The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Flight to Canada is far from a conventional novel. The characters do not belong to a world resembling everyday reality. Their circumstances are too farcical and too improbable, the distortions of history too great, and the manipulation of every element of the fictional form to make a point too blatant for the characters to be convincing as human beings. Yet Reed animates his characters. By the end of the novel, one identifies with Raven Quickskill and Uncle Robin as survivors in a world that has lost its meaning. Raven is even close to being the protagonist in a Bildungsroman. The opening pages virtually identify him with the author of the book, and the story itself traces his coming to awareness. When he leaves the plantation, he is a naïve idealist engaged in antislavery activities. He regards not only Arthur Swille but also Uncle Robin as his enemy. He believes that Canada is freedom, that the slaves who escape with him will join the cause, that Quaw Quaw, as a Native American, shares his civil rights crusade. One by one, events disabuse him of his illusions. Yet he does not become a cynic. He holds on to a belief in his inner identity—and in literature as the expression of it. His novel, including the story of Uncle Robin, exposes the giant villains of American society through the eyes of one who has suffered at their hands.

If Raven is the representation of the black writer who over the past one hundred years has discovered his role in American society, Uncle Robin is the Uncle Tom who has used subservience to obtain his independence and the property that was his due. What redeems Uncle Robin is not his cleverness, though Reed respects it, but his willingness to learn and to change. He decides to use his property not for his personal comfort but for the encouragement of black culture. The castle becomes a location for “craftsmen from all...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

Flight to Canada Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Raven Quickskill

Raven Quickskill, a slave who escaped from Swine’rd, the Virginia plantation of Arthur Swille. Quickskill initiates the action of the novel, even though he is not physically present during most of the book, because the event that sets the action in motion is his escape to Canada. Quickskill’s poem “Flight to Canada” makes him famous and causes him to be a target of the Nebraska tracers, a group of slave catchers employed by Swille and other slave owners. When Quickskill discovers that Uncle Robin has inherited the Swine’rd Plantation after the death of Arthur Swille, he returns to America and begins planning a new life as a writer who will write his own life story in an attempt to displace the works of such dissembling white writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara

Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara, a Native American who is Yankee Jack’s wife and Quickskill’s lover. She is also a show business personality, performing as a trapeze artist and dancer. The princess becomes incensed at Yankee Jack when she discovers that he killed her father in the raid in which she was carried off to become his spouse. She gets to Canada by walking a tightrope backward over Niagara Falls, but she quarrels with Quickskill and leaves him.

Arthur Swille

Arthur Swille, Quickskill’s master. He controls not only the slaves on his plantation but also much of the politics of the United States from his quarters on his baronial...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

Flight to Canada The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

There are three keys to understanding Reed’s handling of his characters. One is his free mingling of fictional and historical figures. The second is his turning away from character as it is generally defined, in terms of realistic detail, psychological development, and the like, toward those “essential elements,” as Reed calls them, that “distinguish the character from other people.” Instead of fleshing out his characters physically and psychologically, Reed attempts to “abstract those qualities from the characters just like someone making a doll in West or East Africa.” Acknowledging that this approach may appear “grotesque or distorted” to the modern (Western) reader, Reed contends that “I’m not interested in rendering a photograph of a person. I’m interested in capturing his soul and putting it in a cauldron or in a novel.” Reed’s mode of characterization, like his mode of fiction writing, suggests that “black” magic and a doubly black humor are connected, even interchangeable. The third key to Reed’s approach to character involves adapting his African aesthetic to an American context by drawing on the native culture’s own contributions to an art of abstraction and broadly defined strokes: vaudeville, newspaper headlines, and, above all, cartoons and comic strips. The result is a fiction of types deliberately sketched along the crudest, most satirical lines possible in an art designed to give offense, where grotesquerie and buffoonery prevail, and where the chief Western models are Nathanael West and François Rabelais, not Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.

It should not, therefore, be altogether surprising that when Quickskill meets Brown, the fictional character...

(The entire section is 702 words.)