Thursday, 18 December 2014

Let Rohmer Be Rohmer

So here it is, almost a year later.  This morning I finished Sir John A’s Crusade and Seward’s Magnificent Folly, a book Richard Rohmer wrote nearly forty years after Ultimatum, where our journey began.

Brian’s right.  This is a dull but competent book.  And the period – Confederation – suits Rohmer.  Maybe I’ve just gotten used to the stilted way Rohmer characters speak – a cross between a training film and a gladiator movie – but I also think we’re all conditioned to accept that historical fiction people (you know, in olden times) talked like pedantic, strangely-formal robots. 

“Come in, Napoleon. I have heard much about your recent
misadventures. Do sit down. You must be exhausted from
your 3088-mile round-trip journey from Paris to the gates
of Moscow.”

For some weird reason, it sounds less clunky by candlelight.

But the thing I loved about Sir John A’s Crusade is that it’s set a century before the average Rohmer, but lays out exactly the same way they all do.

A man gets an idea that he should buy something.  (An oil company, a bank, the North Pole.)  He takes it upstairs to the money guys.  (Another oil company, another bank, the German General Staff.) They like it.  So he takes a business trip and makes the offer.   Will they accept it?  And what will the bureaucrats say?

So of course John A. Macdonald tries to buy Alaska.  He was alive when it happened; what else could he have done?  If Richard Rohmer wrote a book about Lewis Carroll, Lewis Carroll would try to buy Alaska.  He had been born, and it was for sale.

And while he was at it, he would have:

- Been briefed at the White House
- Wandered around in the snow
- Worn a snappy uniform
- Praised England
- Insulted Russia
- Thought about the Arctic, and its many untapped resources
- Eaten bread so as not to get drunk on vodka
- Repeated the general premise of the book every 15 pages.  (“I purpose to buy a thing using money.”)
- Taken a woman to a nice dinner at the restaurant in his hotel, and told her a thing or two about how the problem with the Quebecois is they think they’re all that.

Is it wrong to take every story and make it the same?  Don't ask me.  Ask Claude Levi-Strauss. It wasn’t a problem for the Ramones.

Q: Who was Seward, and how did he feel about Manifest Destiny?

“I’m concerned about what those bloody Americans are up to, I must say.  That wretched fellow Seward and his Manifest Destiny thing.” p. 21

“And thereby put the boots to the conniving bastard Seward and his dreams of Manifest Destiny.” p. 33

Such an assault and conquest would be consistent with the ideas of the powerful William Seward, Lincoln’s and then Johnson’s Secretary of State, who made no secret of his belief in the Manifest Destiny of the United States. p.38

The Fenian raids also solidified the intent of Canadians and Maritimers to combine their colonies into one nation loyal to the British Crown, safe from the threat of Seward’s Manifest Destiny. p.39

“And Secretary Seward, the Manifest Destiny man, what news of him?” p. 41

“The lawyer is William H. Seward, President Johnson’s Secretary of State, the Manifest Destiny man.” p. 130

From the moment the President handed Seward that signed and sealed warrant, the ambitious Secretary of State had the authority to turn his dream of Manifest Destiny into exhilarating reality.  p. 182
As the pages curled and the words were consumed, forever disappearing in the fire, Seward was well pleased with his own masterful contribution to the Manifest Destiny of the United States of America. – final lines

Q. Tell Me Something I Already Know

“And we both know how he gets… ill with too much drinking.” p.16

“It’s a laborious process, as we all know.” p. 25

“As you know Harry, my Quebec – Canada East, Lower Canada, whatever – is French.” p.25

“Remember my resolution, George? If you’ve forgotten, let me remind you.” p.26

“As you may know, Harry, my dear wife passed away nine years ago.” p. 34

“I must have said this a dozen times today.  I’m really worried about the sale of Russian America to the Yankees.” p. 39

“… as Marine Minister he has special knowledge of the affairs of the Company which, as you know, is in dreadful condition.” p. 51

“As you are aware, Your Majesty, the affairs of the Russian American Company, particularly in regard to control, discipline, and administration at Sitka, became so inadequate that it was necessary to install a naval captain as governor.”  p.54

