Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The (Should Be) Great Farini

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I've just returned from a grueling tour in Calgary and Regina, where I gave 16 presentations in six days and then took a flight home that got me to Toronto just past midnight. Coming back, reflecting on my tour and considering the many things I had to do on my return, I recalled that I still hadn't responded to an e-mail from a teacher in the Bowmanville, Ontario area who recently let me know that her school board was building a new school, and they were looking for names. She knew, from hearing me give my presentation to her students some time ago that I would have a perfect name in mind.

Which brings me back to my presentation. Every time I speak to kids, anywhere across Canada, besides discussing the thrill of reading, talking about sumo wrestlers, spies, The Boy Sherlock Holmes, and all those unusual things I'm interested in, and write about, I tell them a story about the all-time most interesting person I've ever read about, or written about. To me, he's by far the most fascinating man in Canadian history ... and very few Canadians know about him.

The Great Farini, who was the subject of my first book, one of my plays (which featured a Cirque du Soleil high-wire walker performing above the audience), and my first TV documentary, is ridiculously anonymous in our country. And yet, we are always looking for folk heroes. He is a remarkable one, one the Americans would love to have.

This is what he did ... if you can believe it. He walked over Niagara Falls on a high wire in 1860, then invented the human cannonball act in the circus, became one of the first flying-trapeze performers, explored the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa and claimed he found an ancient lost city there; he was an inventor, a painter who had his work presented with members of the Group of Seven, spoke 7 languages, was a strongman, a freak-show owner, a doctor, and was once called "the greatest showman in the world" by P.T. Barnum. He was like Barnum and Houdini and several others wrapped up in one, one of the most versatile and spectacular personalities one could even imagine. And ... most Canadians have never even heard of him!

One wonders why that is so. I think it's because Canada, in its perpetual youth and insecurity about itself, much prefers "respectable" heroes. Give us Banting and Best, and Tommy Douglas, or Northrup Frye, even Terry Fox, and we feel "good" about these undeniably brilliant and "good" people. But a guy who was in the circus, ran a freak show, walked over Niagara on a high wire? That's not quite respectable enough for our fragile ego.

A number of years ago Bowmanville (where Farini grew up - there, and in nearby Port Hope) considered naming a school after him and then balked when they found out that he lived a wild life. He didn't seem like a perfect role model. So, local kids were denied attending a school that could have been called "The Great Farini Public School." Imagine going to a school with that name? I would have loved it! Instead it is named after someone named Smith or Jones, likely a lovely man and worthy of being remembered ... but not The Great Farini!

Come on, Canada! Let's get over this silliness. The Great Farini ... the most amazing man in our history or in just about any country's history. Let's not simply put his name on a school, let's put this spectacular folk hero into our very consciousness, let's let every Canadian kid know who he was!

2 comments

I grew up in Bowmanville and never knew The Great Farini was born there! The Great Farini Public School is the best P.S. name I have ever heard. Hope it happens.

Hi Amy. Just a slight correction first – The Great Farini actually wasn’t born in Bowmanville. He came into the world in Lockport, NY, interesting since his first moment of fame occurred in nearby Niagara Falls. His parents were both Canadians (or at least “British Canadians) and they happened to move to Lockport from Canada for a few years in the late 1830s, then came back to Canada in the early 1840s where young William Hunt (Farini) grew up, first near Port Hope, ON, then in Bowmanville (from about age 8 or 10 to 16), then back to Port Hope. Folks in Port Hope claim him as theirs, and it is true that he lived there for the longest periods of his life, and is buried there, but he spent a substantial number of formative years in Bowmanville. And yes, wouldn’t The Great Farini Public School be a great name? Imagine something like that … in Canada!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Shane Peacock

Shane Peacock is a biographer, journalist, screenwriter, playwright and novelist. He has received many honours for his writing, including the prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for Eye of the Crow, the first of his Boy Sherlock Holmes series.

Go to Shane Peacock’s Author Page