Sunshine Sketches of a Little TownFirst edition

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

Stories, 1912
Twelve stories, approx. 65,000 words
On Greatest lists

Greatest Literature

Greatest Stories (for "The Marine Excursions of the Knights of Pythias")

Canadian Literature

Notable lines
First line

I don't know whether you know Mariposa. If not, it is of no consequence, for if you know Canada at all, you are probably well acquainted with a dozen towns just like it.

"The Hostelry of Mr. Smith"

Great lines

That night Pupkin walked home on air and there was no thought of chloroform, and it turned out that he hadn't committed suicide, but like all lovers he had commuted it.

"The Mariposa Bank Mystery"

Last line

And, as we listen, the cry grows fainter and fainter in our ears and we are sitting here again in the leather chairs of the Mausoleum Club, talking of the little Town in the Sunshine that once we knew.

"L'Envoi. The Train to Mariposa"

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The author

Stephen Leacock once complained of critics who thought what he did was very simple, quoting a review: "What is there is, after all, in Professor Leacock's humour but a rather... more

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town


A place we all know

Stephen Leacock gets compared to Mark Twain all the time, which is a pain because then people like me have to keep pointing out how different he is from Mark Twain.

We have to keep pointing to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and showing how kindly the townsfolk are satirized, compared to Twain's barbs in Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Twain had racism and class prejudice to deal with, while Leacock's Mariposans are a placid United Empire Loyalist lot. But the differences go beyond the sharpness of the attack.

Leacock was undoubtedly inspired by Twain whom he admired greatly. But the writing style is different. The humour is different. The stories are much different.

Firstly, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town delivers on its title. It is a series of sketches—short stories—that overall give a picture of the town. Apparently Leacock kept striving to write novels, but despite his efforts his books remained, at best, linked and overlapping stories. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Leacock's sensibility is perfect for stories. He's not after a large statement about life and society or the development of some individual through a life-changing series of adventures and crises. In fact, it's important his characters don't develop much, for he's giving a picture of human nature frozen in a certain time and place, saying, "See, how like us all this is." Mariposa gives him a small, controlled laboratory removed from the rest of the world for his delving into human nature.

Not that Leacock ever thought of it in these grandiose terms. I'm sure he just felt a hankering to write about the characters who inhabit small Canadian towns. But this grand result is in effect what he accomplishes.

Take the narrator. Twain often introduces a work in his own voice but soon gives way to his characters. In Sunshine Sketches Leacock  is a character himself throughout. Not a character with a name or role in the action. But as narrator he's one of the townspeople who has left Mariposa, yet still visits, and when he does visit, even if just in imagination, he's one of them again. He shares the townspeople's enthusiasms, their delusions and their disappointments.

In relating the the book's third episode he imparts the eagerness of all the folk to be setting out on Lake Wissanotti on the Maripoosa Belle for the annual outing led by the local Knights of Pythias with their flags flying and band playing. Without ever playing a role in the events, he shares the small pleasures of the party, their dismay at the marine disaster that ensues, and the thrill of the rescue. And only incidentally near the end does he impart some information that should, but doesn't, undercut the excitement or the town's pride.

A joyful part of the game of reading Sunshine Sketches is reading between the lines to figure out what our unreliable storyteller is missing, what is really going on. It's not that difficult, as the irony is extremely broad. We gather that while the town's financial whiz, barber Jefferson Thorpe, is rising in the eyes of his customers (and the narrator) to the level of the Rockefellers, he's really being swindled by big-city crooks. We quickly figure out the apparently wildly successful fundraising campaign for the church is actually losing money.

But the fundraising story concludes sweetly despite the campaign's utter failure, and then a plot twist takes us completely by surprise. We wise guys who knew better than the small-town hicks may have been missing Leacock's point all along. As with the tale of the sinking of the Mariposa Belle—it turns out the story being told was not what we had thought.

There are no really bad characters in Mariposa. Oh, there are blowhards, and cunning politicians, and self-interested businessmen and the usual run of ne'er-do-wells you'll find anywhere. But they're all part of the human comedy, nobody really nasty. Leacock isn't railing against the world or against man's inhumanity to man or against an unjust system, as Twain is wont to do. He's just enjoying humanity with all our foibles.

And making us laugh at ourselves.

Despite the conceit, winkingly encouraged by the author, that we the readers are more sophisticated than the bumpkins of Mariposa, the fact is that we wouldn't appreciate the satire nearly as much if we didn't on some level see ourselves in them.

— Eric McMillan