Less Crazy Than You’d Think

The Fenians’ quirky place in Canadian confederation

To anyone who accepts the canard that Canadian history is dull, the subject of Keith Henderson’s third novel—the role of the Fenian raids of the mid 1860s in cementing the cause of Confederation—may seem unpromising. So let’s begin with one of the pithiest summaries of the matter in The Roof Walkers:

If everybody and his Aunt Sally are scared to death of Fenians, McGee and Macdonald will be pissing their pants with pleasure. Our bosses in Ottawa see everybody and his Aunt Sally in this way: The scareder they are, the more Canadian they’ll become. Get it? There never was a country born without a good dose of fear.

The history of the Fenian Brotherhood and its less-crazy-than-you’d-think plan to upset the applecart of British rule in Ireland by invading Canada is intricate, to say the least. The Roof Walkers immerses us in this history from the initially naive perspective of a young Montrealer, Eoin O’Donoghue, who is innocent of his family’s Fenian connections until he himself is conscripted to the cause. Eoin is sent to New York to work for the hearty and bombastic William R. Roberts, “Senator of the Republic of Ireland, now ‘virtually established’” and rival of John O’Mahony, leader of the movement in the United States. Although Eoin is fictional, the fact of Canadian secret police penetrating Fenian cells in America and reporting to John A. Macdonald’s spymasters, Gilbert McMicken and William Ermatinger, is not. Eoin recruits himself to this effort: seeing in post–Civil War America “the profound, shocking difference between a military state and one at peace,” he turns informer against his Fenian employer, offering his services to McMicken in the interest of keeping “mayhem” out of his own country.

The fractious, and fractured, character of Fenianism is captured well in this novel, along with slippery affinities with annexationists, Catholic priests, Civil War military leaders, the U.S. secretary of state—and, at least potentially, French Canadians, whom some propose as natural allies by virtue of shared religion and “mutual defeat by the power of the British crown.” But intrigue is distasteful to Eoin, who prefers the “peaceable kingdom” of the Astor Library, where he might find kinship in the writings of Thomas D’Arcy McGee or enjoy the sweet civility of Spenser’s Faerie Queene—despite the latter’s genocidal hatred of the Irish. For Eoin, peace in the present requires a selective forgetting of the past.

Although Eoin loathes his role as a snitch, like any storyteller he has a compulsion to gratify his audience. To McMicken he confides: “To my dismay, I now purvey stories for William R. Roberts that he should have known himself, stories for Linehan and Bernard Devlin for heaven knows what purpose, and stories for you. I can hardly recognize myself.” But if politics depresses the spirit, love does not. Enter the invented twin daughters of the Irish Fenian leader, James Stephens, paired like opposing allegories of their homeland: Brigit, the stunner, “dressed like an Irish pagan queen,” the false coin of ruthless nationalism, and her sister, Deirdre, blemished, stalwart, brave and true, who before long becomes Eoin’s fiancée, thus raising the stakes for him to extricate himself from his duplicitous career.

Despite its heavy historical freight, the story steams along nicely with well-voiced dialogue, lively scenes, mounting danger and, of course, the love interest. It may seem trite to say that all the ingredients are here for a plush mini-series: not only the broad canvas of events but also the carefully rendered texture of social and urban history (cigar brands, saloons and oyster cellars, street gangs, fancy dresses) would make a visual feast, and anything that piques interest in Canada’s past cannot be bad. But lurking here is that vexed question about how closely fictional reconstructions should hew to fact—particularly when they popularize a history of which so many know so little. Reading this book sent me looking in others for confirmation of details and events, and I quickly learned that it would take a well-versed historian to appreciate fully what Henderson has pulled off so intelligently in this fictive re-creation, not to mention his deviations from biography and the basis for his intriguing twist on the standard reading of events. My impulse to map the story to actual history work so preoccupied with historical detail reveals a desire to have my cake and eat it—a good read, but also an education. I would have preferred a concise set of historical notes in an afterword to the potentially misleading quasi-fictional “editor’s note” that prefaces the book.

If these concerns are extra-textual, the structural awkwardness of this novel-in-letters is harder to dismiss. The fact that our 20-year-old correspondent is preternaturally articulate is not the problem: Eoin’s prose is spare compared with the lofty flights of his idol, McGee, at the same age. But it lacks an extemporaneous feel. His memoranda contain what the reader, rather than just McMicken, needs to know. This is the necessary sleight of hand of all epistolary fiction, but Eoin spills beans and then explains them in a decidedly novelistic manner. The belief that these are letters is hard to sustain. Although we share McMicken’s blend of benevolent interest and frustration with the lad’s lack of tactical smarts—“less poetry, more police work”—I am not sure the author means to set the reader in McMicken’s shoes. More simply, Eoin’s reportage reflects the early history of Canada’s secret police and provides a starting point and frame for the narrative. It also removes the need to draw McMicken more fully in a book already crowded with historical players. We know nothing of how McMicken responds to Eoin until roughly halfway through the story, at which point Eoin develops the implausible habit of quoting entire paragraphs back to him. In its execution the epistolary premise is artificial; much as I wanted to buy it, on balance I could not.

All of this is less important than the story itself and the reflections it provokes. Ultimately, Eoin’s version of events does not confirm fear as the substrate of Canadian nationhood. In his reading of the times, Eoin channels McGee: father of Confederation; traitor to the Fenian cause; orator and poet; martyr, perhaps, to the federalist dream of a new Canadian nationality; and, as David A. Wilson calls him in his superb biography, an “extreme moderate.” In Eoin’s final letters the authorial curtain is pulled back, revealing the historical events of the novel, if this is not clear already, as a stalking-horse for Henderson’s long-standing critique of ethnocentric nationalism: he is a former leader of the Equality Party in Quebec and a champion of English-language rights in that province. Quoting McGee on the subject of “why Irish Canadians remain loyal to the British crown,” Eoin writes: “‘We are loyal because our equal, civil, social, and religious rights are respected by this Government, in theory and in practice. Were it otherwise, we would be otherwise.’” In view of the Quebec government’s disingenuously proposed charter of values, this vision of civic loyalty founded in confidence, tolerance, and a peaceable difference-in-unity is resonant indeed.