CanLit Canon Review #3: Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

We’re told that Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, published in 1912, represents the pinnacle of literary mirth, and that Stephen Leacock, the author, is the patron saint of English Canadian humour. He was, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the English-speaking world’s best-known humourist from 1915–25, and classic comedians Jack Benny and Groucho Marx were greatly influenced by his work.

Unfortunately, Sunshine Sketches, Leacock’s most acclaimed collection, isn’t funny.

It’s not that there aren’t jokes in the book—on the contrary, nearly every single sentence is an attempt at humour—it’s just that the jokes aren’t worth opening your mouth to laugh at.

Sunshine Sketches is made up of 12 stories about the men of Mariposa (women have virtually no roles in the book, except as unseen wives and, in one case, a love interest). The most famous story of the bunch, and the one that does induce smiling, if not laughter, is “The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias.”

The story is about a boat trip on the Mariposa Belle across Lake Wissanotti to Indian Island, where the townsfolk spend the day picnicking, playing games and drinking, albeit covertly: “the Mariposa Knights of Pythias are, by their constitution, dedicated to temperance and there’s Henry Mullins, the manager of the Exchange Bank, also a Knight of Pythias, with a small flask of Pogram’s Special in his hip pocket as a sort of amendment to the constitution.”

On the way back to Mariposa after the picnic, the ship begins to sink. Flares are shot into the sky, and lifeboats are filled with passengers and sent toward shore. At the same time, rescue boats start arriving at the Mariposa Belle. Rarely used and dilapidated, the rescue boats themselves start sinking and the rescuers arrive at the ship just in time to be pulled aboard and saved. The lake is only six-feet deep, after all, so the Mariposa Belle stops sinking quite quickly.

“I was not talking about a steamer sinking in the ocean and carrying down its screaming crowds of people into the hideous depths of green water. Oh, dear me, no! That kind of thing never happens on Lake Wissanotti. But what does happen is that the Mariposa Belle sinks every now and then, and sticks there on the bottom till they get things straightened up.” Once enough people have left the boat on lifeboats, lightening the load, the Mariposa Belle begins floating again and finishes her trip back to the dock.

All the stories in Sunshine Sketches are roughly the same, preying sweetly on the precious incompetencies of the small town’s naive inhabitants. The book takes all the characters from a community newspaper, from the clergy to the bankers to the politicians, and makes them ridiculous. That’s a noble deed, no doubt, but the whole thing seems a bit frivolous and, frankly, boring. Perhaps that irreverence to people with status was rare in 1912 and that’s what made it funny, or maybe the book was popular because such representations of Canada were still new at the time, but Sunshine Sketches simply doesn’t hold up. There are innumerable Canadian books that are better and funnier than this one.