In September 1864, John A. MacDonald’s ship pulled into Charlottetown’s harbour. Its hold was full of champagne, ready for a great celebration. After all, MacDonald had just reached a deal that would lay the path for the confederation of Canada.
The townsfolk were in the street partying, bedecked with picnic baskets and parasols. But they weren’t interested in the upcoming conference. Only one man rowed out to greet the political guests and even he was longing to be back on shore.
It seemed the Islanders wanted to celebrate an arrival of a different sort: the circus. And who could blame them? It had been ages since a circus came north to their shores. In the 1800s, East Coast circuses travelled by ship and it was only because of the American Civil War that this one made its way north and toured Canada.
Does it seem farfetched that more people would be interested in the circus than the formation of a country? The story is, in fact, true.
In her just-released book, To the Edge of the Sea, author Anne McDonald follows John A’s campaign to champion confederation. McDonald first learned of the circus incident on a Canadian Heritage TV commercial. Intrigued, she spent nine years extensively researching the events.
In the book, though, McDonald doesn’t just focus on the campaign. She frames the story with the blossoming romance between John A. and a young PEI woman named Mercy Coles. McDonald also inserts two fictional brothers into the story.
The first brother, Reggie, protests alongside his farming relatives, who are fed up with paying rent to the few landlords who owned most of P.E.I. The other brother, Alex, runs away with the circus. He eventually finds himself in Niagara Falls, coming face to face with the legendary tight rope walker, Farini. As it turns out, John A. and Mercy Coles also happen to make a stop in Niagara Falls.
It’s obvious that McDonald loves intriguing, obscure and humorous historical details. She includes many discovered while poring over history books, old newspapers and even a copy of Mercy Coles’ diary tucked away in the P.E.I. archives.
To the Edge of the Sea has a dream-like quality and is playfully poetic. McDonald follows a historical narrative, but is just as interested in language, symbols and metaphors. If you enjoy the writings of authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Sheila Watson, then this is an interpretation of Canadian history that you won’t want to miss. Happy Canada Day!
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.