Yesterday I finished reading an old Canadian novel in which a rapist abducts a woman who gives birth to a baby who later becomes a feral child, or infant, when the mother is murdered. Today, June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court in the United States overturned Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 law that recognized women’s right to control their own bodies and reproductive systems. The striking parallel lit the proverbial fire under me and brought me back here to my blog.
Raised in the French (Canadian) Roman Catholic tradition, I understand one of the core reasons that the pro-life movement campaigned for half a century against Roe vs. Wade. I do believe that at some point in gestation a fetus is alive—the point that is called viability—and that we should protect life when we can. But, at least until that point, the fetus is inseparable from the mother and can be considered a part of the mother, and for this reason the mother should have the right to decide what happens to her own body and its parts. I don't take this view lightly; I don't feel settled on a position, but this is where I'm at now.
(I also believe that there is more than a little hypocrisy involved, because in much of the world not all lives are valued equally—not only human lives but also the many companion species and non-human animals who have at least a degree of personhood in many human families and cultures. So to insist on the rights of the unborn child in America seems disingenuous if the provocative case can be made that many Americans don’t value life, given their tolerance of mass shootings and pandemic death rates—and death penalties. But I digress….)
In the novel I finished yesterday, John Richardson’s Westbrook the Outlaw, or, The Avenging Wolf: An American Border Tale (1851), a young woman named Emily falls in love with her tutor, who abdicates his religious role as a lay brother to marry her. (Richardson is much better known for his 1832 novel Wacousta.) The evil Westbrook, jealous, murders him and carries Emily away to his cabin in the woods, where he sexually assaults her repeatedly over the course of many months. Skipping ahead rapidly, the novel reveals that she is pregnant. The readers are led to believe that the father of the child is Emily’s husband, but it seems just as likely that the rapist is the father.
When a sergeant in the British army (it’s before 1867 in Canada) brings a troop to rescue her when Westbrook is out, Westbrook shoots her from a distance, and she dies too. Little do the soldiers realize that she had given birth, but they later track Westbrook to another lair where he has abandoned the baby, who—as readers learn in the final pages—is being raised by a wolf. In the end, the wolf kills Westbrook but is also killed in the struggle, and the baby is left without human or canine parental figures (unless one of the soldiers later steps up; more likely, the child would be raised in a religious orphanage, which history has shown to be a questionably safe space). It’s a bleak conclusion, one that implies that an unwanted child (unwanted by Westbrook, at least) will struggle to survive in the world. As much as I wish we all had guardian wolves and that we could see and respect relationships between humans and other animals, I don’t think that’s what Richardson was trying to suggest.
In the context of Roe vs. Wade, the novel reminded me that, ten or fifteen years ago, I read a book on the societal influence of economics--Freakonomics (2005)—that proposed that Roe vs. Wade was partly responsible for lowering the crime rate in the 1990s and early 2000s. In theory—and it was a wild theory but one that seemed to have some merit—unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and if they are never born then there’s one less factor in crime. The theory seems to overemphasize correlation (and Wikipedia surveys various more specific-to-stats problems in its entry on the book), but, still, I expect that there will be consequences in about a generation when unwanted children brought into an uncaring world are old enough to act of their own accord. I can only hope that they are nurtured and supported so that they have the advantages that planned families often enjoy.
One of the only rays of sunshine in the last chapter of Westbrook the Outlaw is that the American captain of the troop that he had joined is relieved that such a terrible man was not American. (Those dastardly Canadians—or almost-Canadians!) Considering that the novel is set during the War of 1812 between the Americans and the not-yet-Canadian Britons, Richardson is taking a remarkably amicable position. He had recently moved to New York, hoping that America would give him a late-life boost to his literary career, but Westbrook the Outlaw, his final novel, didn't help at all. Stylistically, Westbrook the Outlaw is a terrible book by today’s standards, with torturous syntax, uneven timing, flat characters, and a scarcely believable plot without a compensatory fantasy.
In fact, a genre such as fantasy—but specifically the Western—was the reason I read the book. With my own new book, The American Western in Canadian Literature nearly ready for the printing press, I came across the title Westbrook the Outlaw and its subtitle about the American Border Tale. I blanched, thinking that I had missed an early Canadian Western (at least one) in my survey of the genre. Luckily for me, I think that Richardson’s choice of title was misleading and that his book is less a Western and more a tragic romance (truly occupied, as it is, by a doomed love story). One might even say that it’s partly a rape fantasy, given the problematic, extended descriptions of Emily’s highly sexualized body.
But it’s probably not a Western even in the looser terms of the middle of the nineteenth century when the genre was not fully defined. It doesn’t really have a cowboy or sheriff (or Mountie), though it has an outlaw and a soldier; it barely has “Indians,” and it barely has wilderness or a frontier (and is set in what is now southern Ontario, not really far enough west). Natural justice (the wolf) rather than frontier justice wins the day. It’s not a war novel either.
Nevertheless, finding Westbrook the Outlaw was a reckoning: a reminder that I will probably have made some mistakes in my book. I hope they are few. I hope the critics in my own country are merciful. And I hope that any American readers can treat me with Richardson’s friendliness to them, even as I read the American news and wonder where our neighbours and their country will be in twenty years.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Westbrook the Outlaw and Roe vs. Wade." Publicly Interested, 24 June 2022, www.publiclyinterested.ca.
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Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.