“You will recall, Your Majesty, that we were able to negotiate a treaty with Britain...” p.55

“I remind you, Your Majesty,” de Stoecki nodded wisely, “that some years ago the Americans proposed the purchase of our colonies to me, as in the past they bought Louisiana from France and Florida from Spain; and lately Texas and California from Mexico.”  p. 59

“All of you are familiar with the terms and obligations of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1856 after our defeat by the British in the Crimea.” p. 60

“As you undoubtedly know, that was the rumor from Sir Frederick Bruce.” p.90

“As I explained to you, the bread will absorb the vodka…” p.94

‘I’m sure that you, sir, with your vast knowledge of what is being said and done in foreign capitals, are aware of Secretary Seward’s belief in Manifest Destiny.” p. 107

Q: What do Russians drink?

Vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka p.86

Vodka p.87

Vodka p.93

Vodka, vodka, vodka p.94

Vodka, vodka p.98

Vodka, vodka, vodka p.99

Vodka, vodka, vodka p.101

Vodka p.102

Vodka, vodka p.104

Vodka p.106

Vodka p.107

Q. What the Hell?

“Who the hell does Macdonald think he is?” p.8

“For God’s sake, Harry, what are you talking about?” p.29

“What in God’s name can we do?” p.72

“So who’s the source of this great goddamn rumor?” p.72

“Where in hell are we going to find ten million?” p. 75

“Captain, what in hell is going on?” p. 202

“Fisher, what in bloody hell are you doing?” p.202

“Lieutenant, what the hell are you doing with a goddamn pink scarf around your neck?” p. 205


  1. Writes David Skeene-Grant in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature:

    "Among Rohmer's hack-works, there is one shining nugget: John A.'s Crusade (1995), a historical espionage novel centred on Russia's sale of Alaska to the USA, of which the hero is Canada's first Prime Minister: it is one of the best Canadian political thrillers."

    Well, it is a nugget of something, but is John A.'s Crusade really one of the best Canadian political thrillers? Seems hard to believe. On the other hand, I've read only thirteen, and twelve of those are by Richard Rohmer. What I can say is that it's not nearly as good as Charles Templeton's The Kidnapping of the President.

    I have one major complaint about the novel, but because it involves the plot - and I don't want to spoil things for you, Stan - I'll leave it alone for now.

    Here's a minor complaint instead: Seward may live, breath, dream and masturbate over Manifest Destiny, but why is he "the Manifest Destiny man"? The doctrine pre-dated his birth. That he tries to bring it about doesn't make it "his Manifest Destiny thing." I mean, what the hell?

  2. I hope you get to Death by Deficit in the next couple weeks. I haven't read it since high school but I remember Rohmer's Mary-Sue Prime Minister character having a quickie with the Governor General in the midst of a budget crisis.

    1. A quickie with the GG! I had no idea.

      What with lifting 31 pages from a W5 transcript I suppose there was no space for a dirty weekend.

  3. "One of the best" does make you wonder what the bad ones are. "The Canadian Bomber Contract"? It's a term that means everything and nothing. Like "thriller." Because John A.'s Crusade ain't one.

    I don't know if you caught this, because Rohmer barely mentioned it 15 times, but "Manifest Destiny," is the American desire to create a nation that reaches "from sea-to-sea." The Fathers of Confederation would also like a dominion "from sea-to-sea" and the Fenians are thinking the right size for a state is roughly "from sea-to-sea." Because anything worth saying is worth saying over and over.

    1. The OED - not Webster's - defines "thriller" as "an exciting or sensational story or play, etc. esp. one involving crime and espionage."

      John A.'s Crusade doesn't really fit.

      Me? I usually think of it as something like a mystery, but with more gunplay and a lot of running around (in both senses of the term). For "political thriller" add the President of the United States. For Canadian, add the PM (but keep the President).

      But you're right, it means everything and nothing, which explains these lines from the #1 song:

      Night creatures call and the dead start to walk in their masquerade
      There's no escaping' the jaws of the alien this time.

      Aliens, night creatures, demons, ghouls, "the thing with forty eyes"…Shouldn't it be "Horror"? I wonder whether Vincent Price tried to set him right.