________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 5. . . .October 2, 2015


Madder Carmine or A Thrilling Account of Gun Battles, Romance, Harrowing Escapes, Unshaven Villains, a Snakebite, a Dubious Circus, a Mysterious Girl with a Palette of Paints and a Young Man’s Epic Journey to Find Her.

Tyler Enfield.
Winnipeg, MB: Enfield & Wizenty/Great Plains, 2015.
274 pp., trade pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 978-1-927855-30-0.

Grades 10-12 / Ages 15-17.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

** /4



Because the thing is, I spent much of my youth trying to get out from under the boot heels of this world, what with having a pa like mine, then none at all, then discovering my own way of seeing things just doesn’t balance with the rest.

Mama, who had taken to sucking on lozenges since The Loss, she used to say to Pa, “He ain’t crazy, Phineas, and not another word of it. The boy just ain’t got no guiles is all, and no fist of yours is gonna bring it on. Now leave him be.” A hundred lozenges a day she sucked. All for loss.

Nevertheless, I’ve been called crazy in one form or another most all my life. And it may be. The way I figure, if I am crazy then it’s the truth, and there’s no use denying it. And if I’m not crazy, then it’s not the truth, and therefore ain’t worth getting worked up over.

It was the parson in particular who first spited me and told Pa my skull was good for nothing but driving piles and such. I never did understand why.

“Hi there! Hi, Mr. Parson?”

“Yes, what is...oh no. No. Please, boy. Not you again. Not today.”

“Well, sir, I was just a’wondering.”

“Can’t you see I’m walking, son? I can’t be always –"

“Yeah, well I was just a’wondering. If all the bad folks go to Hell and only Pentecostals go to heaven, then where do all the good folks go when they die?”

“Son,” says the parson, pausing to sigh at the sky. “You are a chancre in the heart of the Lord.”

Far as I could tell, most folks shared this opinion and liked it best of all when I did not speak. Others, my pa among them, took special delight in making sure I knew I was dumb.

“What are you talking about, Dannon, not going to meeting this Christmas. Are you stupit? Huh? You want to go to Hell, is that it?”

“Naw sir.”

“You think the parson’s stupit?”

“Naw sir.”

“What then? Tell me what.”

“Well, sir, if Jesus was born on Christmas, and even he never went to no meeting, what are we all fussing to do there?”

“Hide idgits like yourself from the devil, is what. Now get your damn coat on. And not a word to the parson.”

So it may be I’m a little slow in some respects; maybe even missing a few buttons, but given the chance I can cough up words nearabout half a foot long, and reckon I’ve read more books than most five men together. I read Cervantes. I read Dante. I read Virgil and Homer. I even read that new fella, what’s his name. Dostoyevsky. For a while there I read history, and then politicking and government. I tried to read William Shakespeare once but had to put that man down, figuring I was better off waiting for the English translation.”


At the beginning of Madder Carmine, Dannon, a young veteran of the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, has returned home to Appalachia. Because he finds little happiness back home, in 1849 Dannon decides to leave in search of Madder Carmine, a girl whom he has only briefly seen but who looms large in his imagination as the love of his life. In this quest, Dannon is accompanied by Virgil, an escaped slave whose owner follows the two men, bent on exacting revenge. Dannon’s journey takes him across mountains and swamps. He encounters people in a nunnery, a brothel and a circus, all in his effort to get to Valhalla and find Madder Carmine once again.

     Like many allegorical tales, this one centres on the hero’s quest for something which is ephemeral and quite likely unattainable in any real sense. Dannon is hardly a typical hero. He is more like a Don Quixote character who has impossible dreams and no real conception of how to attain them. He is well-read and has a philosophical side. He has unusual capabilities, such as successfully dowsing for water. Dannon is bizarre, yet likeable, an Appalachian idiot savant who survived a war and now just wants to pull his life together.

     There are overtones of Dante’s Inferno in the novel as Dannon and Virgil pass through various tests and trials en route to their ultimate goal. The names Dannon (Dante?) and Virgil seem to have been chosen to reinforce this. Overtones of Norse mythology also drift through the book, as Virgil’s last name is vol Krie, reminding readers of the Valkyrie figure who chooses warriors to take from the battlefield to Valhalla. And, of course, the town where Madder Carmine apparently resides is, appropriately, Valhalla. Thus Virgil and Dannon are making their way toward a heaven which may or may not correspond to their hopes and dreams once reached.

     Not only has Dannon apparently been blinded by his love for Madder Carmine, thus making him unable to formulate any co-ordinated or coherent plans, he is truly colour blind. The book’s title highlights the seeming impossibility of Dannon’s quest. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, madder carmine is a “moderate to purplish red, slightly bluer and less strong than pomegranate purple.” Of course, since Dannon cannot differentiate between reds and greens, perhaps he is also totally confused about the love of his life and blind to the reality of finding her and spending their lives together.

     Many archetypal themes and great works of world literature come together in this story from 1849 Appalachia which may, in fact, represent Dante’s Hell due to a lack of basic necessities such as food and shelter and life reduced to the survival of the fittest. Dannon enters the book naked, an infant ready to begin his journey through life. As interesting as the novel is for readers with a literary background, I wonder if most young adult readers will appreciate and understand the many classical references. The novel is billed as crossover fiction, hoping to attract both teen and adult readers. While young adults may enjoy the ups and downs of the story and its often comic elements, it is unclear if they will appreciate the language or setting or be able to gain any deeper understanding of the underlying themes and allusions of the book.

Recommended with Reservations.

Ann Ketcheson is a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French who lives in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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