Good Books: Tay John by Howard O’Hagan

“The time of this in its beginning, in men’s time, is 1880 in the summer, and its place is the Athabaska valley…” In this place live a group of Shuswap Indians, separated from their main group who live farther west. This is not a good place for them and they want to return to the good hunting grounds that they once knew. They possess a myth: that a man shall come to them who will be a great leader and guide the tribe to the place where they will be happy. Instead, a white trapper named Red Rorty descends on the Shuswap. Rorty has recently discovered Christianity and he means to convert the Shuswap but rapes one of them, a woman named Hanni. The angry women of the tribe tie Red Rorty to a tree. They set fire to his beard and hair:

With the fire his mouth opened to shout but no sound came from it. Yaada took a small round stone and shoved it between his jaws, and it stayed there, as a word he tried to utter, while the flames began to roar around him…
While the ground was yet hot and smouldered, Yaada and some others returned.
     They found the skull, fallen to the ground and caught in the black twisted roots of a tree. The stone was still between its jaws. Yaada took a stick and pointed.
     “See,” she said, “He was a great liar, and the word has choked him!”

That is the first chapter of Tay John, Howard O’Hagan’s great novel about myth and humanity. The place where it is set, near the headwaters of the Fraser River, is the western opening of the Tête Jaune or Yellowhead pass through the Rockies. That place name is one of the springs for O’Hagan’s fiction. His main character is Tay John, a corrupted form of Tête Jaune, so called because he is blonde.

Headwaters of the Fraser. Mt. Robson in the distance.

Hanni is pregnant with Red Rorty’s child. She becomes sick and dies before giving birth. A child is seen emerging from her grave. The child, a blonde boy, is captured and taken to the people but he is unhappy. A wise woman is brought from another tribe and she tells them the reason: “He wants the full, free life of a man — not the half-life he had in the grave.” Then people notice that the boy has no shadow. The wise woman leads him to the home of shadows and finds one for him. Still, people are afraid that if they step on the boy’s shadow, that he will lose it and when they are close to him they look down at the ground, careful where they put their feet. So Tay John grows up.

There is a dark river valley that the people fear and where hunters do not go. That is the place that Tay John chooses for his vision quest. He spends days in the fearsome place and returns with heavy black sand so that the people will know that he has truly been there. An owl, the spirit of a dead woman, speaks to him on his quest but the elders of the tribe have already  made up their minds that Tay John’s spirit animal is a bear and so they interpret his visions. White men come to the area; they ride horses which are a wonder to the tribe since they are not a horse people. Tay John guides them into the dark valley where the white men are delighted with the heavy black sand that they recognize as gold-bearing. They send Tay John back to his people with a rifle and ammunition and other valuable things.

Tay John guides his people west. It is a hard journey and some die but eventually they come to grassland at the edge of the forest that is full of game. The people are satisfied. Now Tay John wants a wife but the only available young woman is afraid of him because he is a leader and she cannot look into his face for fear of stepping on  his shadow. The people say that Tay John does not need a woman, the tribe is his wife. There is discord and Tay John leaves. The people build a new house for Tay John and every day line his bed with fresh green boughs. They hang a beautiful coat of marmot skins inside for him to wear. They wait for his return. So ends the first section of the book: “Legend”.

The second section is called “Hearsay” and it is the testimony of Jackie Denham who has a story to tell, the story of Tay John. Denham tells of seeing Tay John kill a grizzly bear with a knife. He tells of it so often that the story is known to everyone as “Jackie’s Tale”. But Denham also knows some other tales of Tay John, of a desperate card game where the man cuts off his own left hand and an encounter with a woman, one of the first tourists in the area, who accuses him of rape. Denham has these stories second-hand and retells them. By his telling, the woman is fascinated with Tay John who, according to her, lost his hand in a fight with a grizzly. When she withdraws her accusation the others involved, all men, assume that the woman was refused by Tay John and sought revenge through her accusation — anyway, she was asking for it.

By now the reader of O’Hagan’s book will understand that there are stories and there are facts and that the one does not necessarilly partake of the other. The story is the important thing. Stories exist independently of men:

All that is not seen is dark. Light lives only in man’s vision. Past our stars, we think, is darkness. But here we say, is light.

Men walk upon the earth in light, trailing their shadows that are the day’s memories of the night. For each man his shadow is his dark garment, formed to the image of his end, sombre and obscure as his own beginning. It is his shroud, awaiting by his mother’s womb lest he forget what, with his first breath of life, he no longer remembers.

