For All Nails #279: Flyers and Fulcrums

by Phoebe Barton

From the Fort Rasmusson Literary Review FN1
10 August 1975



Aside from the Plains of Abraham and the plebiscite of 1889, few events in Quebec's history have decided the future more cleanly than the Patriotes abortive insurrection in 1839. It marked the first real manifestation of a political will in this nation and, through the rise of this will to self-determination, prepared the role for Quebec's reorganization as an Associated Province under Gallivan. In his new book, No Lead and Iron: Papineau in the City, noted historian Lucien Bellefontaine re-examines the influence Papineau's defeat wrought on the social and political development of Quebec, through the use of a counterfactual thesis of the sort pioneered in Robert Sobel's For All Time.

No Lead and Iron, in the style pioneered by Sobel, purports to be a non-fiction book written in a parallel history. However, the narrative is disjointed and sometimes nonsensical, and its purpose is hampered by a lack of imagination on the part of the author. The course of Bellefontaine's altered history is uninspired at best, and often resorts to the wholesale theft of true history, with events such as the 1889 plebiscite and historical figures appearing long after the junction point. In one glaring example, despite more than a century of altered history, the leader of Quebec in the book's 1973 conclusion is none other than Étienne Finnegan. FN2

Beyond this copying of history, the narrative suffers from a prepondrance of implausible situations and a lack of attention to the implications of the altered history. Bellefontaine's initial break from history comes as, in his words, "a moment of clarity," when Papineau does not raise the flag at Mont Michel but instead waits until 1841, secretly training an army of Patriotes to overwhelm the defenders of Quebec City, before setting alight his revolution. Bellefontaine's conception of the 1839 revolution as something that could be switched on or off at will denies both the nature of revolutionary sentiment as well as the social forces that made the rise of the Patriotes inevitable.

The implausibility of Bellefontaine's imagined world is brought to the forefront when Papineau launches his revolution and succeeds, due to nearly superhuman stupidity on the part of Governor Henry Scott and the Quebec City garrison. In an even more unbelievable turn of events, Papineau himself is made governor of Quebec, and he manages to exempt Quebec from the Second Britannic Design and works towards establishing it as an associated state nearly fifty years ahead of schedule.

Bellefontaine gives the rest of the nineteenth century little attention, and what references he does make indicate a political and social situation virtually identical to our own history. His logic breaks down in his coverage of the Bloody Eighties, and the text itself seems tired and searching for an end when the alternate 1889 plebiscite, predictably enough the work of Ezra Gallivan, results in the creation of an independent "State of Quebec."

After more than a hundred pages of what seemed to be little more than faded photocopies of history, it was no surprise when the Global War erupted precisely on schedule. It is here that Bellefontaine begins to make his points clear, as the State of Quebec declares war on Germany bare hours after Britain's own declaration and eagerly sends its troops into battle. The logistics and popular response of this deployment are entirely ignored, and somehow Quebec's involvement stalls the German drive on the Victoria Canal, turns back every advance in the European theater, and sees Germany seek peace terms in 1942.

No Lead and Iron is, ultimately, predicated upon the notion that Québec would have been better off without the Confederation of North America. It stands as a rebuttal to historians the world over, from Sobel's For Want of a Nail ... to Malone's A History of Quebec that paint the nation as backwards, impoverished, and parochial. Bellefontaine's vision of Quebec is that of a potentially dynamic force in need of only an opportunity to seize its destiny. The first words one encounters in the book quote Archimedes, saying "give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I will move the world."

In Bellefontaine's world, Quebec certainly is a fulcrum. Whether or not the same may be said of the real world remains to be seen.

Pickering, Quebec
12 August 1975

"It's good," Judith Eades said after a moment of consideration, "but I probably would have done another draft myself."

Alan Fairfax shrugged and gave a long, satisfied yawn. "What can I say?" he said with a smile. "They wanted to buy it, and I was quite happy to take their money. It seems like a reasonable transaction all around."

For a moment, it was as if the world slowed down to watch itself going by, and neither of them wanted to waste the opportunity. A fresh wind was blowing in off of Lake Wolfe, smelling of fulfillment. Fairfax closed his eyes and spent a second or two feeling the warmth and comfort as summer wound down. It was nearly as comfortable as knowing Judith sat there next to him, and that he had been able to make a difference after all. It had been simple enough to get her a day pass from the hospital, and he steadied her crutches against the bench as they sat.

"Any publicity is good, I suppose," Judith said, leafing through the rest of the magazine -- a booklet, really, thinner than a man's index finger. Still, it was in the business, and it was something that the higher orders paid attention to from time to time.

"Yeah, and the twenty pounds was even better," Fairfax said. "Now I don't have to worry about starving to death for the rest of the week."

