Alice Munro Country: Essays on Her Works and its companion Alice Munro Everlasting form a two-volume collection celebrating the work of Canadian writer Alice Munro. Editor J.R. (Tim) Struthers has brought together critical appreciations from 34 contributors, including Catherine Sheldrick Ross, George Elliott Clarke, Jack Hodgins, Judith Thompson, Monika Lee, and James Reaney.
Like James Reaney, Alice Munro grew up in Southwestern Ontario and many of her stories are set in Wingham, Ontario, in Huron County. Reaney’s essay, “An ABC to Ontario Literature and Culture,” outlines a graduate course he taught at the University of Western Ontario in the early 1970s.
JULY 18: VIII.Through the Years in West Nissouri, Miller, Duncan, Munro. This was local history into fiction day since Alice Munro in Lives of Girls and Women has an historian uncle whose idea of writing is to pile up droplets from the parish pump (Who was the reeve in 1901? When did the school trustees put in cement platforms around the porch?) and never try to drive a line through them. Eventually, the tin box with his research in it is thoroughly drowned by the Maitland River in flood.
Since Sara Jeanette Duncan’s novel about Brantford is our first successful realist novel, you should read it to see how these things should be done; what is frequently depressing about the run-of-the-mill novel about us nowadays is the imprecision of viewpoint; all right, you’re not going to tell us much of a story, but could you have dug out some photographic details just a tiny bit less clichéd than these? [Volume I, page 54]
Alice Munro Country: Essays on Her Works and Alice Munro Everlasting: Essays on Her Works are available from Guernica Editions.
James Reaney’s “An ABC to Ontario Literature and Culture” originally appeared in Black Moss, Ser. 2, No. 3 (Spring 1977).
See also Stan Dragland’s Wordsfest lecture James Reaney on the grid (November 2, 2019) where Dragland recalls being part of an earlier team-taught version of the course when he first came to Western.
The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.
Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of the lecture series, and to Poetry Stratford and the Stratford Public Library for their support in hosting the earlier lectures (2010-2015).
In the Summer 2019 issue of Queen’s Quarterly, Thomas Gerry’s article“Marvellous Playhouses” celebrates James Reaney’s emblem poems. For Gerry, the poems “put into play” Reaney’s artistic process, a “magnetic method” he developed for generating meaning through the use of wit.
The emblem poems are theatre-like devices that draw readers into the activity of making meaning. As with audiences for dramatic performances, emblem-readers’ participation is vital. [Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2019, page 196]
For a full discussion of all ten emblem poems and James Reaney’s artistic process, see The Emblems of James Reaney, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.
The monograph, edited and introduced by James Reaney, recounts the story of The Biddulph Tragedy of February 4, 1880, where “a body of men, blackened and masked, entered the dwelling of the somewhat notorious Donnelly family and murdered the inmates, the father, the mother, one son, and a girl, a niece”* in Biddulph Township near Lucan, Ontario.
James Reaney heard about the tragedy as a child: “The effect of my first hearing this story was paralyzing… It was my first glimpse of evil close to home.”**
*London Free Press Weekly, 12 February 1880 (See The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xv and page 118)
**From the Introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xxiv.
In Act I of James Reaney’s play Sticks and Stones, local boys taunt young Will Donnelly for his crippled foot. In this scene, Mrs Donnelly asks Will for his birthday wish.
MRS DONNELLY: What day is it today of all days, William Donnelly? WILL: It’s my birthday. MRS DONNELLY: Tell me one wish.
WILL: Well, mother, ’tis something other than a prayerbook. I’d like a horse – a black stallion. And a sword. Then I’d ride up and down the line and I’d cut the heads off all those who call me – us – names.
MRS DONNELLY: Go over to the old tree the storm fell down, Will. Will, what would you call this big black horse? WILL: Lord Byron. But he wouldn’t be lame, you see.
MRS DONNELLY: Now see what you find there hidden among the roots. (He searches, crawling into the barrel; searching around it.)
OTHERS: (softly and rolling over) Then they took me out of that and Threw me into a well. They left me there for a space of time, And me belly began to swell. 
WILL: It’s a parcel. (Actually it is just two sticks.) MRS DONNELLY: But it’s not likely your father and I would give you a brown paper parcel for your twelfth birthday. What’s it a parcel of, Will?
