If you were to ask many people for some examples of Canadian literary “classics”, typical responses would likely include Roughing It in the Bush, Barometer Rising, As for Me and My House, Duddy Kravitz, or The Stone Angel. Very few people would think of Tay John, the 1939 novel by Alberta writer Howard O’Hagan. Outside of the academic community this novel is relatively unknown. In 2003 I took my first course in Canadian literature, it was a full year survey course taught by the brilliant academic Renee Hulan. I was already developing an interest in CanLit and had a good sized collection, especially of New Canadian Library books. Of all of the novels on the reading list this was the only book I didn’t already own and the only one I wasn’t at least somewhat familiar with. When I read it for the course 8 years ago, honestly, I did not really get it and did not really enjoy it very much. I don’t know why but as I was looking at my NCL shelves last week I felt like I had to reread this book. My opinion is completely different now that I have had time to read it closely and absorb what the story is all about. This is not the type of book where a character goes from point-A to point-B with all of the interesting stuff happening in between. Tay John is a puzzle. You receive bits and pieces of the story of this enigmatic protagonist that will have you flipping back between chapters and keeping you guessing right to the end and after you ultimately close the covers.
Tay John is the story of a mythical Messianic halfbreed from the Albertan Rockies. The name Tay John comes from the name the English visitors gave the protagonist in his youth, Tete Jaune, meaning Yellow Head, because of his golden yellow hair. The bulk of the story takes place around Yellowhead Lake and Yellowhead Flats. The story examines idea of what makes a legend or a myth and how the story of an ordinary man can be altered or perverted as it grows and passes from person to person. On a more topical level it is an allegory on the idea of the Christian Messiah. Throughout the book there are multiple narrators and multiple points-of-view. The first section is told as a Native oral tale while the second and third sections are told by men who are relatively minor characters in the narrative. The cast is small and the dynamic of the story is fascinating.
The character of Tay John is a bit of a contradiction. The book always revolves around his world but there are times when you might read 30 pages without even a mention of his name, yet he is catalyst of all of all of the forward momentum. As a character he is intentionally not overly developed. How the readers perception of him is shaped is by the interpretation and knowledge of his life and the mythical status that he occupies in the minds of the supporting characters, who are all very well developed.
There are so many vivid images that will stick with the reader: Tay John’s “birth”, how he reacts to losing a game of cards, his battle with a grizzly bear, and his ultimate fate in the last scene. This is one of the great classics of our national literature and a forerunner to many other Western writers like Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroestsch in terms of both style, settings, and themes. Tay John is a book that will have you flipping back and forth to various chapters to connect some of the subtle dots in your head. It is a very fulfilling read and a book that is very under-appreciated by the reading public.