Canadians and Americans clash in this fast-paced comedy of manners, first published in 1894. Ontarions turn out to be much feistier than their US cousins expect. This is true of the novel’s individual characters as well as of the historical moment that the novel depicts: 2 June 1866, the day Fenians invaded Canada. In the Midst of Alarms is fast and funny, but a more serious side of the novel highlights the dangers of historical misconceptions in a world of divided loyalties.
In 1866, a group of Irish-Americans known as the Fenian Brotherhood carried out cross-border raids into British-ruled Canada in order to take over Canada—or part of it—to hold hostage, forcing Britain’s political exit from Ireland. In this tangled political situation, the characters in Robert Barr’s novel who understand history realize the situation must be handled carefully. In fact, the novel is partly about the importance of good books, good readers, and good communications in the flow of history. Readers who have read widely and thoughtfully choose their words and actions carefully. Poor readers fail to grasp the gravity of the situation, showing a dangerously limited awareness of the more serious conflicts that had taken place within living memory, including the war of 1812 and the American Civil War.
The Battle of Ridgeway takes place in the background, with casualties on both sides. The novel ends, firmly looking towards the forward march of history: retreating Fenians, increasingly nationalistic Canadians, the fading “star of empire” (the Fenian raids were unsuccessful in their immediate aim, but did spur Canada toward Confederation the following year, in 1867). A new transatlantic cable was laid just months after the novel’s events took place: communications and history, the novel makes clear, require good readers for a safe world.
5.5 X 8.5
Available October 2015
Robert Barr (1849–1912) was born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada where he became a school headmaster. He also began to write best-selling fiction, eventually becoming a news editor for an American newspaper in Detroit.