Category Archives: Mariposa

Reconcerting Sunshine Sketches: A Pocketful of Mariposies

I am not at all disconcerted by the need to reconcert our Leacock concert, planned for this summer. We received word last week that we have been blessed with the support of the Ontario Arts Council for preparation of this concert. We had proposed to create one along certain lines, and had wandered from them, as is our wont. There’s nothing like a nice grant to get us back on track. So here we are.

The concert will now be called A Pocketful of Mariposies, and will talk about Mariposa, our Mariposa, which is derived from but not the same as Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa. His Mariposa is a somewhat restricted place, with seven main characters (I refer to them as the Seven Dwarfs), a handful of comprimarios, a chorus, and an indeterminate number of shadows on the wall. The Dwarfs are, by frequency of mention: Josh Smith, Peter Pupkin, Dean Drone, Jefferson Thorpe, Judge Pepperleigh, Henry Mullins, and Zena Pepperleigh. The comprimarios are Golgotha Gingham, Dr. Gallagher, George Duff, Billy the Desk Clerk, John Henry Bagshaw, and Edward Drone. You will perhaps notice that only one of these characters is a woman, making Leacock’s Mariposa a quite unusual “little town”, to say the least.

It’s as if an artist set out to paint a series of sketches of a garden, but systematically left out half the flowers. Occasionally he puts in one of the neglected ones, but only in the background, or in the shade of the others. The resulting sketches form an interesting portrayal of the artist’s habits of sight, but say little about the actual state of the garden. The pictures become works of art to be enjoyed for their own sake, in their own terms.

As I ponder this analogy, and how far it might be pushed, I wonder what would happen if we viewed Stephen Leacock, the artist, as an amalgam of Hogarth (for the English influence), Norman Rockwell (for the American influence) and the Automatistes of Canada, specifically Montreal. I am not suggesting that he might have been influenced by any of these artists, some of which post-dated him, but that we might learn by viewing him that way. I think that if we did we would not be surprised to find a somewhat inchoate blend of satire, sentimentalism, and delight in the spontaneous play of shape and colour, constituting a form of art uniquely enjoyable but defying analysis.

In the case of Leacock’s fiction I would put first the spontaneous play, in his case of words and wit, evoking laughter, followed by satire and sentimentalism. However else he may want us to react to the antics of his absurd caricatures, he first of all wants us to laugh.

The artistic soul-brethren of Smith, Pupkin, Drone and the rest are the cartoon men of the village of Astérix, not the more elaborate characters and settings of Dickens, Twain, or Sinclair Lewis, let alone Canada’s George Elliott, Margaret Laurence, or Alice Munro. As for women, Leacock avoids them wherever he can, and keeps them firmly in their places when he does write about them. Even Zena Pepperleigh, although sympathetically portrayed (unlike, say, Mrs. Rasselyer-Brown or Mrs. Everleigh of Arcadian Adventures), is merely an incomplete sketch, vanishing from the reader’s sight after her marriage.

Musicians are said to “play” their instruments. Leslie and I, as storytellers, are this summer going to play Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa, proposing to find therein some melodies and harmonies of our own, at the same time celebrating the original instrument-maker. We trust that the result, even if it does not enlarge literary horizons to any measurable extent, will at least be good for a laugh. That is, first of all, what Stephen Leacock would have wanted.

You will find more about both our 2015 summer concerts at:


Taking A Concerted Approach to Stephen Leacock

I apologize for the gap in postings. I have been busy preparing our concerts for the coming summer season, the 14th of Voyageur Storytelling’s Country Supper Storytelling Concerts. Our first two seasons, 2002 and 2003, included a concert called Leacock Light, in which we performed some pieces from Literary Lapses and Nonsense Novels, along with other humorous works. (We performed an earlier all-Leacock version of this concert four years earlier at the Northern Lights Festival in Yellowknife.) Then we set Leacock aside, save for regular recurrences of My Financial Career and Boarding House Geometry, because we didn’t know what to do with him next. In 2014 we returned to the quest with Leacock Plus Us: Leacock for the first half and the finale, and a few of our own pieces in between. For 2015 we are preparing our first all-Leacock full concert, named Nine Lives of Leacock.

