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Granny Reads: Book Review of "Private Demons"

Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. MacdonaldPrivate Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald by Patricia Phenix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have set out to review the lives of the 23 Prime Ministerial terms in Canada from 1867 (Confederation) until now. I will need to do a couple each month to complete my project in a year.

John A. Macdonald is the first P.M. and the third P.M. following the Confederation of the Dominion of Canada. Yes, there were Prime Ministers before 1867, to oversee Upper Canada and Lower Canada, and Western Canada.

As the title explains, this book looks at the "Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald" which is likely not as he envisioned being recorded at any time in posterity. John A. was a brilliant young man, self-made to begin with. Without a formal education apart from the typical one-room schoolhouses in rural Ontario (Upper Canada), he 'apprenticed' to become a lawyer at about 14 years old, learning in a law office during the day about the Law, and studying in the evenings towards eventually writing the exams that would allow him to earn a living as a lawyer. He passed the exams and was legally accepted into the Bar at age 22 (although he was already doing a little law work under the counter before that). So, we know about his brilliance pretty close to the beginning of the book, and of his charm and charisma. But before we are introduced to John A., the ambitious politician-in-waiting, we meet John A. the young child who witnesses the brutal and fatal beating of his little brother by a drunken caregiver. And we hear about how that child's life was so under-valued (i.e., children as chattel) that it is hard to see where it was recorded, where the little fellow was buried, and whether or not the caregiver was appropriately charged and sentenced. Quite obviously, John A. was not treated with any psychological help at the time, and it seems evident that he carried this violent death and his guilt at not being able to have saved his little brother, throughout his life.

This is the sort of book about a politician that I like to read-- the political activities being a sideline to his actual raison d'etre, which was, it seems to me, to survive with dignity, to take care of his sprawling family, and to leave a legacy of over-achievement to perhaps, make up for his many failings (in truth, most were the failings of his society-- the way things were), and to be admired, looked after, rewarded, and to have quite egregious behaviors overlooked, when necessary.

Throughout the book-- so much research went into it that it makes my head spin-- we see John A. on the wagon, and falling off the wagon, consistently throughout his adult life. He was also a workaholic who often was stricken with illness as a result. Sometimes he didn't seem to have the energy to do much and would be found lying in fields, dreaming. He often seemed to revive.

His ambition to build the railroad from sea to shining sea, to unite all of Canada, was largely achieved during his lifetime (although several of the provinces didn't enter Confederation until after he died-- Newfoundland and Labrador, not until 1949.)

His story is exhausting to read, or for someone in their 70s it is. Because of his family obligations (you can read this excellent, albeit exhausting book, to find out what they were), and additional debts, he was constantly 'hustling' (they didn't call it that in those days, but you know what I mean). His first wife, Isabella, a cousin from Scotland, sucked up a great deal of his money with her many illnesses, most of which were not diagnosable by the doctors around her at the time. Her morphine addiction also cut into their ability to get ahead. She was not in any way an optimally-equipped Political spouse. Likely, John A. was not faithful to her, and they spent a great deal of time apart, but they were together and had two babies, one that lived into adulthood. She died and his second wife was more along the lines of being a 'partner' for him. Nonetheless, it was a rough row to hoe back in those days. The details are excellent, right down to all the hijinks, family communications (letters mostly), newspaper reports, political cartoons of the era, and the travels back and forth between Britain and Canada, and sometimes to the US.

There was nothing mentioned about the Indian Residential School system or "The Indian Act" in this story. These are the current outstanding associations with John A. and his cronies. Much was made of his being a pretty popular guy despite his drunkenness, and debilitating old age. He served as Prime Minister for about 30 years. I am not sure if that longevity has been rivaled by any other PM in Canada. I guess I will find out as I make my way through the rest of the Prime Ministers.

John A.'s longest surviving direct relative was his granddaughter, Isabella "Daisy" Macdonald (daughter of his son from his first marriage, Hugh John Macdonald). Daisy married in 1915, had 2 sons, and died in 1959. Neither of her sons had children.

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