Even now, 43 years later, he will not discuss it much. The details of the incident remain locked within him; the deepest of family secrets which will see no light other than to briefly illuminate the beginnings of a life often marred by violence. Somewhere out on a dustbowl Saskatchewan farm, Dennis T. Patrick Sears saw his father kill a man. He was six years old.
“My father was 20 years my mother’s senior,” he says in a voice so quiet you have to strain to hear. “He was constantly jealous of her. One day he thought the hired hand was making eyes at her so in a fit of rage he killed him. This was the Depression and lots of itinerant laborers were getting killed. No one asked any questions.”
A similar incident opens Dennis T. Patrick Sears’ best-selling first novel, The Lark In The Clear Air. In the book, Danny Mulcahy’s father finds the hired hand in bed with his wife. He shoots his wife to death then starts out after the hand, finally killing himself in despair in the midst of the Alberta brush.
Two blood splattered episodes: one to open a novel, the other terribly early in the serious business of life. Sears talks around the fact, but Lark In The Clear Air is remarkably close to autobiography: Dennis Sears is the book’s hero, 15-year-old Danny Mulcahy. After the death of his father and mother, Danny moves east to Brulé Township in central Ontario during the 1930s, the time-and-place setting of the novel. Sears moved east at the same time, to the real Ontario township of Carden, where the early violence he had witnessed took root and was given some meaning. He picked up a violence first from his father, and then from the harsh society of Carden. And when he had picked it up. he spent a ragged, whiskeysoaked lifetime trying to lay it down.
The Lark In The Clear Air was published last year by McClelland and Stewart and sold well over 10,000 copies
— excellent for a first Canadian novel — and remained on the Toronto Star's best-seller list for 22 weeks. “There’s been a hell of a lot of luck involved with the book’s success,” Sears says. “First Robert Fulford wrote a story about it, then Peter Gzowski mentioned it on his national radio program, and finally Mordecai Richler read it and started recommending it to all his friends.”
Fulford was reminded of Mark Twain when he read Lark. Another critic compared Sears to William Faulkner. The CBC paid $15,000 for rights to film the novel, and Sears has realized a certain financial security that few Canadian novelists ever know. Still it’s difficult to think of him as a novelist.
For one thing he’s physically all wrong for it. A horse stepped on his face when he was a kid; there is hardly a tooth left in his head; his hands are big and gnarled from being broken again and again; his belly is huge, spilling over his belt. Any saloon-keeper would look at him and immediately recognize the Eternal Troublemaker.
He seems, on first meeting, to be straight-from-the-shoulder rural, but there is an underlying complexity about him that his new prominence only exaggerates. He is simultaneously drawn to the simple harshness of his childhood in central Ontario and to the headier company of the Canadian literati. He is a friendly, open man who prefers to think he makes no attempt to be either friendly or open.
“No,” he says, “I don’t feel out of place. Certainly I don’t feel any sense of community . . . I’m not neighborhoodminded at all. We have friends but they come here [his home is deliberately outside Kingston] oftener than we go there. Perhaps the reason we have such good friends is that we don’t see each other too often. I’m not snobbish, but there are just very few people around here I can stand to talk to for any length of time.” If there’s anything that disturbs
him it’s “some son of a bitch who asks me how many miles I get to the gallon.”
Most Canadian fiction is nurtured in the hothouse of academia, but Sears never even saw the inside of a high school. And though he tries to hide it somewhat, being a man of little education, he is almost in awe of men with education. His background is that of the itinerant laborer, so he has been many, many things, not least among them a brawler, a womanizer, and a drunk. He did not begin writing until he was in his late thirties, after his life had changed and settled somewhat, after he’d been able to sever a few of the lines along which he could trace his violent, rowdy past — which goes well beyond that cold prairie killing, to his Irish ancestors.
Sears speaks constantly of his family’s history, as if it exercises some sort of control over him, what he is, what he does. His great-grandfather, Michael, and a brother emigrated to the United States from County Mayo in Ireland in 1849. Michael Sears landed in New York with a new bride and an old talent for getting into trouble. He was tall, dark, and too often drunk. “Apparently he was the fellow in the family I took after most,” Sears says. In Lark Sears, perhaps indulging in wishful thinking, has Danny live with his great uncle Mick Mulcahy, a character who closely resembles Sears’ great-grandfather.
