River of Strangers

River of Strangers by Frank Parker Day was originally published in 1926. It was published just before Rockbound, the Nova Scotia novel about an island fishing community that I raved about last year. Over the years River of Strangers was reprinted in several small pressruns but received its highest acclaim only after the late success of Rockbound. Sixty-two years after Day’s death I am discovering and loving the work of a lost Canadian author. I do hate to use the word “lost” for I don’t think Day is unknown–to historians–in his home province, however to readers of Canadian literature he was most likely an unknown prior to the 2005 series of the CBC radio program “Canada Reads”, where Rockbound was selected and later won the competition.

Unlike Rockbound, which takes place on an island in Nova Scotia, River of Strangers takes place along the Churchill River in Manitoba near Hudson Bay in the early twentieth century. Alex MacDonald is a doctor who is convinced to move his practice to the far north and live in a fur-trapping settlement called River of Strangers. The settlement develops a reputation for being a playground for the men who live there. Drinking, womanizing and godlessness rule the day and all through the night. The headquarters of the trapping company gets word of this and sends over a missionary, John Sedding, to Christianize the men and calm their restless ways.

As soon as the parson arrives in River of Strangers he comes off as some kind of religious fanatic or lunatic, for once he steps off the boat, Sedding has a vision:

“‘Look, look!’ cried the parson suddenly. Duggan and Alex started.
‘Look, look, the Cross,’ he cried again in his shrill voice. He stood with staring eyes and outstretched arms. On the top of the mountain, silhouetted against the lemon sky, stood a pine stump with two half-broken branches stuck out on either side. A vivid imagination might have made of it a cross. Alex stood bewildered at the excited outburst; Duggan shrugged his shoulders and, grinning broadly, tapped his forehead with two fingers.
‘He won’t last long,’ he said silently with his lips to Alex, and made his departure.”

It doesn’t take long for the trappers to give him a nickname, “Wild Jack”. Sedding is a single-minded religious zealot who turns a deaf ear to what the trappers tell him: to get lost. For 1926 Day must have taken some risk in knocking the Christian faith off its pedestal. Religion is scoffed at by all the men who view Sedding’s presence as a way of sabotaging the only fun they can enjoy in being in such a remote place. What I liked most about River of Strangers is that the characters never hesitate to express exactly how they feel. The remote location of course is the reason for this. Sedding is only strengthened by such opposition and seems to get an exhilarated rush by the challenge before him.

The authorities in River of Strangers arrange to have Sedding stay at the home of Alex, since Alex has the biggest home in the small community to accommodate an extra person. Alex lives with Rosy, his maid and cook, and there is no secret about their sexual relationship even though they are not married. Alex was not impressed with his first sight of Sedding:

“‘The parson’s come, Rosy.’
‘I know, I peeked through the window and see you all.’
‘We’d almost forgotten him.’
‘I wish the canoe had upset on La Plonge.’
‘Don’t you like the look of him?’
‘No,’ she pouted. ‘I only want you here.'”

The exchanges between Alex and Sedding, even though they are from a century ago, are spoken in a language that could have been heard yesterday. The parson wastes no time in laying down the law in Alex’s own house and Alex and Rosy resent the way they are being told to live their lives:

“‘Look here, Parson, we must not only begin at the beginning, but have an understanding from the beginning as well. You’re in my house, presumably my guest; you mustn’t quiz me or ask me personal questions about my religion. You’ve your ideas that you’ve learned in your world, and I’ve mine that I’ve learned in mine. I’m only trying to get by quietly and peaceably. I came to River of Strangers for that, and I won’t have my world disturbed. Pray, preach, and fast as much as you like, but leave me alone. Is that understood?’
Sedding was not in the least insulted or perturbed.
‘The voice of God is stronger than the will of my host, even in his own house. I must speak what God puts into my mouth.’
‘Then I sha’n’t listen,’ said Alex. ‘Whenever you begin to talk religion, I’ll play the fiddle. Fire away,’ and he took down his instrument, tuned it, and began to play some selections from ‘Martha’ that he had lately got in a packet of music and committed to memory.”

The novel takes a comic turn when Sedding’s fiancee Mary arrives from England. It is a long trek from their settlement to Port Churchill and Sedding almost dies during the winter storm encountered en route. Sedding and Mary wish to marry immediately yet the only man who could have performed the deed died just days before. Knowing that living with Mary out of wedlock was no option and fearing that the community of River of Strangers would consider Sedding a hypocrite if he cohabited with Mary before marriage, the parson goes out on a desperate quest to find someone in Port Churchill qualified to perform marriages. He believes it a godsend when he finds a man named Salters, who is a tugboat captain. Believing that a captain of any ship is qualified to perform marriages, Sedding and Mary marry:

“Instead of a surpliced priest and the stained glass of a chancel was old Salters with the background of the bar and a row of whisky bottles.”

The novel takes a dramatic turn near the end when Sedding receives a sealed letter from Ottawa regarding the legality of his marriage. I will not spoil it by revealing the contents of the letter and what happens after, but the pages turned all the faster after Ottawa found out that a tugboat captain of all people performed a marriage ceremony. In short, you can imagine that the men of River of Strangers have a field day when they learn the news. 

I have enjoyed both of the novels I have read by Frank Parker Day and cannot wait to read the others. Day did not write much more, only two more books. As with Rockbound I will long rave about River of Strangers.

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