Thursday, January 26, 2012

William Lacey Amy, The Blue Wolf (1913)

The Canadian West has its writers, and among the earliest was William Lacey Amy (1877-1962), later known as Luke Allan. His first novel, The Blue Wolf, was published in London in 1913. It’s a mystery-adventure set in the Cypress Hills and surrounding prairie south of Medicine Hat, Alberta.

The narrator, Arthurs, is a tenderfoot from Toronto, gone West to visit a college chum who has taken up cattle ranching. The mysterious deaths of two other chums while visiting the same ranch should have been warning enough to stay in Toronto, but this fellow has a lot to learn.

Plot. The blue wolf of the title is a much-feared predator believed to lurk in the vicinity of the ranch. Arthurs has a close encounter with the creature in the opening chapters, its startling howl sending the horse he’s been riding over a precipice. Fortunately for Arthurs, he’d just dismounted.

It’s old home week when he gets to the ranch, discovering that another man, Dicky, has also arrived. Together with the rancher Jock, they are the remaining three of the original circle of five chums. Also at the ranch are Jock’s wife Aggie, whom they all loved while in university, and her sister Margaret.

Arthurs has some history with Margaret. Their reunion is somewhat awkward, especially as he learns she’s been keeping company with a local Mountie, Corporal Humby. The corporal has his eye on a communal settlement of farmers who call themselves Dreamers and are led by an unsavory character, Maskin.

Cypress Hills
A handful of other characters figure into the story: a consumptive Englishman, Mathers, with his wife and young daughter, Rosa, and the ranch’s foreman, Squart. During the novel Mathers dies and is buried near the verandah of his house, under a Union Jack flying at half-mast.

There are peculiar goings-on. Jock behaves strangely. Margaret is meeting someone in the woods around the ranch house at night. Long after dark, a gunshot takes out a ranch house window. Corporal Humby seems to have everyone under surveillance and keeps popping up unannounced.

More curiously, Arthurs sees flashes of light and a climber on a rocky peak that rises from the Hills, but Jock warns him not to investigate. There’s mysterious singing from a nearby lake to be heard after nightfall. The Dreamers have clandestine, moonlit meetings in the hills, where they are harangued by Maskin. And so on.

Everyone has secrets, and rather like a Hardy Boys’ novel, Arthurs and Dicky try to piece together a disconnected series of clues. When the mystery is finally solved, it involves a Jekyll-Hyde mad scientist and technology that would be at home in a science fiction pulp novel. The nerve-wracking climax includes a literal cliffhanger and multiple deaths. In the final scene, two pairs of lovers are united.

Canadian cowboy, c1917
Cowboys. The cowboy on the cover would make a reader expect a shoot-em-up tale akin to Zane Grey. In fact, the single cowboy character in the novel, Squart, plays only a small part in the story. Still, Amy’s interest in him is not peripheral. He’s a three-dimensional creation and larger than life.

Besides the usual trappings of hat, spurs, and sheepskin chaps, he sports a mouth full of gold teeth, having lost the originals in a bad fall from a broncho. He also does not drink, smoke, chew, or swear. He is almost, but not quite, a comic character.

With a heart as big as all outdoors, he is devoted to the care and protection of the English family, the Matherses, especially the eighteen-year-old Rosa. He herds cattle within sight of their house, which overlooks the prairie. When the old man is dying, he rides his horse for help until it drops dead of exhaustion.

Women. Arthurs, the narrator, is a bit unreliable as a chronicler of life on the prairie for women. He’s brought his Eastern prejudices with him and finds the condition of the ranch house not up to his Toronto standards for feminine domesticity. Despite the presence of a German maid, he considers the furnishings sadly shabby.

Arthurs is not convinced the West is a good place for anybody with the refinements afforded by urban living and a university education. Aggie, a tender soul, yearns to return to Toronto and relies on her husband like an emotionally fragile child.

Her sister Margaret seems made of tougher material. She is independent and intelligent, ready to confront a gang of belligerent college men, as we learn in a flashback. She also easily holds her own in an exchange of wits with Arthurs, who carries a torch for her that years of separation should have extinguished by now. He manfully resists his jealousy when he sees there’s something going on between her and Corporal Humby.

Somewhat oddly, he makes an issue of Margaret’s riding “astride” a horse, western-style. It embarrasses him when she doesn’t ride sidesaddle, and she herself claims to dislike wearing a divided skirt. Meanwhile, Rosa is a true horse-loving girl of the West and, for that reason, seems excused from being more lady-like.

