Philip Child William H. Magee - Essay

William H. Magee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Village of Souls succeeds remarkably often in the difficult task of externalizing three separate spiritual struggles, all of them struggles with loneliness and love. Yet the plot which provides the framework for this spiritual drama is trite, and even melodramatic. A seventeenth-century voyageur, Bertrand Jornay, is beset by savage and treacherous Indians and half-breeds in the course of his efforts first to protect his white bride, a fille du roi named Lys, and later to accept an Indian wife, Anne, who is really a lost white girl…. As handled, however, [the scenes in the book] are not melodramatic in effect; nor, on the other hand, are they particularly memorable. Much more vivid are the lonely canoe trips through the primeval forest, which open and close the novel. On the opening trip, up river towards Lake Ontario, Bertrand forces himself to expose his loneliness and longing to Lys…. As each in turn gains spiritual dignity for the first time in his life, each successively realizes a loneliness as intense as the primeval countryside, though by then Lys is hopelessly separated from Bertrand. Scenes like [this] show Child's unusual talent for dramatizing emotions. (p. 29)

God's Sparrows achieves—though much less often—a similar success in dramatizing mental turbulence. It also contains the most effective scenes of the First World War in Canadian fiction. The War becomes the test for the intellectual conflict which opposes two family groups to each other. The Thatchers … question the moral implications of everything they do, whereas the Burnets … look for immediate action, and pleasure. Penuel Thatcher has married a Burnet and is living in the old Burnet mansion with two sons who are similarly at odds with one another…. With the notable exception of descriptions of the front line, the scenes which are not based on the inner torment of the Thatchers seem ephemeral. None of the Burnets on the other hand, is a solid character, and their adventures with the War and with women do nothing to strengthen them. Nor are the scenes in the Burnet mansion vivid, as they should be in a family novel…. The slight falling off in Child's second novel is the result of the comparative failure to visualize one of the two families solidly enough in the process of externalizing the central conflict of ideas. (pp. 29-30)

Child's collected poetry, Victorian House and Other Poems …, was hailed by Northrop Frye as one of the few volumes to give new merit to Canadian poetry in the fifties, but it … was not in either of the chief vogues of the times, the sensuous or the visionary. Since the Second World War, Child has made no attempt to follow the new custom among Canadian writers of adopting recent British or American techniques…. He showed no interest in coming to grips with social issues in a recognizably Canadian society…. And he ignored the renewed interest in Canadian nationalism…. (p. 31)

Neither of Child's novels of the forties resembles in type either of the earlier ones. One is a story of racial discrimination, the other an unusual mystery story. Both develop a theme of love, but on a more ethereal level than The Village of Souls…. [Day of Wrath] develops the conflict in a Jew of Hitler's Germany between principled devotion to Love and the sore temptation to hate. After losing both wife and daughter to the brutal regime, Simon Froben faces first the chance of killing the Nazi stormtrooper responsible, and later the challenge of rescuing a German orphan. Mr. Ames Against Time describes the struggle of a very common man, devoted to Love, against organized evil in the modern city. By practicing and reiterating this Love, Mr. Ames sets out to save his falsely condemned son by unmasking a gang murderer and persuading him to confess.

Both novels exploit Child's distinctive ability to externalize spiritual problems. In the crises noted in Day of Wrath, Simon Froben learns what true Love means, what he must and must not do. In Mr. Ames Against Time, the cowardly old Mr. Avery shows the depths of spiritual despondence both in his memory of having surrendered military secrets in the First World War and in his quavering fright at Mr. Ames' investigations. The themes are more uncommon than those in the earlier novel, but the scenes that portray them are less credible.

Victorian House, the main piece in Child's collected poems, is a narrative developed in reverie rather than dramatically…. The poem as a whole is melancholy and static rather than optimistic and energetic, as the novels are. The melancholy also dominates the lyrics which conclude the volume of poetry. Most of them are reflections on death, the last one returning to the theme of a Love large enough to forgive Judas.

With such an...

(The entire section is 1991 words.)