You can find this concert described, along with its 2015 companion (called Roads Often Taken) at

As the name of the concert suggests, and as you will see in the programme, we are going to tell our audiences something of Stephen Leacock’s life as well as his own works, as many as we can cram into the time. In preparation for this I have been reading. Have I been reading! I have laid out on the dining room table (Leslie being away for a spell of intensive mothering and grandmothering) my entire Leacock collection, now after recent purchases comprising 36 of his 53 books, along with six biographies and two books of commentaries which I have supplemented by all the articles I can find on the internet.

Much reading lies ahead before I have achieved the kind of understanding that I want, but two ideas are beginning to coagulate in what passes for my mind.

The first goes something like this: What Stephen Leacock was, and what a great many people believe him to have been (including some but not all scholars), are two quite different phenomena. He has been labelled, widely I believe, as a humorist from Orillia. I would label him, if I must although I would much sooner not, as a jolly polymath of no fixed address, or perhaps more accurately, of several addresses known but not rigidly fixed.

I will elaborate on that idea but not here, and not yet.

The second idea: What he was is a great deal more interesting than his common reputation, as articulated by both those who revere him and those who do not. I will explain that too, eventually, and hope to prove it, or at least open our audiences’ minds to the possibility, in our concert this summer.

I have a parallel set of ideas concerning Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, surely Leacock’s most famous work. In my opinion the book both differs from and is more interesting than its common reputation, at least as I have seen it described and as I deduce it might be from the introduction to a school text commonly used. I have already begun to elaborate on those ideas in this blog, and will continue. Briefly, however, as they stand at this stage in the quest: I believe it to be a genuinely funny book; I do not believe it is “about” Orillia or any other place or any amalgam of places in Ontario or anywhere else, and if it was intended to be (I do not believe it was) it is an abject failure; and I believe that much more needs to be said about Mariposa before Canadian literature and storytelling can close the book on it, if they ever do. Furthermore, I intend to do my bit to say it, both here and elsewhere.

I do not seek to tell the truth about Stephen Leacock, but to do him justice. The truth will remain forever elusive, because we do not know the facts well enough, and we cannot know his mind in its unfiltered state. But justice is a practical matter, and we can get there.

The Foredoomed Entanglement of Zena Pepperleigh and Peter Pupkin

Following my host’s warning, I re-read the relevant portions of Sunshine Sketches, checked the archives, and asked around. Many of the older folks could remember the mature Zena, but the Peter Pupkin part of her story took place well before the lifetimes of extant Mariposans. Their memories of what their parents and grandparents had told them were, however, largely consistent, and I conclude that we can rely on them, especially as the documentary evidence, such as it is, seems to back them up.

Stephen Leacock tells us four important things about Peter Pupkin: that he was not very bright, at least not bright enough to qualify as a lawyer in “the Maritime Provinces” (we are never told which one); that his father was hard-driving, property-developing provincial robber baron; that he liked pretty girls and was chivalric by nature; and that when depressed or discouraged he would think of suicide. Leacock makes fun of that, which was very wrong of him.

Zena, we are told, was romantic, somewhat educated in a world outside Mariposa, and inclined to defy her father, at least within the limited scope possible to her and generally to middle-class young women at that time. I soon saw what my host meant by the “job” that Leacock did on her. He (or rather his narrator) never lets her speak for herself, of course, any more than he lets any other woman speak for herself in that book. Her thoughts are always filtered. (Come to that, Peter Pupkin never speaks for himself either.) We are told almost nothing about Zena’s mother, certainly not about their relationship.

Before she becomes close to Peter, we learn enough for her to begin to emerge as a character, but the closer they become, the more she fades from the narration. At the end of the story, when we are vouchsafed a brief snapshot of their “enchanted house on the hillside in the newer part of town,” she is invisible. Only Peter appears, cutting the grass in a gaudy blazer.