Finally, Michael Sears came across the ice to Kingston, and then to Oshawa, two towns Dennis would come to know well. There was trouble in Oshawa — involving the drunken driving of a team of oxen down the main street — and Michael headed north, buying a piece of land that would later span the BexleyCarden Township lines. When Michael Sears arrived in central Ontario, lumberjacks were stripping the forests of their pine, and Catholic and Protestant
Ron Base is a feature writer for the Toronto Sunday Sun.
Where Sears grew up “a good man” meant one who could handle himself in a fight
immigrants were Hooding in, bearing religious hates undiminished by the new topography, and attempting to farm the meagre topsoil. Great feuds were fought between Orangemen and Catholics and their fires continued to smolder long after great-grandfather Sears was kicked to death by a horse in 1889. When Dennis Sears got to Carden in 1933 he could still smell the smoke.
Carden Township, lying deep in central Ontario, is made up of low, scrubby grazing lands broken every so often by clumps of cedar trees and the occasional white pine. The sky is the color of a split-rail fence. The land hints at a harshness that is missing from life there today but which was very much a part of Dennis Sears’ life — and Danny Mulcahy’s, for that matter.
Sears was born in Vancouver in 1925 but, as the Depression swept the country, his father, Thomas, hustled his family — including a young second wife — off to a run-down Saskatchewan farm 30 miles north of Moose Jaw. Sears has described his father as a two-fisted saloon fighter. “My old man never did grow up. He was nearly 70 and I had to pull the silly old bugger off a bus: he was going to beat up the bus driver.”
After the murder of the hired hand (no charges were ever laid, he was buried quietly on the farm), the family moved east to take over the Carden farm left when Dennis' grandfather died. Thomas Sears had never been much of a fanner but he was bullheaded and tenacious. “It was bad enough on the Prairies,” Dennis Sears remembers, “but then to come down to Carden to live in that goddam rattrap with no windows ... I was eight or nine years old .. . my father and mother were always at each other: I'd get up and hear them fighting and sit there listening with my teeth chattering not knowing whether they were going to kill each other.”
Now the violence he had witnessed had some purpose. “One grew up in Carden thinking he had to learn how to fight. Of course what we were doing was simply imitating our fathers and older brothers. A great deal of importance was attached to fighting. When someone used the expression ‘He is a good man.’ it usually meant he was good in a fight.
“Sometimes the Protestant faction would have their champion and the Catholic faction would have theirs. Sometimes the two would collide, usually at a dance on Saturday nights. But at the same time no one ever got seriously hurt. If you used a knife or a broken bottle as a weapon, you never set
footjn the community again.”
There was a macho code in Carden and Sears adhered to it completely. But he also developed an early interest in reading, particularly when he discovered hundreds of books stored throughout his grandfather’s house. “They were all over the place,” Sears recalls. “There was everything: Hemingway, Runyon, Sinclair Lewis. At the time they were very modern writers. But there were also books on philosophy and poetry. It was a catholic library. I read things as heavy as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, read it by the light of a coal oil lantern. I don’t pretend I understood it, but I read it.” His early interest in books was lost, however, as he struggled with the confusions of developing manhood. “I finished grade eight and there wasn’t anything to keep me at home. You could get a job anywhere by that time and I was quite large for my age. I was getting into beer parlors when I was 15. There were lots of paths to take, I suppose, trouble is, we didn't know any of them. When you’re growing up, lacking in education, surrounded by others lacking in education, you don’t know what you’re missing. It was years before I met anyone who had been to university. We felt that the only men who worked were muscle men - carrying hay, swinging an axe. There was much more emphasis on the manual.”
He sailed the Great Lakes, hauled lumber, for a time was a cowboy. “I guess a lot of that has a romantic ring. Whereas it was actually dull as hell. For example, I was cow punching out in Alberta for three months: I just sat on a horse and looked at cattle, that’s all it was. What it meant was castrating little calves, making sure the wolves didn’t get ’em. After you spent two or three weeks on the range you began to smell like a bloody cow. You have manure all over you, in your boots, in your hair. There’s nothing romantic about it.”
