Flight to Canada Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Flight to Canada is Reed’s Civil War novel, all ages of American history are squeezed into this satire. As in all Reed’s novels, time is fluid. It opens with Reed’s poem “Flight to Canada,” followed by a present-day reflection on the ways in which Josiah Henson’s escaped slave narrative and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s more celebrated version of it helped create the history of the war.

Thus, the time-consciousness of this novel is always double, referring to the events, real and fictitious, of the 1860’s and the 1970’s simultaneously. Deliberate anachronisms are commonplace; when Abraham Lincoln first meets the Virginia aristocrat Arthur Swille, Swille is talking on the telephone. The play at Ford’s Theatre at which Lincoln is assassinated is carried on public television.

There is a tinge of autobiography in the novel’s protagonist, Raven Quickskill. Quickskill is a poet, and it is his writing that helps him to escape slavery on a Virginia plantation. The Civil War ends before Quickskill actually leaves, but his master, Arthur Swille, pursues him anyway. Swille is a seductive villain. A powerful international businessman and financier, he deals with both sides in the war, and treats President Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Generals Lee and Grant like toadies. The scenes with Lincoln produce some of Reed’s most enjoyable satire. Reed’s Lincoln is a bit of a hick, and his assistance to the slaves is shown to be political expediency. Nevertheless, Reed makes him likable: He defends his wife against cruel attacks by Swille, and though he takes Swille’s money, he does...

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Flight to Canada Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Flight to Canada records the conflict between a slave, Raven Quickskill, and his master, Arthur Swille, yet the two are physically separated throughout. When the story begins in the early 1860’s, Raven has already escaped to Buffalo, New York, en route to Canada and freedom. Swille remains on the Virginia plantation orchestrating his capture, even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Though the bulk of the narrative follows a chronological line ending with Swille’s death and Raven’s return to the plantation, the opening chapter is the final scene. Raven is sitting in the dining hall of the castle, now owned by Uncle Robin (Uncle Tom), and is planning his next piece of writing, his version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a truthful account of America under slavery that gives Uncle Tom his due. Flight to Canada is the result and Raven Quickskill is Ishmael Reed.

Raven was already a writer before his escape. His “Flight to Canada,” a letter-poem addressed to Swille, describes his journey (by airplane) and closes with the admission that he poisoned Swille’s bourbon before he left. The poem was to gain for him the two hundred dollars that he would need to cross the border into Canada, but it would also make him famous and easy to locate by Swille’s Nebraska tracers. Before he learns where Raven is, Swille has already begun to use his influence, as the most powerful man in the United States, to get his slave back. When Abraham Lincoln visits him to borrow money for the war effort, he leaves Swille with the impression that he will, in exchange, maintain slavery after the war. (During the visit, a soldier fortuitously shoots the poisonous bottle of bourbon from Swille’s hand.) Following the visit, Lincoln has the sudden inspiration that slavery is the issue that will win the war and prepares the Emancipation Proclamation. He returns the gold to Swille, who, feeling betrayed, sets in motion the assassination. Without Lincoln’s support and...

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Flight to Canada Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In an interview with John O’Brien, Ishmael Reed once defined the novelist as a“fetish-maker” and the novel as an “amulet.” The language he used is instructive in that it “conjures” (another of Reed’s favorite words) a cultural perspective quite different from the more conventional European one that Reed’s densely and enthusiastically intertextual approach opposes and parodically undermines. Against the linear and largely univocal tradition of the European novel, Reed offers a fiction that is both diffuse and multivoiced, close in structure to the Sufi “scatter style” that characterizes Reed’s essays. His innovativeness involves a recycling of older, often previously marginalized (in the West, that is) styles and materials. This recycling is, however, not at all nostalgic. Reed uses material from the past “to explain the present or the future,” he has written. “Necromancers used to lie in the guts of the dead or in tombs to receive visions of the future. That is prophecy. The black writer lies in the guts of old America, making readings about the future.” In the case of Flight to Canada, this past is most specifically and hilariously Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852). Far from being a simple parody, Reed’s novel is, in Jerome Charyn’s words, “a demonized Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that draws upon two additional aspects of Reed’s “Voodoo” (or, alternately, “NeoHooDoo”) aesthetic. First, it brings together past and present at a single spatial-temporal narrative point, and second, it amalgamates a vast variety of materials, of which Stowe’s novel and the slave narratives upon which it is based are only the most obvious. Just as Stowe exploited the slave narrative tradition for her own novelistic and moralistic purposes, Reed exploits Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this time in a self-conscious rather than (as in Stowe’s case) self-effacing manner.

Flight to Canada is divided into three parts. The first, “Naughty Harriet,” makes abundantly clear Reed’s satiric thrust. Reed’s opening gambit does more than ironize Stowe and her novel. It calls into question the very idea of openings, something Michel Foucault was doing at around the same time, though in a far more theoretical manner. Thus, “Naughty Harriet” opens with what in effect may be described as a series of openings. The allusion to Stowe is immediately followed by the poem “Flight to Canada,” signed by Raven Quickskill, whose signature forms an integral part of the poem. The next fifteen pages offer a brief, italicized account...

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Flight to Canada Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Although brief and largely introductory in nature, Bell’s discussion is valuable both for its overview of Reed’s career and aesthetic and for its situating of Reed’s work within the tradition of the African American novel.

Cote, Jean-Fracois. “The North American Novel in the United States: Ishmael Reed’s Canada.” Canadian Review of American Studies 26 (Autumn, 1996): 469-480. Cote examines novels written by authors from the United States and explores how their works reflect North American social identity. He offers examples of North American novels, as well as an in-depth analysis of Reed’s Flight to Canada. He interprets the history of the novel and discusses the literary hegemony of the United States over the rest of North America.

Davis, Matthew R. “ Strange History. Complicated, Too.’: Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada.” Mississippi Quarterly 49 (Fall, 1996): 744-755. Davis discusses Reed’s “blend of anachronistic history” as reflected in Flight to Canada. He examines how Reed’s work is theorized, offers a description of his style of writing, and examines his characterization of history.

Dick, Bruce, ed. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Features a wide range of critical opinion concerning Reed’s writings, including Flight to Canada. A detailed introduction surveys the response to Reed’s works, a chronology lists the major events in his life and career, and a bibliography suggests books for further reading.

Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. The fiction of Baraka, Reed, and Delany proves that historically informed and historically relevant postmodern fiction is possible. Reed, the most “spontaneous” and “brazen” of the three, deconstructs the black...

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