But the end of Leacock’s story is of course not the end of hers. There she was, in her comfortable house, with her fond, insensitive, role-burdened husband and her baby, grappling with the conundrums of a lightly educated wife and mother in a small town of her day, from which she had been partly alienated by her schooling. Stephen Leacock could have told that story, of course, with real bite, had he not been oblivious. There is no excuse for him; the story was common enough, had he chosen to see it. Added to Zena’s turmoil of mind was the awareness, which came upon her suddenly in the dark of one night, that she and Peter had been thoroughly manipulated by their two fathers into what amounted to an arranged marriage. She did not blame Peter, nor stop loving him, but everything else soured in mounting resentment. Without her child she would have been lost.

Devoted Peter was just bright enough to realize how unhappy she was, but not nearly bright enough to know why, or what to do. He put it down to female complaint. He would have spoken to himself of hormones had he known anything about them. His constraint was cultural. He was a thoroughly moulded young man. In order to free her, and him—them, for they were a family—he would have had to break his mould and start again, to crawl out from under the overbearing influence of his time, his place, his job, his amour-propre, his father, and his up-bringing. Not a chance. Thoughts of suicide returned, but not very effectively. It seemed such a cowardly thing to do. They clung to each other, emotionally and physically, in mounting desperation.

To cut the sad story short, they were rescued by the Great War, as it came to be called, later “World War One”. Peter never admitted, even to himself, that he was enlisting as a way out for them both, nor did Zena ever allow herself to imagine that she would be better off if he did not come back. To fight the Hun was to perform nothing less than his patriotic duty. Sam Hughes was a figure of note in the world around Mariposa, and so he preached. Peter went, commission in hand, and was killed leading his platoon, with exemplary bravery and complete military ineffectuality, over the top at the Battle of the Somme.

It was easier to mourn, and get on with life, in such plentiful company. Zena then broke her mould too, and with a measure of style. If you want to know how she did it, go back three or four posts.

Smith, Bagshaw, Drone, Pepperleigh, and the Politics of Mariposa

I was pleased to be sitting once more with my host in the bar of his hotel. I had finished my evening’s work and had come in, according to now-established custom, to enjoy his company and stories over a late glass of scotch.

“So,” I said, after a few sips, “we have Josh Smith, dead from being a member of Parliament, and Hector and Zena Smith (née Pepperleigh and relict of Pupkin) and descendants at Smith’s Hotel, and Peter Pupkin, dead from the war, and Peter Junior, rich from lawyering and land development, and … how did you get all these stories, by the way?”

“From my mother. Her father was Mallory Tompkins, the Times-Herald man in Leacock’s day, and a prominent Liberal. He married Miss Lawson, the high-school teacher. Grandfather Tompkins knew everybody’s stories, the ones they printed in the newspaper, and the ones they didn’t. He told them to my mother, who loved that kind of thing, and she told them to me. You get them the way I got them, maybe a little ornamented, maybe not. What difference does it make?”

“So Smith was elected in 1911, and lasted how long?”

“Until 1920. There was going to be a by-election, but the general election of 1921 pushed it aside.”

“And who was elected then?”

“That was a surprise. It was Edward Drone, still defiantly Independent. He didn’t try to run during the war, being a staunch imperialist at heart, but did in 1921, and pulled it off. Drone and Honesty. People were ready for that, after the war and all the death and corruption. They turned on the old parties, or at least enough of them did.”

“How long did Drone last?”

“Not long. He joined the Progressive Party and ran again in 1925 and 1926, but lost to the Conservative both times. The Liberals didn’t get back in again until 1935.

“Bagshaw would have been too old by then. What happened to him?”

“He retired to his farm where he and his wife lived to a ripe old age off the avails of his years in Parliament, surrounded by their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and well loved by a host of neighbours and friends. No gathering in Mariposa was complete without John Henry and his Ottawa stories, which improved with every telling as the years rolled on. He finally died laughing at the age of ninety-eight when they made Mackenzie King prime minister for the third time. His wife followed a few days later. They were a grand old couple, and completely devoted.”

“Judge Pepperleigh must have been a happy man, all those Conservative years.”

