RAILWAY NOVEL: Writers and the Iron Road

Wed, Feb 11th, 2015 10:45:08 am

          Alan Sullivan's novel, THE GREAT DIVIDE, subtitled "A Romance of the Canadian Pacific" appeared in 1935.
          In a book that was published during a time of great racial intolerance, I was delighted to find mention of Native people, Chinese coolies, and a diverse workforce.
          This is history written as fiction. Sullivan tells the C.P.R. story at two levels. There is the "high" level of raising money to build the road, and the "ground" level of navvies. He introduces Sir John A. Macdonald, William Van Horne, and Donald Smith, but invents characters at the ground level: laborers, gamblers, whores, even a Chinese merchant nicknamed "Graveyard."
          This is clearly a romance. The worker hero Big John Stickey loves several women as strong-willed men struggle against daunting odds. At the high level, the establishment doubts the C.P.R., Sir John faces political foes, and competitors want the C.P.R. to fail. At the ground level, workers face the unyielding rocks of the Fraser Canyon, Selkirk Mountains, and Canadian Shield.
          Sullivan glorfies the railway at the expense of those who suffered from it, especially the First Nations. On one hand, he writes, "These Indians, the natural inhabitants of this wilderness, looked at home here; they were part of the landscape, and in a curious way their procedures seemed more sensible than the ragged right-of-way that was costing so many millions." (83-84)
          But when the Blackfeet halted track-laying on the prairies, Father Albert Lacombe subverted their effort by promising them more land. When the Riel Rebellion broke out, Father Lacome dissuaded the Blackfeet from joining the rebels. (382)   Father Lacome admits, "What has 'appened to the sauvage is our fault, your fault and mine," (123) but William Van Horne responds by referring to buffalo bones, "There's an instance of how the prairie's going to be swept clean of what was once there, Indians Included." (123)
         Sullivan wrote his novel fifty years after the C.P.R.'s completion, and interviewed people who worked on its construction.
          I liked this book; it seemed ahead of its time.

Alan Sullivan
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