North West Mounted Polive, 1898
East vs West. The opening pages describe the narrator’s arrival in the Canadian West after a long, uncomfortable train ride from Toronto. There are horses, a cattle ranch, and a vast sea of prairie, which Arthurs finds lifeless, dreary, and sometimes frightening in its vastness.

People out here are unfriendly and impolite. The farmer, Maskin, makes no pretense of courtesy or generosity. His physical appearance, his posture, and his manner trigger immediate dislike for Arthurs:

In the steadiness of his gaze there was something so self-confident, something so expectant of servile recognition, that I was impelled to resentment.

The U.S. is only a few miles to the south, and the Canadian prairie offers refuge for outcasts from “Uncle Sam Land” like the agrarian religious sect, the Dreamers.

Disturbing to Arthurs is the leveling of social classes in the West that permits a Maskin to behave discourteously to his betters. In one scene, Dicky refuses to get out of his way as Maskin impolitely attempts to enter the ranch house without being invited.

Wrapping up. According to one source, William Lacey Amy was born in Ontario and was for a short time editor and owner of the Medicine Hat Times. In 1920, he began a popular western series based on a half-breed cowboy, Blue Pete. There were over 20 Blue Pete novels, published chiefly in England, featuring both cowboys and Mounted Police.

Ebooks of The Blue Wolf: A Tale of the Cypress Hills seem to be currently unavailable. Used copies can be found at AbeBooks. Friday's Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Gregory Peck, The Stalking Moon (1968)


  1. I can see why William Lacey Amy became Luke Allan. I think I might have gone the same way with the name in that case.

    1. Same thought here. Kind of like trying to be a credible cowboy star with the name Marion Morrison.

  2. Another very interesting and informative piece. Thank you. I'd not heard of Amy - though "Luke Allan" rings a distant bell - and was interested to see that he figures quite prominently in another's entry in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography . I note also that in the years leading up to the First World War he wrote a great deal about Labrador. About as far from the Canadian West as you can get!

    1. Thanks, Brian. Lacey seems also have been vocal in his anti-pacifist stance during the war years.

  3. I may have mentioned this already: Bertrand Sinclair's RAW GOLD is set in the same area, and so is Wallace Stegner's WOLF WILLOW.

  4. Great to see stories with a Canadian location. My novel "Partners" starts in the Cypress Hills and ends up in Barkerville. It's available digitaly now as well.

    1. Thanks, Dave, for dropping by. The Cypress Hills have a historical connection with the NWMP. Then there's also the massacre there.

  5. Hi Ron, my name's Cameron. I stumbled across your blog while researching William Lacey Amy. Sorry this is such a late contribution! Firstly, there is an online copy available through the University of Alberta, but not really useful as an ebook.

    You wrote: "Arthurs, the narrator, is a bit unreliable as a chronicler of life on the prairie for women." I think this unreliability or ambivalence is shared by the author. Or, and possibly more accurately, Arthurs is a thinly veiled Lacey Amy. His attitudes towards modern life, female domesticity and the 'girl problem' were very public. He wrote, for instance, in the Canadian Magazine, April 1914: "Perhaps the secret of the license accorded to youth – especially to girls – is our frenzy for publicity, our determination to “keep in the swim.”…It may shock us to hear of an evening spent by our young girls wholly in turkey-trots and bunny-hugs, interspersed with cooling-off joy-rides, but that is not unusual even in Toronto, the Good.” He opened the same article with an attack on women's clothing, divorce (and Cubism), and is throughout condescending and patronizing about the frivolity of young women (far more vehemently than I've found in other articles from the time). Which is why Margaret is so interesting, because does she represent to Lacey Amy a feminine ideal of a non-frivolous woman? I have no idea, but I felt compelled to share. Keep up the great blog!

    1. Thanks, Cameron, for your additional commentary on the novel. Women at the time were beginning to break away from Victorian conventions, and the reactions of more conservative males were typically predictable.

  6. Ron
    Your article caused me to begin a little study on this Canadian author. I am afraid that I have not linked up or edited my research but I now have a number of 'Luke Allan' and 'Amy Lacey' articles and books that I have digitized---a habit formed while researching others notably A. Hyatt Verrill---explorer, author, illustrator and a forgotten famous American. The Black Opal is perhaps Luken Allan's most interesting commentary on 'modern women' written in 1935. There is very little that I have so far located about the life of Amy Lacey.
    Great article and the comments are interesting as well. Thanks Doug

    1. Thanks, Doug. By coincidence, I just downloaded two Blue Pete novels to review for my blog.