Bred in the Bone - the Fiction of Canadian Author Robertson Davies

Article excerpt

J.B. Cheaney is a freelance writer living in the Ozarks of Missouri. Her first novel, The Playmaker, was recently published by Random House.

A reddish band of wintry twilight broods over the prairie as two boys make their way home from an afternoon of sledding. One of the boys is taunting the other, punctuating his remarks with snowballs. They come suddenly upon their town, its streets nearly empty, its steely air tinged with woodsmoke, stable sod, and dozens of evening meals--smells both earthy and ethereal. Just ahead, the local Baptist pastor strolls the deserted street with his pregnant wife. The taunting boy packs his last snowball around a chunk of Canadian pink granite the size of a hen's egg. He hurls the overcharged missile; his target ducks. The snowball strikes the pregnant woman on the back of her head, and the lives of five people are changed forever.

Five years later, in the same town, William Robertson Davies was born to the local newspaper editor. ...

"Wait!" The Angel of Biography, known in medieval church tradition as the Lesser Zadkiel, lays down his pen. "You're treating the snowball scene as fact. You speak of Deptford, a fictional town, as though it were Thamesville, the actual place where the author was born."

"But that's exactly my point," frowns the Daimon Maimas, another medieval tradition serving as a guardian spirit. He dislikes being interrupted, especially at the beginning of a story. "This author saw a practical link between history and imagination. Not that he was a mystic, or delusional; his two feet were firmly planted on Canadian sod. But he was keenly aware of what lay beneath that sod-- figuratively, of course: not earthworms and microbes but family tensions, ancestral stories, national character, and, deepest of all, human archetypes."

"Archetypes? You know we're not overly impressed with Jungian psychology here."

"True, but Carl Jung provided keys for helping our subject assess the meaning of his existence. As did the Bible, Browning, Shakespeare, Victorian romance. ..."

"Understood, but let us look at the facts of that existence first."

The daimon sighed. "Very well; if you enjoy the gray tone of The Dictionary of North American Biography, I'll do my best to comply, though I prefer brighter colors, as did my subject (who once described the Canadian character as outwardly drab, while inside it flashed 'bright red with big dabs of purple'). Just the facts, then."

William Robertson Davies was born on August 28, 1913, the third and last child of William Rupert and Florence McKay Davies. Rupert had immigrated to Ontario from Wales at the age of fifteen and prospered in the newspaper business. He possessed the storytelling gifts of his ancestors but also a wide mood spectrum ("All Welshmen are manic- depressives," his son recalled later). Florence was of pioneer stock. She could count Loyalist refugees among her ancestors and drew her character from the sardonic stoicism of the prairie: dutiful but not warm, self-reliant but not self-affirming.

From early childhood, "Bobby" was plagued with respiratory ailments, poor eyesight, and a slight malformation of the inner ear that affected his coordination such that he never learned to ride a bike or drive a car. But he was a "noticing" sort of boy, unusually alert to sensory impressions--especially smell. Later, he would be able to recall experiences with a vividness akin to reliving them.

In 1918 Rupert Davies purchased the Renfrew Mercury and moved the family to the town of five thousand inhabitants in northeast Ontario. Renfrew was isolated, culturally deprived, and cool to strangers. Davies never revised his antipathy toward it, an impression partly due to the North Ward School. Much of the student body consisted of Scots farmboys, who couldn't resist the many temptations offered by the underweight and dandified editor's son. When they weren't baiting or beating him on the playground, they were slicing up cats with razor blades or inflating live frogs with straws. …