“He was a piece of work, that old guy, and as he got older he he just got crazier and more corrupt. And his son Neil, who was killed in South Africa, he was plain vicious, but as Leacock says, the Judge never saw that, although the boy’s mother did. Mrs. Pepperleigh was a decent and kind old lady, and a pillar of the church. How she put up with that old tyrant for all those years remains a mystery. Maybe there was no way out for her. That happened in those days. She must have loved him to start with, maybe she kept on. Maybe the church was her escape. But Miss Spiffkins wasn’t the only one in town who thought she had a hard row. It was notable that when Zena took over the hotel, old Martha spent a lot of time there, helping look after the grandchildren. She never abandoned the Judge, but my mother said she knew very well what he was. When he died there were no tears, not from her, not from Zena, not from anyone.”

“It sounds as if Mariposa was a lot more complicated than Stephen Leacock said it was.”

“More complicated than he ever saw, but then, he didn’t live here. He was just a cottager. He knew a few people, but he never knew the place. To know the place, he would have had to live here, be here all year round. He saw a few things on the surface, and thought they were the depths. He was a great talker, but he wasn’t a great listener, at least, so my mother said.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Sure. He was here in the summer of 1911, in the run-up to the election, and saw Josh Smith pomping around the place and trying to manipulate the voters. He thought that was funny. And then when Smith won, he thought the voters must have fallen for Smith’s tricks. But they didn’t. Smith was an illiterate saloon-keeper, not really fit for the job, and everybody knew it. But they didn’t like the Reciprocity agreement, they were tired of Laurier, and they thought he and Bagshaw were both too old. Smith was the Conservative candidate, and that was the way they wanted to vote. But it was a long way from unanimous. Then in 1917 there was the conscription issue, and people around here wanted to support the government, no matter what. Mind you, my mother heard all this from her father, who was a Liberal through and through. But he also knew everybody, and talked to everybody. Who knows what the real story was?”

Who indeed. Not Stephen Leacock, it seems clear.

What Happened to Josh Smith’s Hotel?

The next time I sat down with my host I asked him to continue the story of Smith’s Hotel. This is what he told me:

“When Josh died folks wondered what would happen to the hotel. They knew that Josh didn’t own the building, only the “inside” and the business. Nobody knew who did own the building; the tax rolls said it was a company, with the address of a law firm. While Josh was away Billy, the desk clerk, was running it, along with the local accountant, and they just kept on, waiting to see what would happen.

“Then one day an Indian showed up in town. He was a funny-looking young man, stocky, with a round face, and really thick glasses. He went to see Lawyer Macartney, and they went to see Judge Pepperleigh. Then they all talked to Billy and the accountant, and everything came out.

“Josh had had a wife, a native woman from Spanish, and they had a son, whose name was Hector, who may have been only half- but who looked whole-blood, and who was Mariposa’s newcomer. He now owned the “inside” of the hotel, and the business. And who do you think owned the outside? That was the real surprise. It had been Judge Pepperleigh, who took it before he became a judge in payment of a legal bill from the previous owner who went to jail anyway, and who gave it to Peter Pupkin and Zena as a wedding present. And Peter was in France and dead by this time, so Zena now owned it and, it turned out, a bunch of other real estate in town, because Pop Pupkin had been quietly investing on Peter and Zena’s behalf for several years.

“Now Judge Pepperleigh assumed that Zena, being a woman, would expect him to manage all this stuff, but she soon straightened him out, and Pop Pupkin backed her up, because he trusted her more than her old man, friends though they were. And these were, after all, her properties, all tidy and legal. She was a widow of substance, and she liked that idea. She also thought there was more money, and more interesting things to do, in the business than just in the building. So she sat down with Hector Smith, and they made a deal. They would put the building and the business together. He would run the bar, she would run the hotel and the restaurant, and they would split the profits. Billy stayed on, to teach them the ropes, and run the front desk. Eventually, after he married Sadie from the boarding house, they set up in a hotel of their own, but that’s another story.