[Tay John’s] story, such as it is, like himself, would have existed independently… Every story — the rough-edged chronicle of a personal destiny — having its source in a past we cannot see, and its reverberations in a future still unlived — man, the child of darkness, walking for a few short moments in unaccustomed light — every story only waits, like a mountain in an untravelled land, for someone to come close, to gaze upon its contours, to lay a name upon it, and relate it to the known world. …and when you have finished, the story remains, something… unfathomable like the heart of a mountain.

So begins the final section of Tay John, “Evidence — Without A Finding”. Tay John, who abandoned his role as mythic hero to the Shuswap, gives up on being a legend to whites, throwing away his stetson hat after the rape incident. But Story is stronger than men and binds them.

Lucerne, B.C., 1917.

Red Rorty’s younger brother, a priest, has come into the region as has Alf Dobble, man determined to build a fantasy resort named Lucerne near the railroad that now steams through the Yellowhead Pass. These two are determined to be the heroes of their own story in imitation of the myths and legends that feed their beliefs and imagination. There also comes into the area a woman, Ardith, mistress to a wealthy and powerful man in the East and a central figure in a great scandal — a banker is shot in her apartment — that she is trying to escape. Ardith (based, I think, on Evelyn Nesbit), like Tay John, seeks to leave her story, to cease being a figure of legend.

Father Rorty is entranced by Ardith. She rejects him and Rorty is reminded of his own need for chastity. He lashes himself to a tree to share the experience of Jesus on the cross. There is rain and Rorty’s wet bindings shrink so that he cannot free himself and dies in agony, crucified. Or so people hypothesize. Perhaps he meant to die on that tree, perhaps he meant his imitation of Christ to proceed to its end.

Dobble, too, is smitten by Ardith. He sees her as a damsel in distress, one that he may rescue. But Dobble is a man who cannot see the reality, that he is a small, foolish creature whose vast dream of a resort town will lie rotting in the wilderness a few years hence — at least so Jackie Denham tells us.

Ardith and Tay John find each other and together seek to escape their mythic destinies. But how can one escape his or her own story? The story comes first, the people inhabit it and name it. The last we see of Tay John he is driving a dog team through driving snow. Ardith is pregnant and sits in the toboggan, her hand trailing, her mouth full of snow, dead, as Tay John furiously drives his team on. After the storm ends, no one can find any trace of them. It was as though they had gone down into the earth, thus returning the story to its beginning when Tay John emerges from his mother’s grave.

Howard O'Hagan (copyright Tom Gore)

Tay John was published in England in 1939. It got a good review in the Times Literary Supplement. Canadian critics didn’t like it. In 1960 an American edition was published that got a good review in the New York Times but poor reviews in Canada. The book did not sell well — the American edition of 4000 was remaindered. Still, some found the book and read it and passed the few extant copies around. It began to be an underground classic. People like Michael Ondaatje discovered O’Hagan’s book — he used the part quoted above about Red Rorty’s skull as an epigraph in his 1973 collection Rat Jelly and published a major article, “Howard O’Hagan and the ‘Rough-Edged Chronicle'”, in 1974. That year, McClelland and Stewart brought out a paperback edition for their New Canadian Library series that is still in print.

O’Hagan liked to present himself as a mountain man. Born in Lethbridge, Alberta, he had worked with wilderness survey teams and as a tour guide, but he also attended McGill University, got a law degree, and worked a little while as a lawyer before throwing it all over and beginning a wandering life as an impecunious writer. He was in Berkeley, California, married to an American painter, when he wrote Tay John. Howard O’Hagan understood, perhaps, the difficulty of escaping one’s own story.

Tay John by Howard O’Hagan. The New Canadian Library edition. With an afterword by Michael Ondaatje adapted from his 1974 essay.
Silence Made Visible: Howard O’Hagan and Tay John edited by Margery Fee. Essays and criticism plus some interviews and reminisces.
The Canadian Novel in the Twentieth Century edited by George Woodcock, (out of print) contains Ondaatje’s essay: “Howard O’Hagan and the ‘Rough-Edged Chronicle'”

Various essays written about Tay John may be found on line. For instance (not an exhaustive list):
“Howard O’Hagan’s Tay John: Making New World Myth” by Margery Fee
“The Declension of a Story: Narrative Structure in Howard O’Hagan’s Tay Johnby Kylee-Anne Hingston 
“Myths of Dominance versus Myths of Creation in O’Hagan’s Tay John by Jack Robinson


2 comments on “Good Books: Tay John by Howard O’Hagan

  1. nursemyra says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by Evelyn Nesbit

    • mikulpepper says:

      Yes. The girl in the red velvet swing and, of course, a major character in Ragtime. She attempted suicide several times before discovering peace through morphine. There are life stories that you understand people wanting to escape.

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