A modern Passion

By  Michael Higgins
  • January 29, 2007

0385660944I have long been a keen student of writers from Atlantic Canada. Wayne Johnston, Alister MacLeod and Lisa Moore are but a few of the more recent novelists who have managed to capture not only a national but an international audience. And their work is good. Very good.

But I never quite managed to fit David Adams Richards into the mix. Not that I didn't plan to do so. I just never quite managed it. And then came an alumni gathering of St. Thomas University graduates at Hart House on the campus of the University of Toronto upon which occasion I met Richards. And now I became truly resolved of purpose. That copy of Mercy Among the Children — his Giller Prize novel of 2000 — would be taken down from my shelf and devoured tout de suite. But it wasn't to be; a friend gave me a copy of Richards' newest work, The Friends of Meager Fortune, and I was off to the races — literary races, of course.

The Friends of Meager Fortune may be the most accomplished religious novel to appear on Canadian shores since Morley Callaghan's A Time for Judas, Rudy Wiebe's Temptations of Big Bear or Yann Martel's Life of Pi. It is a significant work of fiction and, in my view, a work of compelling complexity in structure and theme as well as a multilayered study in the human and divine art of compassion.

The novel is set in Richards' home province of New Brunswick in the dying days — and dying is the operative word in this Hardyesque novel — of the logging industry just after the Second World War and just before modern mechanization altered the pulp and paper business. It isn't just Europe that is in ruins (again); it is also a way of being in the province that produced that most controverted of press magnates, Max Aitken or Lord Beaverbrook. They are difficult days, in a harsh and unforgiving climate where snow and wind rule supreme in their fearsome majesty. Richards describes the relentless fury of a New Brunswick winter — pre-global warming — in a way that brings the reader to the threshold of frostbite.

The novel is filled to overflowing with characters who haunt you with their loathsome mixture of coziness and lethality, their vengeful tribalism and crude xenophobia. And yet, and yet, The Friends of Meager Fortune is centred on a motley cohort of damaged heroes who face their destiny with an amalgam of earthy defiance, mad bravery and saintly tenacity. It is a story of innocence that pays the highest price, a story of self-sacrifice that goes unreckoned until it is too late. And most importantly, to my mind, it is a modern telling of the Passion, a telling with all the ingredients: Holy Thursday, Calvary, Good Friday, kenosis (self-emptying), betrayal, Gethsemane, the abuse of authority, the redemptive power of love, the lust for blood, the famine of our lives.

Meager Fortune, the eponymous hero of the novel, is a minor figure who plays his part in the larger drama of the Jamesons, Will and Owen, their rivals, their lovers (both unrequited and misplaced), their logging companions (all cast in a tenderly crafted manner so that each figure remains in the memory) and their tragic deaths.

The dramatis personae of the Passion are here: there is Peter, Judas, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of Jesus, the schemers, the mob, the broken and the desperate. But it is not an allegory. The Suffering Servant can be found in the simple and yet profound acts of self-giving that surprise us with their total love and insane recklessness.

This is not a novel you can walk away from, put on the shelf to gather dust, pass to a friend for a late night dabble. It has the emotional punch of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure and the final line — "All is cut out, muted, torn away" — has a despair-saturated finality about it. And yet

. . . .

Now, where did I put Mercy Among the Children?

(Dr. Higgins is president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.)

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