“So there were Zena and Hector, in business together, and then after a while sleeping together, and then married with eventually a bunch of kids running around the hotel and helping out when they got old enough, along with Lena, who was the “enchanted baby” you read about, who didn’t stay enchanted forever but was a good kid and very smart. She went to work for her grandfather, inherited the Pupkin empire along with her brothers, and did very well. She died just a little while back. Zena and Hector spruced up the hotel, brought back the café, toned up the restaurant, and turned the “Rats’ Cooler” into a games room. The tourists and the travelling people loved it.

“Josephine Smith, the mayor, who has it now, and runs it along with her daughter, is the daughter of Zena and Hector’s son, so she’s Josh’s great granddaughter, like I said, also Judge Pepperleigh’s. She’s a Smith by birth and by marriage, but her parents weren’t related. The hotel, as you know, is still called Smith’s Hotel. The name was good enough then, and it’s good enough now. It’s a fully modern place now, of course, but still has that old-fashioned feel to it. The rates are reasonable, and it’s always busy. Other hotels have come and gone and changed hands, but Smith’s Hotel carries on in the old way.”

“What about the other old Mariposans,” I asked, “the Drones, the Thorpes, the Bagshaws and the rest. Did they stay and thrive too?”

“Oh, some did, some didn’t. Like most places, the young ones move away, and new folks come in. It’s easy to say that the town has changed, but then, in a way, it hasn’t. The faces change, but the town changes the people behind them, and they all turn into Mariposans when they have been here a while. Everything on the surface has changed, but in behind, where Stephen Leacock never saw or couldn’t grasp, it’s just the same as it was in his day.”

When I heard this it didn’t take me long to decide that I would give Mariposa its due, in all its complexity, men and women too. I would tell its story the way it should have been told before. But I would do it for today’s Mariposa, and leave the old one alone. They were really the same, weren’t they? At least so I had been told, by someone who ought to know.

I would start by talking to a whole lot of people from every walk of life, and searching all the records I could find. I would build the story of Mariposa, and of Missinaba County, from the date of the 1911 election, when the old story ended. I have heard it said that that election was a changer. So it shall be for Mariposa, literarily speaking.

I’ll keep you informed as I go along.

Wish me luck!

Missinaba Conversation III: Stephen Leacock and Josh Smith

When I got back to my host’s place the next evening I found him in a towering rage.

“Why can’t people get things right?” he thundered, waving a book over his head. “I been reading this book, by Randall White, Ontario 1610-1985, A Political and Economic History, and mostly it’s pretty good, but then I come across this statement, on page 199: ‘In 1912 Stephen Leacock, by then a professor at McGill University in Montreal, published Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — a gently critical portrait of small-town Ontario on the eve of the First World War’. Gently critical! How about ill-informed and savagely unkind! Imaginative, yes! Funny, yes! But gently critical? And then, on page 260, White calls Orillia ‘the original “little town” in Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches’. Nonsense!

“What did Stephen Leacock know about small towns? The only one he ever lived in was Uxbridge, for six months. He spent his holidays with his mother when she lived in Orillia for a while, before she moved to Sutton, and he bought a cottage there in 1908 or thereabouts. You don’t learn much about a place by having a cottage there, certainly not in three or four years. Certainly you don’t collect any right to be critical, even gently. He grew up in a village in England, for six years, and then on a farm in Georgina Township, for six years, and then he went to school in Toronto, at Upper Canada College of all places, and then university for a year, and then to Uxbridge, and then back to Toronto to teach at UCC, then to Chicago for more university, and then to Montreal, to McGill, for the rest of his life. He was a city boy, through and through, with just enough experience of the other places to cloud his awareness.

“But he knew what he was doing when he wrote that book. It’s about real people and a real place all right, despite what he said himself, but it’s not Orillia.  It’s Mariposa, right here, where we are now, and where my wife’s family and mine have lived for more than 150 years, right here on the edge of town. And the people he wrote about—Smith, Pepperleigh, Thorpe, Pupkin and the rest—they’re real people, but he didn’t know them, he’d just heard about them, and heard a little of their stories, so he took them, and added some more quirks and stories of other people he knew, or had heard of, and he made fun of them. They’re real people, all right, but the stories are mostly so made up that they’re hardly recognizable, except on the surface. It’s a funny book, and I enjoy reading it, but it’s not a nice book, and certainly not gentle.”

