Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: Baddeck, and That Sort of Thing

Original Publication Date:  1878

Genre: Travel journal

Topics: Travel, Canada, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, Baddeck, complaining, how to be an ass when travelling in a foreign country.

I was browsing the Project Gutenberg catalogue, like you do, when I had the brilliant idea to plunk in the name of my native province, Nova Scotia, into the search function. Not a lot came up, a couple of reports and one travel journal with the intriguing name of Baddeck and That Sort of Thing by Charles Dudley Warner. Baddeck is not all that far away and since we’re coming into high tourism season here, I thought I’d give this a try. I wondered what travelling in my province before the days of highways were like. I was also curious as to why I had never heard of this book before. Oh my, I was about to learn why this wasn’t hailed as the greatest thing for Nova Scotia tourism since lobster.
Map of Charles Dudley Warner's journey to Baddeck
Charles Dudley Warner and a friend decide to visit Baddeck for the  fishing. They’ve heard some vague stories of the place. For some reason, they insist that they must get there by Saturday, or “why even leave Boston.” Don’t ask me, I don’t know why they’re in a rush. They get themselves to Boston and the belly-aching begins. Boston is just too loud! So they hop on a boat, and after a brief stop in Eastport, Maine (which is “bleak” by the way), they land in Saint John, New Brunswick and begin their travels in Canada. Was Warner suffering from intestinal discomfort or something? There was definitely something wrong with him because, there is absolutely no pleasing this guy. Here is a list of just some of his complaints.
  • Saint John has too many flags. Americans would never fly so many flags, not even on the President’s birthday.
  • The largest tides in the world in the Bay of Fundy are not that great.
  • He despises Halifax, Nova Scotia, our capital city.
  • The beautiful Annapolis Valley is meh.
  • Farmers have no fashion sense!
  • The hotels are awful.
  • The trees are too small, damnit!

A brief respite from the complaining for the reader occurs when he reaches Antigonish, which he declares is “pretty” and “home like.” But there is no time to stop, Saturday is coming! Tick, tock! Warner finds  a driver who apparently pleases him. The driver loves his horses and talks about them the whole trip. There is one in particular he is fond of. This was the first time I was amused by Warner:
“May I never forget the spirited little jade, the off-leader in the third stage, the petted belle of the route, the nervous, coquettish, mincing mare of Marshy Hope. A spoiled beauty she was; you could see that as she took the road with dancing step, tossing her pretty head about, and conscious of her shining black coat and her tail done up "in any simple knot,"—like the back hair of Shelley's Beatrice Cenci. How she ambled and sidled and plumed herself, and now and then let fly her little heels high in air in mere excess of larkish feeling.”
If only the whole journal was so entertaining. They continue on, Cape Breton Island their destination, the driver declaring “Never was on Cape Breton… hope I never shall be. Heard enough about it. Taverns? You’ll find ‘em occupied.” He actually likes the sound of this and is even more pleased when a couple of Cape Bretoners are picked up along the way: a guy who only speaks Gaelic and a fiddler. By Saturday morning, they reach the Strait of Canso, the body of water separating Cape Breton from the mainland. Here they leave their amusing driver for the ferry (we have a causeway now). On the other side, they learn there is another 80 miles before reaching Baddeck. They find some guy who agrees to drop them off on his way to somewhere else. This ride is too fast and bumpy (he spent the first part of this journey complaining about how slow everyone was).
Bras D'Or Lakes
The Bras D'Or from the Iona side
The trip, he declares, is worth it once he sees the Bras D’Or Lakes, which I have to agree, are pretty freaking spectacular. “The Bras d'Or is the most beautiful salt-water lake I have ever seen, and more beautiful than we had imagined a body of salt water could be.” He waxes poetic for a bit until the driver drops him off at an actual honest-to-goodness nice hotel.

The next day being Sunday is a non-fishing day, so Warner and friend entertain themselves by making fun of the local religious practices, public houses, and well, everyone and everything. Monday they fish and then head back to the States.

I realize I have a bias, but Warner annoyed me before he even left the States. The whole purpose of his trip is to ridicule people wherever he might find them. He’s in a hurry to get there and be away from the city but when he gets to Baddeck he complains about how peaceful it is. When this was published, Nova Scotians were a tad upset. Honestly, I don’t think they should have been. Warner comes off as a pompous ass and this says more about him than the people he writes about. Making fun of honest, simple country folk when you’re a cultured rich guy from the city shows how small you really are. And he’s not even that funny; he tries too hard. The sad thing is there was some very nice writing in there too.

When I could ignore his mean spiritedness and his cranky-pants, I found some interesting little tidbits. I recognized places, these are the same places the highway goes through now. I learned that Baddeck has always been a tourist town, that hasn’t changed. I’m not surprised that Warner ran into people who only speak Gaelic, though you won’t find that now. In the 1950s, folklorist Helen Creighton recognized that modernization was creeping across the province and spent the decade collecting old songs and stories in the language before they disappeared as the last people who spoke it died. According to Canada Cool, only about 1000 people in the province still speak Gaelic, though there is a push to revive it.

Warner may have had his laugh but we have the last. Every year city folk spend lots of $$$ to relax and have old fashioned outdoorsy fun in Nova Scotia. It is also possible that Warner’s book caught the attention of another wealthy cultured gentleman, Alexander Graham Bell, who built his summer home, Beinn Bhreagh, in Baddeck in the late 19th century. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Warner. Things have changed since then. Nova Scotia has the TransCanada highway, inns, resorts, and enough fancy restaurants to fill any tourist’s lobster craving, but some things never change: “We received everywhere in the Provinces courtesy and kindness, which were not based upon any expectation that we would invest in mines or railways, for the people are honest, kindly, and hearty by nature.”  These are still the things you will find in “the Provinces.”