VANCOUVER - Charles Dickens was one of England's most-respected writers during the 19th century, but he wasn't much of a father, and that may have had an impact — even a small one — on Canadian history, says the author of a new historical novel that focuses on the younger Dickens's life as a Mountie.
Veteran journalist Vic Parsons of Victoria, B.C., recently self-published "Lesser Expectations: Charles Dickens' Son in North America", which explores the father-son dynamic between the respected writer and his third son and fifth child, Francis.
Based on years of research, including time in the national archives in Ottawa, Parsons said he has concluded Dickens wasn't a great dad and only two of his sons, excluding Francis, likely ever met his great expectations.
Parsons said he believes because of that poor relationship, Francis grew into a man who was reticent to take charge, especially as a commissioned officer in the North West Mounted Police.
"What I've tried to do, I guess, is to try to say, you know, this was kind of a guy who came from greatness in a sense...that Charles was a very popular writer, well-known, and his children never kind of led up to his own expectations," said Parsons.
"I think if you have a parent like that, it kind of lingers with you for the rest of your life, you know, it impacts your personality."
Parsons pointed to one incident while Francis was posted to Blackfoot Crossing, southeast of present-day Calgary, Alta., in the Bow River Valley.
He had joined the North West Mounted Police, the precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in 1874 after time in India with the Bengal Mounted Police. His mother's aunt had known Lord Dufferin, Canada's third governor general.
While at Blackfoot Crossing, Francis arrested a man named Bull Elk, a member of the Blackfoot, who had fired his rifle during a dispute over the sale of a cow's head.
The First Nations man was taken back to the local detachment where he was held in custody. After a short investigation, Francis decided Bull Elk should stand trial at Fort Macleod, west of present-day Lethbridge, on a charge of attempted murder.
But a crowd of about 700 Blackfoot warriors, some wearing war paint, formed outside the police building.
Francis called for Crowfoot, the "paramount chief of the Blackfoot Confederacy," and decided to turn Bull Elk over to the leader, instead of trying to take him to Fort Macleod.
Crowfoot had promised Francis he'd bring Bull Elk to the magistrate when the case was heard locally.
But Dickens's superior officer, Leif Crozier, who was stationed at Fort Macleod at the time, "growled in disgust when he read Dickens’s report on the events at the Crossing," Parsons writes. "He was appalled at the inspector’s lack of preparedness, his weak resolve and his willingness to compromise."
Crozier left for Blackfoot Crossing with 20 senior officers and men, and when he arrived, he ordered Francis to prepare for action.
The Mounties seized Bull Elk from Crowfoot's lodge, rode back to police headquarters and began a preliminary examination.
Bull Elk was subsequently found guilty of attempted murder and served 14 days in a Fort Macleod guard room before being released.
Francis continued serving with the force until February 1886, making it through the Northwest Rebellion. In one instance, he led a detachment of Mounties from Fort Pitt, in present day Saskatchewan, down the North Saskatchewan River to safety in Battleford.
The fort had been surrounded by Cree warriors who were under the command of Big Bear.
Parsons said after his service with the force, Francis tried to get a job with the public service in Ottawa, but was badly treated by the government and ended up meeting an American doctor in Montreal who convinced him to go on a speaking tour.
He ended up in Moline, Ill., where he suffered a heart attack and died before he was able to give his first speech. He was 42 years old and was buried in the community located east of Chicago.
"Francis was an ordinary man who was confronted with an extraordinary situation and had to make difficult choices," said Parsons. "The record shows he was not always successful in this, although, as we all know, hindsight is easier than foresight."
However, Parsons said while writing the book he, too, was confronted with a tough decision.
Significant gaps peppered the historical records, making it tough to assemble an unbroken narrative of Francis Dickens's 42-year life.
"I wasn't exactly sure how I should treat it, you know, as a full biography or as a completely fictionalized or combination of both," said Parsons. "And I finally opted for a combination of both."
And that's why the work is considered a novel. In fact, Parsons makes note in his afterword where he decided to re-create sections of Francis's adventure.
A description of the book on the website of FriesenPress, Inc. calls the book Parsons first novel.
Andreas Schroeder, creative non-fiction professor at the University of British Columbia, said what Parsons did was OK, as long as he let the audience know of the technique because the historical record didn't provide the required information.
"The sort of bottom line on all this is you can invent anything you want in creative non-fiction as long as you keep your reader aware of what you are doing," he said.
An official NWMP tombstone was unveiled over the grave of Francis Dickens in September 2002. It gives his regimental number, rank, dates of birth and death and a simple inscription: "Third son of the author Charles Dickens."
Francis Dickens's sword is currently stored at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.
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