Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A Snowball's Chance

Dunstan Ramsay, war hero, historian and noted author of several books about saints, is retiring after 45 years of teaching at a prestigious Old Boys’ school in Canada. Miffed by an article in the college news which portrays him as “a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement”, Ramsay seeks to set the record straight and tell the true story of his life. He does so via a letter to the school’s headmaster, which forms the basis of Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business (1970), the first novel in the Deptford Trilogy.

Commencing with his youth in Deptford, Ontario, Ramsey describing the people and events that shaped his life. Along the way we meet his childhood “friend and enemy” Percy ‘Boy’ Staunton, renowned magician Magnus Eisengrim, unfortunate parson’s wife Mary Dempster, defeated Leola Cruickshank, hideous Liesl and a range of other interesting characters.

On reflection, Dunstan realises that much of what has happened in his life stems from a single incident in his childhood in which a snowball with a rock inside is thrown, hitting the pregnant Mary Dempster and bringing about her early labour. Staunton threw the snowball and feels no remorse. Ten-year-old Ramsay swerved to avoid it and is stricken with guilt. Paul Dempster is the child who is born prematurely as a result. All three boys are intricately linked in ways that unfold over this Trilogy.

There is so much to admire about Fifth Business. The description of the snowball incident and its aftermath is intriguing and Davies’ style of the writing makes you feel as if you know Deptford and its inhabitants intimately.

On one level the book is a simple bildungsroman as Ramsay describes his growth through World War I, the Great Depression and so on. But there are many layers and subtle complexities to this novel that add to its richness: the depictions of small town Canada in the early 20th century; the focus on religion and hagiology; travels to Europe and South America; and the critique of materialism and morals.

Robertson Davies is such an esteemed writer and, as a Canadian, I am ashamed to admit that I waited so long to read any of his work. I loved hearing Ramsay’s tale, and the humour and insight with which he told it. Now that I have found Robertson Davies I will be quick to read the next two novels in the trilogy: The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders (1975) and explore his other works.

See also: 
My review of  The Manticore (1972)