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Written by Timothy Sexton
The protagonist of this bizarre and perhaps uncategorizable historical satire is the former slave making his getaway from the antebellum plantation on which he was held prisoner. Raven is the very essence of an awakened consciousness come to life in the story of his evolution from slave to chronicler of the African experience in the world of a democracy spouting freedom for all while legislating bondage to many. The awakening of Quickskill’s consciousness is deeply aided by the fact that he was already a writer before he escaped the plantation and that awakening later abets his coming to view his Uncle Robin as every bit as dangerous to the system as the master Arthur Swille who helped turn Robin into literal model for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.
Which is not to suggest that Raven’s Uncle Robin is a simple stock character; an Uncle Tom with a distinctly different name. What is most important to keep in mind about Flight to Canada is that this is not some mere tale of the slavery days of yore in the tradition of 12 Years a Slave. Some critics have slapped the concept onto the book of it belonging to the tradition of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, but such a comparison fails to take into account that the really quite remarkable evolution of Uncle Robin. Is Robin the very personification of the “yassa massuh” portrait of the slave commonly referred to as an Uncle Tom? Certainly. Does Uncle Robin grow and evolve into the portrait of a former slave that even Mark Twain could never have imagined? Absolutely. In fact, Uncle Robin achieves the kind of redemption that by definition eludes the greater majority of other literary offspring sired by Stowe’s Uncle.
As you can probably tell from his name (one of the satirical instruments of character which the author employs just in case you didn’t figure that out from the names of those previously mentioned) the plantation owner who formerly held Raven captive and undermined Robin’s very essence of identity is a bitter taste of hateful self-confidence. Arthur Swille is more than just your average psychopathic slaveowner and he is certainly a great deal more real than slaveholder as portrayed in Gone with the Wind. And yet, Arthur Swille would fit right into the ideological universe imagined by Margaret Mitchell as he fulfills all those pseudo-aristocratic illusions held by Southern co-called gentlemen farmers who made the profits that bought those gorgeous mansions precisely as a result of owning human beings and forcing them to do their labor. On that score, Arthur Swille confirms what you probably already guessed: Dixie chivalry was a big fat lie.
Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara
A Native American princess, to be precise. Well, not so much precise as more factual. Just as this satirical overview of the America that led to the Civil War and what came in its wake tackles challenging characters within the history of the African slave movement, so is the shaky premise of the Noble Savage given close scrutiny through the character of Princess Quaw Quaw Tralararlara. In the first place, there’s her name. But, really, that is far beside the point in the construction of her character as an artist joining Raven’s cause because she is the embodiment of art for art’s sake. Except that she’s not exactly all that. A dangerous trend runs through much of revisionist historical fiction that positions those of indigenous tribes already here as genetically resistant to the corruption of capitalism. The Princess proves that isn’t necessarily a medical condition that can be counted on.
Yankee Jack is the husband of Princess Quaw Quaw. He is also the epitome of the coming capitalist system that will be forced to expand in the wake of the collapse of the slave labor policy in the South: he is a pirate. More than a mere pirate, Yankee Jack will become take on the role of Raven’s nemesis and the novel’s antagonist after the collapse of Swille’s way of life and the rise to prominence of the pirate system that defines post-Civil War capitalism in the America in which Swille’s evil no longer fits or is legislatively legitimized.
One way of looking at the character of Mammy in Gone with the Wind is that she is a lovable but stern—and more than occasionally stymied—defender of Scarlett O’Hara’s honor. Another way of looking at Mammy is more complicated: that she is an agent in league with the devil by using her lovable side to keep the system of slavery in place and fully functioning. The only way of looking at Mammy Barracuda is the latter, but reading her story cannot help but force a reader to take a long look at Scarlett’s Mammy from a wholly unique perspective.
Pres. Abraham Lincoln
Not the mythic Abraham Lincoln who still existed during the American Bicentennial when this novel was published by any means, but also not the considerably more humanized Lincoln of contemporary times best personified in the Steven Spielberg film. The pragmatism of Pres. Lincoln whose inspiration for the Emancipation Proclamation is inextricably tied to pure political opportunism made manifest by a meeting with Arthur Swille is doubtlessly less shocking as a satirical target today than when the novel was first published, but nevertheless the point of upturning conventional wisdom regarding the American myth is well taken by this Lincoln, if not easily taken.
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