All this unfolded discursively over a whole long evening.“So tell me,” I asked, “what was Josh Smith really like? He was the big cheese in Leacock’s Mariposa; what was he in the real one, and what happened to him?”

“He was a medium cheese, one of many. He had one of the hotels, and he was in fact the fire chief. But he was pig-ignorant too, and a terrible braggart. Most of the stories the professor heard were made up by Smith himself, and he could tell them in a most entertaining way. Some people liked him, and he had a reputation for getting things done, but most of it wasn’t really deserved. Mostly when he got things done he had a lot of help. But the reputation and the issues in the 1911 election were enough to get him elected, and off he went to Ottawa, for all the good it did him.”

“Why, what happened?” “Well, because he couldn’t read or write he wasn’t cabinet material, in fact, they put him at the back of the back benches and forgot about him, so he spent his time testing the graft system and drinking, at about the same rate as always, but he wasn’t a young man by then. He put on about forty pounds, and when he came back from the first session he looked terrible. After a few sessions he came back in a box.”

“What happened to the hotel?” “Ah, that’s a long story, and a good one, but it’s late. Maybe next time.”

Missinaba County: Conversation II

When I got back to Mariposa after my holiday jaunt, I found my host as genial as ever, and quite pleased with himself.

“I been busy,” he said, after shaking me warmly by the hand and wishing me a happy new year, which I reciprocated with equal feeling. “When the snow started coming I fired up the old byte-box and tried to answer some of those questions you put to me when last we talked.

I was interested, and said so.

“It turns out that the population of Missinaba County is 88,500 people, and the area is 895,000 acres, or, as this fancy calculator my wife got me for Christmas assures me, 3,600 square kilometres, if anybody cares, which I doubt they do. People don’t farm in square kilometres, they farm in acres, and a few who like to sit on the cutting edge may do it in hectares. I suppose 3,600 square kilometres is some number of hectares, but I haven’t bothered to figure it out.”

“That would be 360,000,” I suggested.

“How about that! Anyway, I broke these figures down for our newly amalgamated townships, so we can see how it all fits together. Here in Mariposa, with the town and township put together, we got 17,200 people in 77,500 acres, or 142 people per square mile. Ain’t that something!”

I agreed that it was.

“Now Waterways, the big new township east of us, has 18,350 people in 103,800 acres, or 113 people per square mile, unless you lump Mariposa town in with it, as some damn fools insist on doing, and then you get 26,800 people and 63.2 per square mile, reducing Mariposa Township to 8,700 people, or 72 per square mile, making it more like South Missinaba and Simcoe Shores, if you follow me. Kirkfield and North Missinaba, the other two, now, they’re a different matter: 4,000 people for Kirkfield and a density of 23, and only 1,600 for North Missinaba, or 5 per square mile.”

My head was spinning. “So what happened to all those eighteen townships, Eldon, Fenelon, Ops and the rest?” I asked him.

“Oh, they vanished into a cloud of amalgamations, bureaucracy gone mad. Mind you, it could have been worse. The City of Missinaba, I ask you! That was a cunning piece of work done by our mayor, Jo Smith, to keep that from happening. She talked ‘em out of it, or bullied ‘em, or bribed ‘em, or blackmailed ‘em, I don’t know how it was done. All of the above, maybe. She’s a terror when roused, and she sure was roused about that. There was no way she was going to let that happen without a fight. She didn’t get all she wanted, but she did pretty well. And she kept the Mariposa name from disappearing. That’s what folks around here particularly appreciate. She’s got a lot of support.”

“She any relation to old Josh Smith, who had the hotel away back when, and was MP for Missinaba for a while?”

“Sure. She’s his great-granddaughter. Poor old Josh. He was a small-town giant, but the city was too much for him. All that booze and high life in Ottawa. It torpedoed his liver before he’d done his first term. Sad. He was a wily old bugger, and a bit disreputable, but not bad, really.”

“And all those other folks, Pupkin, Pepperleigh, Thorpe, Drone, the rest, are their stories known?”

“Sure. Stick around, and I’ll tell them to you, but not tonight. It’s late.”