WILL: A fiddle. Is it just for today, mother? Just mine for my birthday? But tomorrow will my brothers get at it?
MRS DONNELLY: No, Will, it is for you – and only you. To be your music for your entire lifetime. Remember what I’ve told you today.
(Will mimes the fiddle with two sticks; at edge of stage, a real fiddler follows.) WILL: (as he tunes) What did happen to father when he wouldn’t kneel and he wouldn’t swear?
The vendetta against the Donnellys and their eventual murder
Mrs Donnelly’s hope that their troubles from the old country are behind them proves unfounded, and the vendetta against them continues unabated until their murder some twenty years later (4 February 1880). During that time, Will Donnelly grows up to play his fiddle at weddings and dances and have a black stallion called Lord Byron (see James Reaney’s The Donnellys Part II – The St. Nicholas Hotel).
On 2 September 1879, five months before the murder of five members of his family, Will Donnelly frightens away a mob come to terrorize him by playing a tune on his fiddle. In writing the play, James Reaney was particularly impressed by this:
“When on 2 September 1879, the mob who had just terrorized his parents at their farm arrived at his house in Whalen’s Corners, William frightened them away with a fiddle tune! None of the commentators ever make enough of this. Nor of the mother risking her life to warn her son that a mob was about to confront him. From now on, I have nothing but admiration and sympathy for the Donnelly family, and a feeling that their bravery also betrayed them. But, of course, what they couldn’t possibly have known was that the whole affair of the cow and resultant trial was a dry run for another visit to the Donnelly house at night.…”(See James Reaney’s The Donnellys: An Ontario Vendetta, Introduction, page xcix, The Champlain Society, 2004.)
 These lines sung by the Others are from the Barley Corn Ballad, an old Irish folk tune that James Reaney uses to underscore the Donnellys’ fate. As James Noonan writes in the Afterword to the published version of the play, “The ballad is so fitting to illustrate the fate of the Donnellys that if you substitute ‘Donnelly’ for ‘barley grain’ you have the story of the Donnellys told in ballad form.” (Afterword, page 350)
James Reaney’s three plays about the Donnellys — Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs — are available in one volume from Dundurn Press.
In this scene from Act II of Sticks and Stones, Mr Donnelly (James Donnelly Sr) has given himself up to the constables for the killing of Patrick Farrell. In July 1858, Mrs Donnelly gathers signatures from friends and neighbours to petition the court in Goderich to change her husband’s death sentence to imprisonment. George Stub, the local grocer and magistrate, buys the Donnelly’s mortgage in anticipation of acquiring the land once Mr Donnelly is hanged. As Mrs Donnelly makes her forty-mile journey from Biddulph Township to Goderich, Stub builds the scaffold for the pending execution.
MRS DONNELLY: And now I’ll walk with these names to Goderich
WILL DONNELLY: When my mother heard that the Governor General was to be there for the celebration opening the railroad from Goderich to Brantford to Buffalo, she determined that she would meet him with the petitions we had helped and friends had helped her gather up.
(The road from Biddulph to Goderich is represented by a series of short and long ladders held up firmly by the cast. Mrs Donnelly climbs over these ladders. We hear road sounds – barking of dogs, etc. – that accompany her journey.)
MRS DONNELLY: At Marystown the dogs barked at me CHORUS: And people who had signed wished her good luck.
(Generally repeat this solo and choral response arrangement between Mrs Donnelly and the other actors.)
MRS DONNELLY: At Irishtown the grain wagons were all going south CHORUS: North she was going, north through their dust.
MRS DONNELLY: There at St. Peter’s is he buried whom my husband killed CHORUS: His cold hands across reached the road and held back her feet. MRS DONNELLY: I dare not enter there to pray for his soul
CHORUS: The chapel has no shadow. It is noon. VOICE: Last spring a man and a woman came to a sudden death…. It is not known how, and were buried in their own field in Biddulph.
GEORGE STUB: Twelve hundred feet of pine lumber at ten dollars per M.
MRS DONNELLY: Now I’ve reached the borders of Biddulph VOICE: Sarah Stratton, an old woman who was found dead… on the north boundary of Biddulph going to Exeter out of Biddulph.
