A nation in a town

The amusements, from the fireman’s ball to the town band, are dazzling

A nation in a townIn 1912, Stephen Leacock published his masterpiece, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. In it, the people of Orillia, Ont., thinly disguised as Mariposa, stood in for all Canadians, and we were skewered as we’ve rarely been skewered since: our pomposity punctured, our hypocrisy shown up, our smugness mocked. We haven’t stopped reading it since.

Leacock’s Mariposa knows about the outside world even if the outside world does not know much about Mariposa. In small towns, says the narrator, people have lots of time to read the newspapers cover to cover. In Jefferson Thorpe’s barbershop they talk about the future of China or the relations between the German Kaiser and his parliament. Some Mariposans go away to college; the local MP had two sessions at one years ago and that makes him a man of learning. And the outside world, from time to time, impinges on Mariposa. In the spring, the rough lumbermen, some of whom are local farm boys, come down from the north and lie about drunk on the sidewalk outside the hotel. The discovery of minerals to the north creates great excitement. (Sudbury’s nickel and copper were found in the 1880s; silver at Cobalt in the 1900s; and gold was struck at Kirkland Lake in 1911 as Leacock was writing his sketches.) The mining boom lures Mariposa’s savings and its more adventurous men. Some of its sons go to fight in the South African war; many more, although no one knows it, will fight and die in the First World War.

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Mariposa exists in a specific time and a specific place. It could not be anywhere else but southern Ontario. Its people are of British stock, many of them descended from the Loyalists who left the U.S. after the American Revolution. They are Protestant as far as we know. We scarcely hear about Catholics or Irish immigrants. The two main churches are the Anglican and the Presbyterian. The Salvation Army is the only representative of a more enthusiastic sort of religion. Political affiliations are more important and interesting than religious ones. Most people in Mariposa, and this is true still in some parts of southern Ontario, are lifelong Liberals or Conservatives. The Canadian novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe, who grew up in the West, said Leacock helped him to understand why his Ontario grandfather always voted for the Conservative party in Saskatchewan even though it had no hope of winning. “He followed this fine old Ontario tradition of being born with one’s politics decided.” Some Mariposans, though, will switch their votes if there is something in it for them. The only thing you cannot do, says the narrator, is have no politics at all. Such people, the general opinion is, are up to something funny.

Leacock’s Mariposa takes itself seriously. (So does Orillia still; its website says endearingly, “From our shores we can go anywhere in the world.”) In the Reciprocity Election of 1911, over whether Canada would have more or less trade with the United States, Mariposa, Loyalist Mariposa, votes overwhelmingly against. That, in the view of the locals, saves the British Empire. And no one should think, the narrator warns, that Mariposa is a dull place. The round of amusements, from the Fireman’s Ball to the town band in the park, is simply dazzling. On warm summer evenings the drugstore blazes out as a major social centre. “There is such a laughing and a talking as you never heard, and the girls are all in white and pink and cambridge blue, and the soda fountain is of white marble with silver taps, and it hisses and sputters, and Jim Eliot and his assistant wear white coats with red geraniums in them, and it’s just as gay as gay. The foyer of the opera in Paris may be a fine sight, but I doubt if it can compare with the inside of Eliot’s drug store in Mariposa—for real gaiety and joy of living.”

As in all small towns, people tend to know all about one another. Everyone knows that Peter Pupkin, the bank teller, is courting Zena Pepperleigh, the judge’s daughter. After all, he takes her out in his canoe in the evening and “for fun” they go once to the Presbyterian church, “which if you know Mariposa, you realize to be a wild sort of escapade that ought to speak volumes.” One of the few figures of mystery is the hotel keeper, Josh Smith, who, it was said, had started out as a cook in the lumber camps up north. Smith is huge and imposing, his face “solemn, inexpressible, unreadable, the face of the heaven-born hotel keeper.” Only the faithful Billy, his clerk, knows that he is illiterate. Smith is the Napoleon and the Bismarck of Mariposa, pulling his own chestnuts and those of the town out of the fire (sometimes, as in the case of the Anglican church, literally). Through masterly and devious means, Smith saves his own liquor licence and wins the election as the Conservative candidate. He salvages the Mariposa Belle when it sinks. He leads the effort to keep the town from burning when the Anglican church goes up in flames. (The fact that he was seen carrying a can of kerosene toward the church the night of the fire is an odd story which no one believes—or admits to believing.)

