Wednesday, April 19, 2017

P - Pussy Black-Face and Margaret Marshall Saunders


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Earlier this month I wrote about May Agnes Fleming, Canada's first big name author. While Fleming certainly had great (and longer-term) success, she didn't come close to the explosive impact of Margaret Marshall Saunders.

The daughter of a baptist minister, Margaret was born in 1861 in the village of Milton, Nova Scotia. She traveled widely, attending boarding school in Edinburgh and studying French at Orléans.

In 1889 she submitted her first novel, Beautiful Joe, to the American Humane Education Society Prize Competition "Kind and Cruel Treatment of Domestic Animals and Birds in the Northern States" and won $200. (For reference, that would be worth over five grand today, so that's a pretty sweet writing contest payout.) It was the "true story" of a dog from Meaford, Ontario that had his ears and tail snipped by an abusive owner as a puppy, but is rescued by a family and then goes on to save the family's lives. Of course it was written from the dog's point of view.

The book was published in 1893 and came to international attention (this was on the heels of Black Beauty, and animal books were really big back then). It was the first Canadian book to sell over a million copies (the population of Canada in 1893 was under five million, so every household must have had at least one copy of this friggin' book), going on to sell over seven million copies worldwide by 1930.

As with my previous post about Winnie the Pooh, I maintain once again that the secret of literary success is writing about weird Canadian animals.

Margaret would go on to write twenty other stories and novels, mostly about animals. You can actually still get some of them on Amazon, the most stunningly-titled example being "Pussy Black-Face," which to calm your concerns is neither racist nor about some weird sexual fetish. Supposedly it's a children's story about a cat.

(Well, actually, it was written in 1913 so it may very well have racist elements. And, fair warning, if you Google "Pussy Black-Face" you do get porn hits on the first page.)

Here, I googled it for you to save the embarrassment of someone finding it in your search history.

Margaret was never married and by all accounts grew to be a weird cat/animal lady, living with her sister in an apartment in downtown Toronto with an excessive number of rescue animals. She often named the animals after the locations where she found them, including a dog named Johnny Doorstep and a pigeon named 38 Front Street.

She and her sister toured Canada and the US, giving lectures and collecting stories of domestic animals that were the inspiration for many of her writings. A charming and humourous woman, she held strong interest in humanitarian concerns for animals and children. In addition to her lectures she wrote articles for several newspapers on social concerns such as the abolition of child labour and the improvement of playground facilities. She belonged to many organizations, including founding the Canadian Women's Press Club with Lucy Maud Montgomery. (Montgomery of course went on to be even more successful than Margaret, but Saunders paved the way).

Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables has no less than 22 film and TV adaptations, including TWO Japanese anime series and a new "gritty reboot" airing right now on CBC. So where's the Pussy Black-Face movie?

At age 73 she was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Canada's highest civilian honour. She passed away in 1974 at the age of 85.


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My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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