MRS DONNELLY: Well, she almost made it, but once past this tollgate and I am CHORUS: out of Biddulph! Past two tollgates, there are twelve still to
MRS DONNELLY: Oak tree with your shadow Indian dark CHORUS: Lie and rest beneath my speaking saying leaves
MRS DONNELLY: The whip of that carter touched my cheek I look like a beggarwoman tramping the roads CHORUS: Clean white tower clouds walk in the sky
STUB: Nine hundred feet of hemlock scantlings, seven dollars per M, six dollars and thirty cents.
MRS DONNELLY: Tollgate of the setting sun show me your latch CHORUS: Twilight rain on this roof from those clouds
MRS DONNELLY: Falling down down as I sleep till the earth wheels CHORUS: Down to the dawn whose tollgate opens to all
MRS DONNELLY: I’ll pray for the dawn with these winter stars CHORUS: In the chill dark starting out before there were proper shadows
STUB: Detlor & Sons for nails, hinges and bolts, two dollars and ninety cents.
CHORUS: Francistown Rogersville Hensall Kippen Brucefield Rattenbury’s Clinton and turn
MRS DONNELLY: I’m on the Huron Road now and I turn west to CHORUS: Holmesville where her member of parliament lived.
MRS DONNELLY: Yes Mr Holmes. Hurrah for Holmes will be our cry from now on in. Our family’s vote is Grit forever and I’ve seven sons who’ll agree or else. Why sir, you’ve garnered almost as many names from this township as I have from Biddulph. My family’s blessing on you and your family forever. And our eight votes, sir, someday. Except for the one I’m carrying, God bless her.
STUB: Nolan’s account for Staples & Ring &c.
MRS DONNELLY: The road’s like a knife I cut through the bush with CHORUS: She climbed up the hill, the last tavern hill before
STUB: Rope from W.E. Grace twenty-four cents. Four long poles at one dollar each.
MRS DONNELLY: From this hill I see the river. I see the blue lake CHORUS: The ship in the harbour flew a red and gold flag
STUB: Twenty cedar posts, one piece of five-by-six maple scantling.
MRS DONNELLY: I’ll have time to see the mayor of the town. I’ll change my dress, comb my hair somewhere. Somewhere. I won’t see Mr Donnelly till I’ve delivered the petitions. What’s that hammering sound I hear? My own heart more than likely….
James Reaney’s comments on the historical context for this scene: “… Oral tradition has it that Judith Donnelly walked to Goderich from Biddulph [in July 1858] to make direct appeal to the Governor General, probably gathering signatures on her passage through Holmesville. Apart from gathering the petitions, on 11 June 1859, she took out a mortgage from a London money lender for $100 for three years at twice yearly payments of $24.70 [A1]. All of this, as well as caring for her two-year-old daughter, Jane? Nothing was impossible for this indomitable woman.” [See The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, Introduction, page lii, The Champlain Society, 2004.]
James Reaney’s three plays about the Donnellys — Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs — are available in one volume from Dundurn Press.
In this excerpt from an August 2001 interview conducted by Tim Struthers and published in the Spring 2013 issue of the journal Short Story, James Reaney sheds light on his fascination with the Donnelly massacre of 1880.
James Reaney first heard about the Donnellys from his stepfather when he was a child in the mid-1930s.
JR: I remember saying to my stepfather at the time, “Wouldn’t they have a door with a lock on it?” And he said, “Noooo, they wouldn’t have had a door with a lock on it. They had a piece of burlap bag across a hole in their shanty” … so that was pretty dreadful. Anyway I was scared out of my wits. It was only twenty miles away from our farm. We were pretty much right next to it all at one time. And I just couldn’t believe it.
In 1946, local historian Alice MacFarlane gave a paper on the Donnellys at a meeting of the London and Middlesex Historical Society at the public library in London.
JR: [Alice MacFarlane’s paper] had all the usual elements of the story that Kelley tells, that people tell about the Donnellys still. And when she got to the part in her paper about how the Donnellys cut out the tongues of horses … an old man rose up out of the audience and came at her with a shillelagh … And he said “They never cut the tongues out of horses. Out of people, yes!” … And then he stomped out…
But I was fascinated as I read this in The Globe and Mail … And I realized the Donnellys had friends. I never thought that before, you see.
TS: When was this?
JR: It would be 1946.
TS: While you were an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.
