robert Baden-Powell and the beginning of the scouting movement, the reading public had a great interest in stories about animals, both domestic and wild.
For those writing in Canada, it was an appetite to seize upon, since financial survival often depended not on success in Canada where the reading audience was small, but in the vast book markets of the United States and Britain.
The first book by a Canadian author to sell a million copies was the much beloved children’s classic, Beautiful Joe, a tale of a mistreated dog rescued by a clergyman’s family. The author, Margaret Marshall Saunders, was born in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley in 1861. She was a contemporary of Lucy Maud Montgomery who wrote Anne of Green Gables and the two of them co-founded the Maritime Branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.
Saunders dropped her first name, thinking the masculine-sounding pen name Marshall Saunders would be more attractive to readers. Saunders based the novel on a story she heard while visiting relatives in Meaford, Ont., approximately 180 kilometres northwest of Toronto on Georgian Bay, but set it in Maine in order to appeal to an American audience.
Probably what most set the book apart from others published at the time was that Saunders let the dog, Beautiful Joe, tell his own story. However, Beautiful Joe is not a Walt Disney-type of animal who talks to humans. It is a fairly realistic account of a dog’s behaviour, if only he could explain it. For instance, when Joe hears a burglar in the house, he is in a dilemma: “I thought I would go crazy! I scratched at the door and barked and yelped. I sprang upon it, and though I was quite a heavy dog by this time, I felt as if I were as light as a feather.…
“In the midst of the noise I made, there was a screaming and a rushing to and fro upstairs. I ran up and down the hall, and halfway up the steps and back again. I did not want Miss Laura to come down, but how was I to make her understand?”
The book begins with a shocking act of cruelty. After being kicked by his surly original owner, Joe bites back, throwing the owner into a rage in which he uses a hatchet to chop off the puppy’s ears and tail. Rescued by a passing teenage boy, Joe is adopted by the Morris family who name him Beautiful Joe to compensate for his disfigurement.
Joe and his new owners have a series of adventures, almost all of which end with a moral about treating animals humanely. A tale about the family looking after a malnourished cat ends with Joe’s observation: “It was nothing new for the Morrises to feed deserted cats. Some summers, Mrs. Morris said, she had a dozen to take care of. Careless and cruel people would go away for the summer, shutting up their houses and making no provision for the poor cats that had been allowed to sit snugly by the fire all winter. At last Mrs. Morris got into the habit of putting a little notice in the Fairport paper, asking people who were going away for the summer to provide for their cats during their absence.”
The manuscript won a literary contest sponsored by the American Humane Education Society and the book was published in 1893. By 1900, over 800,000 copies were sold in the U.S., 40,000 in Canada and 100,000 in the United Kingdom. Worldwide sales by the 1930s exceeded seven million.
Saunders continued to reside in Nova Scotia, writing novels and short stories, and lecturing throughout the U.S. on the rights of women and animals. In 1914, she moved from Halifax to Toronto and lived in a house filled with animals. She was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1934, and died in Toronto in 1947 at the age of 85.
The town of Meaford has kept Saunders’ memory alive with the creation of a Beautiful Joe Park, sitting on 8.5 acres of land along the meandering Bighead River. The Beautiful Joe Heritage Society runs the park which it hopes to turn into a significant tourist attraction “dedicated to the memory of animals who have demonstrated outstanding interaction with their human counterparts.”
Children and adults alike are still reading the many animal stories written by Jack London. Although he was an American, it was in Canada where London found the subject matter leading to his greatest success.
Born in San Francisco, London left school at age 14. He worked as a sailor and travelled North America as a hobo riding on freight trains, all the while using his experiences as raw material for his short stories. He had yet to have much success when his adventurous spirit, like that of poet Robert Service, took him to Canada’s Klondike in 1897 at the height of the gold rush.
London sold his first story, To The Man on The Trail, to Overland Monthly magazine in 1899 and was soon selling to Atlantic Monthly and other popular American magazines. His second novel, The Call of The Wild, brought London international fame when it was published in 1903. It tells the story of a mixed-breed dog named Buck, living an easy life in California until he is sold by his master’s groundskeeper to a brutal dog handler who provided strong dogs to the prospectors heading to the Klondike. Horses had proven ill-suited for working in the mountainous, snow-covered frontier. Dogs were needed to pull sleds and work as general draft animals.
Buck experiences an education that takes civilization out of him. As he passes through a series of brutal or incompetent owners, he not only learns to fear men, but other dogs which, unlike him, were born into the harsh environment of Canada’s Yukon. Survival for Buck means never losing his footing in a fight with the usually half-starved huskies carrying the sleds. “The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still, cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him.”
The Call of The Wild is a novella in length, running about 75 pages in most editions. London followed it in 1906 with White Fang, a much longer and equally popular novel, which follows the transition between civilization and wilderness in reverse. White Fang is a wolf with some dog ancestry, beginning life as a wolf cub learning to live in the wild. This all changes when he encounters a nomadic native band. He eventually passes through a number of human owners while slowly coming to terms with civilization. “The cub had never seen man, yet the instinct concerning man was his. In dim ways he recognized in man the animal that had fought itself to primacy over the other animals of the Wild. Not alone out of his own eyes, but out of the eyes of all his ancestors was the cub now looking upon man…. Had he been full-grown he would have run away. As it was, he cowered down in a paralysis of fear, already half proffering the submission that his kind had proffered from the first time a wolf came in to sit by man’s fire and be made warm.”
