(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...

(The entire section is 666 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 809 words.)