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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