Leacock drops other hints that there is a darker side to life and more below the surface in Mariposa than first appears, as when he talks of Judge Pepperleigh’s son, who died fighting in South Africa, or how the barber, Jefferson Thorpe, loses his fortune. The widowed Reverend Drone, of the Anglican church, is a great comic figure as he bumbles about to the Mother’s Union or the Infant Class. He takes great pride in his gold medal for Greek, won 50 years ago, and is often seen sitting in his garden with a Greek volume. He cannot translate anything, he says, because the true beauty would be lost. But kindly, good Dean Drone is haunted by the growing debt on his magnificent new church. When it looks like nothing can be done to save the parish from bankruptcy, he struggles to compose his letter of resignation. While he is at his desk, he sees the glow of flames from the church and falls forward with a stroke. All is saved in a sense; as it turns out the church carries a lot of insurance. Drone is never the same, however. He sits in his garden reading Greek easily because, he says, his head is so much clearer. “And sometimes—when his head is very clear—as he sits there reading beneath the plum blossoms he can hear them singing beyond, and his wife’s voice.”

In Mariposa, though, things usually turn out well. The sun generally shines on the little town. There is no poverty and no crime. Disagreements over politics never result in permanent rifts. The dentist and the doctor own a motorboat together; during the big election they agree to take it out on separate Saturdays. Peter Pupkin becomes a hero and wins Zena Pepperleigh. They live happily ever after in their “enchanted” house with their “enchanted” baby.

Just as Garrison Keillor does with Lake Wobegon, Leacock is mocking Mariposa’s foibles, its follies, and its frequent hypocrisies. He does so with affection and perhaps a certain regret that he cannot go back to the more innocent times of his youth. Sunshine Sketches ends with a short afterword, this time seen from the perspective of the city. Did you not know, the narrator asks his reader, that there is a little train that leaves the main station every day for Mariposa? You knew about it when you were the boy who had just arrived in the city, but as the years have passed and you have prospered, you have forgotten all about it. In that, you are like the other successful men you meet in the grand Mausoleum Club. “Would you believe it that practically every one of them came from Mariposa once upon a time, and that there isn’t one of them that doesn’t sometimes dream in the dull quiet of the long evening here in the club, that some day he will go back and see the place.” If you do go back, the narrator warns, you will find it the same, but you will have changed.

Leacock always maintained that his town of Mariposa was completely fictional, but he took much from Orillia, which he had come to know well as he was growing up and which was the closest town to his summer home. Before the First World War, Orillia had some 5,000 inhabitants; Mariposa had the same (although its people always suspected they were under-counted in a malicious plot to do them down). Orillia had two newspapers—the News-Letter and the Packet and Times; Mariposa had one—the Newspacket. In Orillia, the town barber was Jeff Short; in Mariposa, he was Jeff Thorpe. In Sunshine Sketches, Golgotha Gingham is the successful undertaker. “I have often heard him explain,” says the narrator, “that to associate with the living, uninteresting though they appear, is the only way to secure the custom of the dead.” Horace Bingham, the real Orillia undertaker, said mildly that he thought this made him sound a bit too preoccupied with business. Not all the reaction in Orillia was so mild. A lot of its prominent citizens never forgave Leacock, and his own mother scolded him for his caricature of Canon Greene, the real Anglican clergyman, who was much loved in town. Greene himself lived up to his reputation for kindliness and apparently never bore Leacock a grudge for what was a pretty harsh portrait. Locals described Leacock as crazy or the town drunk, and it must be admitted that he gave them material to work on.

Robertson Davies believed that Leacock was so stung by the local reaction that his development as an artist, at least in one direction, was balked. In Davies’s view, Sunshine Sketches has “the strong appearance of being the work of a man who will write a novel very soon.” And certainly there are in the book some of the elements of a novel: good stories, vivid characters, and strong settings. Leacock himself disagreed, downplaying his potential as a novelist. “I can invent characters quite easily,” he said after Sunshine Sketches, “but I have no notion as to how to make things happen to them. Indeed I see no reason why anything should.” Even so, it is hard today not to see him as a very Canadian writer indeed, one of the spiritual ancestors of Rick Mercer or the Royal Canadian Air Farce or, as they both recognized, of Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler.

From Extraordinary Canadians: Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan. Copyright © Margaret MacMillan, 2009. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).

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