Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Booklegging Across the Border

August 21, 2015

A marvelous footnote to my book Closing Time about the history of prohibition, published last year.

In 1922 the Parisian bookseller Sylvia Beach had just published James Joyce's scandalous novel Ulysses and was trying to get copies to customers in the United States, where it was banned. Ernest Hemingway, who had recently moved to Paris and befriended Beach, put her into contact with an adman in
Detroit named Barnet Braverman. The plan they worked out was that Beach would ship books to Canada, where Ulysses was not yet suppressed. Braverman rented a room in Windsor, where the books would be stored, and when he crossed between the two cities on business, which he did almost daily, he would carry a copy or two through customs. From Detroit the volumes could be shipped clandestinely to other destinations in the US.

As detailed in Kevin Birmingham's fascinating book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, the plan worked. At great risk, Braverman carried dozens of copies across the river and through the border. When it began to seem a little suspicious, the same man carrying a copy of the same book day after day, he and a friend began hiding copies under their clothing. Both the US post office and the customs department were on the look out for Ulysses. If they'd been caught, both Braverman and his friend would have gone to jail.

What has all this got to do with prohibition? Well, in 1922 prohibition of the sale, manufacture and importation of liquor had been in place in the US for two years and one of the main corridors down which illicit booze was smuggled from Canada south of the border was the so-called Windsor-Detroit Funnel across the Detroit River. At one point it was estimated that $40 million worth of liquor flowed through the funnel annually. Everyone was doing it, smuggling bottles of hooch in gas tanks, under car seats, inside the lining of their coats, wherever. Which meant that border guards were particularly vigilant, making Braverman's operation even more dangerous.

However, he wasn't caught; all the copies of Ulysses made it across the border and into the hands of eager readers. A year later Ulysses was banned in Canada, and remained so until 1949.

August 19, 2015

Back from a holiday up the coast, I find that the neighbourhood has filled with signs.


Of course there are election signs as well but these warn of a different species of interloper, come down from the mountains to paw through our garbage. Hardly a day goes by that a bear doesn't blunder into someone's kitchen or take a dip in their wading pool. I have not seen one yet this season but at night the air is redolent of skunk which I've been told means that...

July 31, 2015


I recently saw the movie Woman in Gold about the legal battle to regain possession of a Gustav Klimt painting taken during the war. It stars Helen Mirren and Vancouver's own Ryan Reynolds, who was not as awful as many critics claimed. 

The movie is very pedestrian but it gives me an excuse to show off one of my prized possessions, a Gustav Klimt finger puppet...

July 26, 2015

For several years the online Encyclopedia of British Columbia, of which I am the editor, has been available free in schools around the province. This is thanks to an agreement between Harbour Publishing and a consortium of school districts that evaluates online educational resources and makes them available to members.The Harbour website brings the good news that the agreement has...

July 6, 2015

A new issue of Geist magazine (#97) is at the newsstands, and in it a column by yours truly about a new book on the history of war resisters in Canada.

Worth Fighting For is a collection of essays that argue that resistance to war is very much a Canadian tradition. I am particularly interested in the piece by David Tough, an historian at Trent U, that suggests that during World War...

June 19, 2015

According to news reports this week, the provincial government here in BC is going to insist that schoolchildren as young as ten years old be taught about the Indian residential schools, along with other examples of historical injustice, such as the Chinese head tax and the internment of Japanese-Canadians. This in response to the recent report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"There are many things that have happened in the province of British Columbia," said cabinet...