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Buried Treasures

Piratical, political prank blurred boundaries Add to ...

In 1990, At Face Value (McGill-Queen's University Press) made the front pages of eight Canadian daily newspapers, all prominent subscribers to the Southam New Service, as "news" of a rather odd kind. In his "biography" of John White, a true-blue Tory backbencher representing East Hastings from 1871 to 1887, Don Akenson "unmasked" White as one Eliza McCormack, an Irish immigrant, prostitute and cross-dresser. The story had "legs" because it coincided with the newly minted postage stamp honouring Agnes Campbell Macphail as our first female MP.

As the author later wrote in his essay My Tory Transvestite, dealing with the Southam syndicate and assorted television interviewers was "a bit like trying to discuss neurosurgery with a bunch of axe murderers." What Akenson had actually written is a wonderful postmodern, post-feminist, historically grounded fictional elaboration of cultural depth, political importance and literary delight; a hoax, a ruse, a joke, a prank, but neither fraud nor swindle; a great "what if?"

The trickery wasn't (or ought not to have been) difficult to see through: Whenever Donald Harman Akenson, Douglas Professor of Canadian and Colonial History at Queen's University, the world's pre-eminent historian of the Irish diaspora ( Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien; God's Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel and Ulster and a dozen more) and provocative biblical scholar ( Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds; Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus) turns from strictly scholarly pursuits to historical fiction, he abbreviates his name on the title page to Don Akenson.

He had done this four times in the years leading up to At Face Value with books that include another buried treasure, The Orangeman: The Life and Times of Ogle Gowan (1986), probably the most brutal and lively portrait of 19th-century Upper Canada's scandalous politics ever written. But what's even more transparently fictional in Akenson's merging of Eliza McCormack/John White's identities are explicit references to Daniel Defoe and implicit parallels to his Moll Flanders.

Akenson puts Defoe in plain-enough sight: Eliza is much moved by his writings on female pirates and includes reproductions of the bare-breasted engravings of Mary Read with cutlass in hand and Anne Bonny with pistol drawn which lead Eliza to seductively wooing and successfully winning Esther Johnson as wife and, with help from the local Mohawk band, mother to their daughters and son.

At Face Value covers some of the same boggy ground and bedroom misbehaviour as The Orangeman (Eliza McCormack appears in the earlier book and Ogle Gowan in the later one), but takes a more sexually ambiguous and domestic view of political parvenus on the loose in Susannah Moodie's backyard (Eliza/John and Esther White, with their many children, are near-neighbours). As John White, Eliza is not only successful as a Tory but self-empowering as a subversive anarchist.

What Akenson fully intends, and succeeds at brilliantly, is demonstrating "that gender prejudice is not only rampant, but damned silly, and that the assumptions we make about human beings when we pin a gender label on them are so big that we never thereafter have an open mind about his, her, or their life." At Face Value asks, "How would my view ... change if, in an effort to escape gender bias, I assumed that he is actually a woman, or she a man? ... Was John White really a woman? That is a question from male history and an inherently, if unconsciously, hostile one. The known facts of White's life fit the hypothesis, but the reality can never be known and that is just the point: In a culture where most historical records have been made by males, it is very difficult to get at the true stories about women's lives."

As Akenson writes in his endnotes, this is peculiarly true wherever and whenever transvestism is more severely ostracized and criminalized than romantic love between women. Because of its unnerving threat to male domination, the blurring of gender is one of our most pervasive fears, one that will take much more than the currently fashionable "boyfriend look" to conquer. Having seen and heard what happened to Hillary Clinton in her quest for the presidential nomination, imagine what would happen to all the short fuses at Fox News if Michelle Obama bobbed her hair and pulled on her husband's white shirts and dark suits.

The late George Woodcock was among those who got Akenson's point on first reading: He wrote, "Rarely have I seen a better exemplification of the relationship between real fiction and the necessary fictions of history."

At Face Value was short-listed for the Trillium Prize, losing out to Alice Munro's Friend of My Youth. Since then, it seems to have fallen below the radar of even those who circulate Top 20 lists of literary hoaxes on the Internet where it ought to be canonized.

As Donald Harman Akenson's scholarly reputation and works on the Irish and the Bible went global in the nineties, Don Akenson dropped further and further from view until the volcanic eruption of An Irish History of Civilization, in 2005, all 1,524 pages spread over two volumes of what the author describes as "a micro-Talmud of humankind: for, ultimately, we are all of the one stock, and what we learn of one of us tells us something about each of us."

It, too, is a treasure - not buried, just discovered by too few Canadian readers.

Contributing reviewer T. F. Rigelhof continues to move forward in writing his survey of the current state of Canadian fiction.

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