Thomas (James Bonner) Flanagan I.M. Owen - Essay

I.M. Owen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas Flanagan's book Louis 'David' Riel, though biographical in form, is not intended to replace George F.G. Stanley's standard biography, which remains indispensable though lamentably pedestrian. Flanagan does tell Riel's life-story, but with less political, military, and legal detail than Stanley gives, concentrating on what was clearly most important to Riel himself: his religion and his mission as "Prophet of the New World." It's a tragic story of a man who might have achieved much if it had not been for a fantasy-life that grew in scope and complexity until it became his only reality. (p. 53)

[In] his last chapter Flanagan attempts to show that Riel's religion is characteristic both of the millenarian Christian cults of the dispossessed that were frequent in the Middle Ages and have continued to appear ever since (as in Jonestown), and the nativistic resistance cults like the Rastafarians and the Black Muslims. For the author, this thesis is perhaps the main point of the book. For the reader, luckily, it isn't. It wouldn't be particularly arresting even if it were sound; but it really doesn't hold water….

[Riel] did confer priesthood on the members of the Exovedate, as he called his provisional government, and they dutifully passed several resolutions on theological and ecclesiastical matters. Gabriel Dumont accepted Riel's military decisions against his own better judgement, in the belief that Riel was inspired by God. But the cult never became a true cult…. Hence I don't think Thomas Flanagan makes his point. But he has made a good, readable, funny, painfully sad book. (p. 54)

I. M. Owen, "Louis Riel As Religious Prophet" (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 94, No. 5, June, 1979, pp. 53-4.