By 1913, London was said to be the highest paid writer in the world. He was back in California and wrote novels on other subjects, but it was Canada’s north that remained the source of his lasting success. He would later write: “It was in the Klondike I found myself. There you get your perspective. I got mine.”
London, who developed kidney disease in his thirties, died in California in 1916 at the age of 40.
Perhaps the strangest writer to get his perspective from Canada’s wilderness was Archibald Belaney. He was born in the English Channel port of Hastings in 1888, but as far as the world knew of him during his lifetime, he was the son of a Scots trapper and an Apache woman and had grown up in Northern Ontario, with the name Grey Owl. He claimed to have learned English as a young boy tutored at home, but had mostly spoken native tongues during his adult life.
He published some articles in Britain under the name A.S. Belaney, but in Canada he began writing short stories under the name of Grey Owl in Forest and Outdoors magazine published by the Canadian Forestry Association. He became a documentary filmmaker and eventually settled in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan where he was honorary warden and responsible for the protection of the beavers.
His fame was cemented with his hugely popular autobiography titled Pilgrims of the Wild, published in 1935. He glosses over his childhood, instead beginning it with his return from the First World War as a much disillusioned war veteran, writing that he had “entered the army as a private and left it as one. I had come back to the woods with my efficiency much impaired, and my outlook on things had in no way been improved by the job of a sniper that I had held, and the sole educational effect the war had been to convince me of the utter futility of civilization.”
Grey Owl returned to the wilderness with his Mohawk wife, Anahareo, at first making a living as a trapper and guide. But, under the influence of Anahareo, he becomes appalled by the practices of inept and inexperienced trappers. “The inhumanities aroused in me a strange feeling; it was that these persecuted creatures no longer appeared to me as lawful prey, but as co-dwellers in the wilderness that was being so despoiled, the wilderness that was so relentless yet so noble an antagonist. They too fought against its hardships and made their home in it; we all, man and beast, were comrades-in-arms. To see them so abused awoke in me a kind of loyalty or esprit de corps, so that for me to continue my own operations against them along with these alien interlopers who had nothing in common with any of us, now seemed like some form of treason….”
The animal heroes of his book are two beavers, Canada’s official animal symbol. They are found as orphaned kits whose mother had drowned in a trap. Grey Owl and his wife adopt them, give them the names McGinty and McGinnis, and share their life in a humble cabin in northern Quebec.
For all the fiction that Grey Owl was presenting about himself, his writing is non-fiction. There are no animal narrators or extraordinary wilderness adventures. His writing about his animals was honestly observed and reported. “I had seen dogs, wolves and foxes tussle and had watched most of the other beasts, from cougars to squirrels tumble around and paw at one another like the animals they were. But these extraordinary creatures [McGinty and McGinnis], not satisfied with the amusements that other beasts were contented with, stood up on their hind legs, put their short arms around each other as far as they would reach, and wrestled like men! Back and forth, round and round but never sideways—forcing, shoving and stamping, grunting with the efforts put forth, using all the footwork they knew how, they would contest mightily for the supremacy.”
Grey Owl grew in international fame and lectured on conservation throughout North America and Britain, always sporting his native dress. But he could not keep his true identity a secret forever. It is a testament to his power of persuasion that when he was confronted with his identity by a reporter from the North Bay Nugget, he was able to convince him to keep the secret until he died.
Perhaps Grey Owl knew that would not be long. He died of pneumonia, brought on by exhaustion from his touring, in his cabin near Prince Albert, Sask., on April 13, 1938, at the age of 49. The Nugget broke the story as soon as his death was announced. Grey Owl’s popularity seemed eclipsed by the ignominy of the fraud.
Still, time has been more forgiving. After a generation of neglect, his books were again published in the 1970s as interest in the conservation movement grew. Today his autobiography and other books such as Tales of An Empty Cabin and Sajo and the Beaver People are back in print and easily found. Sir Richard Attenborough directed a film version of his life starring Pierce Brosnan in 1999.
Other early Canadian writers received great financial success with their animal stories during their careers, but are not that well read today. One of those was Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, a New Brunswick teacher who moved to the U.S. Today he is much better remembered as “the father of Canadian poetry” because of his influence on early Canadian poets (This Land of Verse, July/August).
Ernest Thompson Seton, who immigrated to Canada from Britain as a child and spent much of his youth in Manitoba, took his success to the U.S. His stories on North American native life influenced Baden-Powell who was introducing the scouting movement to the U.S. Seton had formed his own boys organization in Connecticut, the Woodcraft Indians, which merged with others to form the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Seton was named the BSA’s first chief scout. However, as he grew more opposed to the direction the movement was taking, he was expelled from his position for not being an American.
Like Aesop in ancient times, these writers found that by telling tales of animals, they could find a voice that spoke of themselves and the country in which they dwelled.
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