"And the world breathes a sigh of relief," Judith said, shaking her head. "About that book, though... was it really that bad?"

"Trust me," Fairfax said, leaning close to her for a moment. "It was worse. The only reason it took so long to write it was because I had to find a diplomatic way to express just how bad it was. Of course, I couldn't say that -- they tend to frown on subjectivity, you know."

"Right," she said. "But I bet it's not so bad that he won't find readers."

"Don't even get me started," Fairfax grumbled. "Every idiot who wishes he could have ridden with Frontenac will snap it up. You should see what he writes about us in there."

"Oh? What?"

"Absolutely nothing," Fairfax said. "You know the kind. He's one of those blokes who thinks the world ends right past Saint-Michel. FN3 Plus he's one of those militarists. I bet Bax'll love him."

They sat for a few more minutes before getting on their way again, down the macadamized walking path that would eventually lead them back to the hospital and civilization. The topic soon drifted to Judith's plans for the future.

"Oh, I don't know," she said. "Back to Niagara City, FN4 I guess. Call up some of my favors, see if I can't get a new bird in the air any time soon. I'd hate to have to give it up because of one stupid mistake."

"It didn't seem like a mistake to me," Fairfax said. "Mechanical failure. These things happen. You can't beat yourself up over that."

"I'd sooner believe that Lennart Skinner was born on the moon before I'd believe in mechanical failure on my bird," Judith said in a strident tone. "I went over every switch, every wire on that plane every time I had a job. I missed something, and because of that a man is dead."

"Nobody blames you," Fairfax said. "At least they don't anymore, considering that the Progs kept this seat." FN5

"It's just..." She shook her head. "I can't stand failing. I had to be better than anyone else to get where I am today. Twenty, fifteen years ago, do you think anyone would have heard of a lady pilot? Really heard, not just publicity stunts like Amanda Harter?"

"Yeah, but times are different now. I mean, look at the space program," Fairfax said, even though a bitter taste filled his mouth when he mentioned the CNA's forfeited dream. "At least, look at what it was."

"Publicity and nothing but," Judith insisted. "That whole program was hollow from the beginning. If it had been anything other than a contest of international, well, manhood it wouldn't have folded after two years. The Sweet Six only went up there to show the world how 'progressive' they are down in Burgoyne. If the Mexicans or the Germans ever take a shot, I think we can both guess who'll be in their rockets."

"I can see what you mean," Fairfax said, after a moment of thought. The German Empire struck him as being nothing if not paternalistic. The Mexicans might do it, but he didn't have any real wish to see Mercator's cronies to be the ones charting the high frontier.

"Exactly," she said. "I can't let anything keep me down, not even fifty feet of copper cabling."

The hospital's grounds were kept carefully groomed, and as he entered with Judith, Fairfax took a brief moment to appreciate them. They certainly looked better now that the campaign boards were down, and off in the distance, City Hall kept its familiar drapings of Progressive green.

"Another week, then, and you'll be discharged?" Fairfax asked as they walked up to the doors.

"Unless something goes wrong, about that," Judith replied. "Alan... I wanted to thank you, for being there a month ago and being here now. You don't know how much you've helped me."

"Pulling you out of the water was good enough for me," Alan said with a self-effacing shrug. "Besides, you've given me things to do. So, you're welcome."

Judith pulled him closer for a moment once they entered the hospital. "No, no, it's not just that," she said. "Here I am, half-dead in an unfamiliar city, nobody in a thousand miles to call and nowhere to go except the other side of the bed. You didn't have to come and check up on me, but you did. You gave me something to count on, something to appreciate. So, thank you."

"You're very welcome," Fairfax said. "I'm happy enough with that."

They turned the last corner, bringing the ascensors into sight, but Fairfax's gaze was distracted by something colourful on the floor. He bent to pick it up and immediately wished he hadn't. He frowned at the red liberty cap wreathed by stars FN6 and felt bile run up his throat. Red because it's drenched in the blood of innocents, he thought.

"What's the matter?" Judith asked, obviously reading his expression.

Fairfax showed her the pamphlet and her smile sagged. "Oh. Of course."

"If there's one thing I hate, it's those damned Jeffersonists leaving their refuse around," Fairfax said, crumpling the pamphlet in his fist. "This is supposed to be a place of healing, not sedition! It just makes me so angry..."

"Don't worry about it," Judith said. "They're just Jeffersonists. They'll never amount to anything anyway."

Fairfax chuckled and dropped it in the next trashcan. It would be a cold day indeed before he cared what a Jeffersonist had to say.

Forward to FAN #280: Sallah Bread.

Forward to 12 August 1975: Bullet the Blue Sky.

Forward to Alan Fairfax: A Statement of Principles.

Return to For All Nails.

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.