JR: Yes. I’d been thinking about writing a play about them. The Kelley thing [Thomas P. Kelley’s The Black Donnellys] had not been written by that time. He’s 1954. And you couldn’t write a play about the story my stepfather told. So finding out that they had friends made a big difference. I began to think in terms of a play about them that would be a tragedy, rather than the kind of thing where it’s not tragic at all and they should be exterminated as soon as possible (laughter). Like many a modern horror film.
Note from Susan Reaney: This interview is excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Short Story, New Series Vol. 21 No. 1, pages 115-116. See also “Winter’s Tales”, a poem James Reaney wrote in 1949, which makes an oblique reference to “…the massacre at Lucan / Where the neighbours killed all of the McKilligans dead.”
James Reaney wrote a trilogy of plays about the Donnelly family and the tragedy: Sticks and Stones (1973), The St. Nicholas Hotel (1974), and Handcuffs (1975). He also edited and wrote the introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, published by The Champlain Society in 2004.
Fanshawe Pioneer Village, July 11-25: The AlvegoRoot Theatre Company will present two new plays this summer — Welcome to Bon Echo, by Aimee Adler, about pioneer suffragist Flora MacDonald Denison, and a stage version of James Reaney’s historical children’s novel The Boy with an R in His Hand.
Adam Corrigan Horowitz, AlvegoRoot’s Artistic Director, has adapted Reaney’s story to tell the tale of an orphaned brother and sister, Alec and Elizabeth, who arrive in the town of York in Upper Canada in 1826.
Though Alec and Elizabeth both seek peace and security in their new home, they find themselves on opposite sides of the Family Compact versus Reform debate. Alec falls afoul of his Tory-minded Uncle John when he becomes a printer’s apprentice in Reform politician William Lyon Mackenzie‘s print shop, setting the scene for the famous “Types Riot” by Mackenzie’s political foes.
This adaptation makes skillful use of Alec’s totem protectors — a bear, a crow, and a monkey — who help reunite the brother and sister and set right injustice from the past.
From 1969 to 1970, Earle Toppings, broadcaster and editor at the Ontario Institute for Education (OISE), organized a series of interviews and recordings with 16 Canadian authors for use as a resource in high schools and colleges.
Literary Titans Revisited: The Earle Toppings Interviews with CanLit Poets and Writers of the Sixties, edited by Professor Anne Urbancic, presents exact transcripts of Earle Toppings’s interviews with Canadian authors Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, Sinclair Ross, Dorothy Livesay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Al Purdy, Earle Birney, F.R. Scott, Irving Layton,Miriam Waddington, Raymond Souster, Eli Mandel, and James Reaney.
On December 14, 1970, James Reaney met interviewer Earle Toppings and asked that his recording session for the Canadian Poets on Tape series be recorded at a piano, and fortunately the basement studio of the OISE building in Toronto had one. Reaney then played musical excerpts (for example, “Beulah Land” and “The Maple Leaf Rag”) and also read poems from The Red Heart, A Suit of Nettles, Twelve Letters to a Small Town, Night Blooming Cereus, The Dance of Death at London, Ontario, One Man Masque, and Colours in the Dark. He begins this way:
[Reaney performs “Beulah Land,” a fragment of an old hymn, on the piano.]
That’s the first poem I ever heard, at an early denominational Sunday school. I’m sitting at a piano on Bloor Street near a subway that you’ll hear thundering by occasionally, and I’ve got… sort of… my collected works around me. I’m going to read from The Red Heart first of all, and I’m going to occasionally call forth from the piano pieces of music that really make a comment on the poems in a sort of way. […] [See pages 286-287.]
♦ A special evening to launch the book will be held on October 5from 6-8 pm at the EJ Pratt Library, 71 Queen’s Park Crescent East, Toronto, Ontario.
Former doctoral student of James Reaney’s and now professor of literature at Laurentian University, Thomas Gerry explores the history of the literary emblem, and explains the meanings behind ten of James Reaney’s emblem poems.
“The Tree” and “The Riddle” are two of Reaney’s emblem poems featured in The Emblems of James Reaney:
The annual lecture is a project developed by The Stratford Public Library and Poetry Stratford, and features a talk by a person who is knowledgeable about the life and work of Stratford poet and playwright James Reaney and of writing in the Southwestern Ontario region, which is such a strong element in Reaney’s writing.