Love, Trust, and High Stone Walls (Convict Lover)

Article excerpt

The year is 1919. Phyllis Halliday, a plain, quiet girl from Portsmouth Village, discovers a note from Joseph Cleroux, a.k.a. convict G852 in the notorious Kingston Penitentiary. For ten months, Phyllis, using the name Peggy, will correspond with Joseph, whom she calls Daddy Long Legs. Joe's letters hint that someday the clandestine correspondents will meet face to face, but in the meantime he would appreciate her buying him some tobacco. Phyllis, engaged in the adventure of her life, dreaming of the ring he promises her, the car rides they will share after his release, faithfully responds.

MERILYN SIMONDS' The Convict Lover is a riveting story that reclaims an obscure segment of Canadian history. Pushing the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, the author illuminates the experience of imprisonment, be it either physical imprisonment behind bars or the emotional imprisonment of unrequited love. She also tells secrets -- a private one, about a forbidden relationship, and a larger and darker one, about Canada's penitentiaries.

Merilyn Simonds moved to Kingston in 1987 and rented a house. Up in the attic, she found, stuffed into sugar bags and old metal tins, Joseph's letters (Phyllis's had been destroyed by the prisoner). The Convict Lover, a story and a history, recreates the turbulent times of Kingston just after the First World War, an atmosphere reflected by the danger and uncertainty of this clandestine relationship.

Everything had changed. It was as if for the four years of the Great War, they had all held their breath, and now it was being let out in one long sigh, a great exhalation that toppled everything they knew and valued, leaving the world empty, bereft.

The Convict Lover

In 1919, Kingston was still reeling from the devastation of the war. Returned soldiers, finding no employment, languished on Princess Street, angry and broken; Prohibition propaganda was distributed in an attempt to cleanse society, and evangelical Christianity was on the rise. There were, of course, happy holiday times, with families trying to recreate the simplicity of Christmases past, and there were patriotic times, such as the long-awaited visit of the Prince of Wales. But underlying it all was a certain heaviness, a feeling of hopelessness.

Simonds sees striking parallels between 1919 and 1996.

There was an upsurge of fundamentalism immediately after the war. War had broken families apart, through death and dislocation. There was a fear that society was disintegrating. The war was partly responsible, and God could bring you back. You see the same thing now, with the Moral Majority, and fundamentalist movements in every sect. The other parallel is the political swing to the right, the idea that social ills can be solved by more discipline and more police.

Everything you get is a privilege. You are entitled to nothing. Understand? Nothing. In this place, you are nothing.

The Convict Lover

Unfortunately, similarities between 1919 and 1996 can also be noted in Canada's correctional system. The Convict Lover, fittingly, appeared the same week as the Arbour Commission report on the 1994 disturbance at Kingston's Prison for Women (P4w), and feeds into a renewed national concern with prison conditions. The book depicts a shameful time, long gone, in our penal history. Prisoners were not allowed to speak, vote, exercise, or be educated. The conditions at Kingston Penitentiary were appalling. The hospital was filthy, the guards corrupt; the humane vision of reformer William St Pierre Hughes, the newly appointed Superintendent of Penitentiaries, was largely ignored and lost in the brutality of the system.

The paddle was not the cruelest form of punishment the penitentiary had known. The hose, the tub, the thirty-five-pound yoke. A windowless coffin called the Box. The lash, a long tapered whip with nine thinly braided strands, a cat-o'-nine-tails. …