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The Cunning Man

September 15, 2011 by Reader's Connection

The Cunning ManDr. Jonathan Hullah of Toronto is said to have a talent for diagnosis; but if you´re thinking of consulting him about your ailment, you need to know ahead of time that he´s likely to sniff you, all over your body. And he´ll want to sniff around in your house, too.

Don’t be frightened. He isn’t a mad doctor, and this isn’t a pornographic book. The good doctor just has a reputation in his community for weirdness.

As a boy in northern Ontario, Hullah had a deadly illness which was cured–he was sure–by an Indian medicine woman named Elsie Smoke. He visited her in her tent, after his recovery, and asked her to teach him her style of medicine. In the course of refusing, she told him to remove the lid from a nearby basket. Hullah was terrified by the two rattlesnakes curled up in there, which, Mrs. Smoke assured him, were “his animals,” his totems.

A doc with rattlesnake totems? What does that even mean? He went to medical school, but he has become an odd sort of doctor, whose vision is informed by religion and psychology and medicine and the arts. In The Cunning Man, the last novel written by Canadian Robertson Davies, Hullah tells his life story.

The book’s cover art, by the way, was too cunning to be trapped in our library catalog. It appears by permission of the artist, Bascove, who kindly sent me a copy of a letter that Robertson Davies sent to his agent, Al Silverman, after looking at Bascove’s first attempt.

“The idea of the X-Ray is splendid,” Davies wrote, “ but I wish that the snake did not look so benevolent. A Missassuaga rattler is a mean-looking snake.” He had arranged to have a picture of one of the species sent to Silverman, so that the artist would understand “the real malignity of these creatures.”

He said again, though,  that he liked the design, “and I am sure that Bascove can make it just a little more mysterious.”

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