More years ago now than I care to count I was a 17 year old Rotary Exchange student to Brampton, Ontario, Canada. I flew from a 30 plus degrees Celsius summer in Brisbane to -4 degrees with wind chill at Toronto airport. I went from a pigtailed, uniform-wearing, private school girl to the new kid at a North American high school in the middle of their year, straddling grades 12 and 13 as it then existed in Ontario. Culture shock doesn’t quite cover it. It was more like being sucked through a vortex into another dimension, a strange parallel universe where there was a lot of cold white stuff on the ground and I could see people’s lips moving but had no idea what they were talking about.
For the first two days at my new high school no one spoke to me, at least not voluntarily. The only people who did were the teachers, the girl who was press-ganged into sharing her locker with the new Australian weirdo, and my year 10 host-sister and friends who’d kindly sat with me at lunch both days. (I found out later that sitting with year 10s when you’re a year 12/13 student is tantamount to social suicide, but I digress.) So imagine my surprise when first period after lunch on day two the prettiest girl in my Grade 13 English class, the head cheer leader no less, smiled and waved and beckoned me to take the spare seat beside her. I did, and that’s how a life-long friendship started, one that endures to this very day. (More on this later.) I’m still not sure if it was that unexpectedly warm welcome or the Grade 13 English curriculum that kick-started another life-long affection for one Canadian author in particular – Robertson Davies. I suspect it was a bit of both.
Fifth Business is the first book in Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy, and it was what we were studying in that Grade 13 English class on that fateful day. It’s the story of the intertwined lives of three boys from the small, mythical Ontario town of Deptford – Dunstable (later becoming Dunstan) Ramsay, Percy Boyd (later becoming simply Boy) Staunton and Paul Dempster (later becoming someone else but to tell would ruin the story). Paul is in utero when the story begins. A killer snow ball, thrown by Boy and deftly dodged by Dunstan, finds it’s mark on a pregnant Mary Dempster, causing her to go into spontaneous early labour and, from that time forward, to be ‘simple in the head’. Boy later denies all knowledge of the incident and Dunstan, while not fessing up to the crime, carries the guilt of it all his life. This guilt and the responsibility he feels towards Mrs Dempster and her offspring permeates his entire history – from the World War 1 battlefields of France, his teaching career, his travels around Europe researching and writing many books on the historical and mythological realm of saints.
In the preface to the book, Davies proffers an explanation of the term ‘Fifth Business’ as one used by drama and opera companies organised in the ‘old style’. It refers not to the hero or heroine nor even the pivotal supporting roles of villain or confidante. Rather, Fifth Business is a role that is essential to bringing about the final ‘denouement’ of the story. In this case Davies, via our noble narrator Dunstan Ramsay, creates a book that reads like a memoir and leads us through the entanglement of these three people over various village scandals, two world wars and a Depression, culminating in the highly intriguing events around the death of Boy Staunton. A successful and wealthy Canadian business man by this time, Boy drives his car into Lake Ontario in what appears to be a suicide, except for the mystery of how he came to have a smooth, round stone in his mouth at the time of his death.
I love a good mystery particularly those that don’t read like mysteries. I also love the many fascinating sub-themes in Davies’ work ranging from the magical, mythical, religious and spiritual to the historical and locational. The fact that Fifth Business was set in Canada was both informative and beguiling to me, a newcomer to that wonderful country which, in a way not dissimilar to Australia, seemed to always be in a self-imposed tussle over its own cultural identity.
I was so intruiged by the story and Davies’ inimitable, erudite and wry writing style, I bought the other two books in the trilogy (The Manticore and World of Wonders) with my Rotary Exchange Student allowance very soon after finishing Fifth Business. Since then the trilogy has become a staple of my bookshelf being read in its entirety every few years or so. My Grade 13 English teacher would have been proud.