Dr. Jonathan Hullah writes a memoir of his life in response to a young reporter who questions him about the death, years ago, of an old Anglican priest during Good Friday services. The tale unfolds of three schoolboy friends in Toronto before the Second World War: Brocky Gilmartin, who becomes a noted professor of literature; Charlie Iredale, who enters the Anglican priesthood; and Hullah himself, who begins as a police surgeon and later becomes a practitioner of his own unusual brand of psychosomatic medicine.

The central image of this story is the sudden death of Father Hobbes, the saintly vicar of St. Aidan's Church. Soon after Hobbes' death, the curate Charlie Iredale leads a movement to declare the elderly priest a saint. This movement is aborted by the bishop and Iredale, his vision crushed, goes on to become an itinerant (and alcoholic) clergyman in rural Ontario.

The central story though is that of Dr. Hullah, the "cunning man" who learns that healing is not just a matter of the body, but also the mind and spirit. He practices a type of "holistic" health care that the Canadian medical authorities find very suspicious. Yet, he is quite successful in his work, serving as physician-of-last-resort for many patients who have not been helped by other doctors.

The "cunning man" is a listener; he seems to stay on the outside, observing carefully, but revealing little of himself. In these memoirs he gradually reveals his rich experience and complex character. Only at the very end, however, does he reveal the true story of Father Hobbes's death.


This is a novel of ideas, as well as an exploration of human character. One central theme is the conflict between Good (God) and Evil (Devil) in the world. In the spiritual life, how can one know whether one is prompted by God or the Devil? The theme of healing is superimposed on this somewhat Manichean background. As a child Hullah encounters another dualism: western medicine as represented by the impotent Doc Ogg versus the darkly irrational Indian healer, Mrs. Smoke.

In truth, Mrs. Smoke "saves" the boy when he becomes desperately ill with scarlet fever. Mrs. Smoke reveals that the rattlesnakes (her "helpers") are Hullah's totem animals. It is only in his later life that Doctor Hullah sees her meaning, as represented by the snakes of Truth and Wisdom in the medical caduceus. Doctor Hullah's memoirs or "case notes" form one long investigation into the nature of human healing and its relationship to Truth and Wisdom. This novel is also a fine text for an exploration of narrative ethics.



Place Published

New York



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