As soon as he was old enough, in 1943, he joined the navy and spent the remainder of the war on a yacht converted into a minesweeper. After the war he became a policeman in Oshawa. By that time he was married to a Whitby girl he’d met in the navy and there were children. And his drinking was starting to get out of hand : “One day I just threw my badge at the chief, packed a suitcase full of booze, headed out to Calgary, and stayed drunk.”
His father and mother had separated by then and Thomas Sears was a fairly prosperous contractor out there. He moved in with his father, “fooled
After the book was published, he was overcome by guilt. He returned to the bottle, put away 40 ounces, and nearly died
around” with the housekeeper for a while and got both sick and broke. So he pawned a typewriter and kept drinking. Finally, he joined the army.
He thought he would be sent to Korea but, because of his police experience, the army sent him back east to Kingston and assigned him to the plainclothes division of the Provost Corps, to investigate criminal matters related to the military. He was there three years, mustered out, and got a job as manual laborer with the understanding that he’d get a chance to learn to be a carpenter. In 1959 and 1960 he was out of work for 18 months; even went on welfare. Then he got a job with the federal public works department operating a lift bridge in Kingston, which he held for 1262 years.
Sears and his wife had separated; he had the three children; he was drinking up to a quart of whiskey a day. His eldest daughter saw him as a wild man,
drunk most of the time, bringing home strange women at all hours. He was twice named corespondent in divorce suits.
He had not read seriously since discovering his grandfather’s books in Carden; but working on the bridge, there was a lot of spare time so he began to fill it by reading. “I finally got to the sophomoric stage at 38 or 40. I was so bursting with knowledge I felt I had to disseminate it. I started writing lette'rs to the Kingston Whig-Standard. They caught the fancy of the editors and owners and I was asked to write a column.” The paper paid him then, and still pays him, $15 per submission.
One night at an after-theatre party (to which he went unwillingly with his daughter), he met a tall, pretty medical research assistant named Ellen Morgan Van Pelt. She was married to a member of the faculty at Queen’s University. “It
wasn't only a physical attraction but a physical attraction both ways,” she remembers of the first meeting. “We hit it off right away in conversation. I don’t know if it was love at first sight, but there was definitely a very large spark of interest.”
Three weeks later she had left her husband and moved herself and her three children into Sears’ small bungalow. “I can’t stress too highly the influence Ellen had," he says with an uncharacteristic, almost-Victorian formality. “After I met and married her there was no more fighting and, gradually, no more drinking. Meeting Ellen changed me — I don’t imagine age had anything to do with it: some of my ancestors were roaring around until they were taken out and sodded over. But you get to see through the sham of it all. You realize you’re chasing a mirage.”
What he calls The Thirst proved to be hard to shake. He had developed chronic pancreatitis, an inflammation which slowly kills off the cells of the pancreas. Although booze does not necessarily cause the condition, it prevails among heavy drinkers. The pancreatitis eventually began laying him up for two and three days at a time and he was forced into early retirement from the bridge. He was told to stop drinking.
The newspaper columns, full of the wit that is usually called “homespun” and don’t-give-a-damn opinion, had by this time made him locally controversial. A librarian at Queen’s sent some of them off to Jack McClelland suggesting they might be compiled into a book. McClelland wondered if Sears wouldn’t rather try his hand at a novel. Sears sat down and in six months wrote The Lark In The Clear Air.
After the book was successfully published, Sears, hurt and feeling guilty about making public what had been dark and private in him for so long, renewed his affair with the bottle. In a few hours at a local bar he put away 40 ounces of whiskey. “Ellen got me to hospital very quickly and they pumped my stomach out. I stayed out for five or six hours. I think I’d gone into some sort of shock. If it wasn’t for Ellen I’d probably be dead now. I know I felt terribly depressed, didn’t care whether I lived or died.”
He’s still not exactly sure why he should have reacted that way. “Why do you suppose a man would do that?” he asked me. I shrugged, helplessly; I had no answer for him; have none now. Except, maybe, it was some wild, final, ritual Irish exorcising of old devils, Cp
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