Every writer’s worst nightmare actually came true for Hugh J. Cannon: the
only copy of his manuscript was “misplaced” by the publisher.
And it wasn’t just any manuscript either: it was the record of his 1920 round-the-world trip with David O. McKay (then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve), on assignment from the First Presidency as “special missionaries” to visit all of the missions and Church schools. The manuscript turned up recently and has now been published. This book is somewhat sketchy about its history, tersely attributing its disappearance to “a change of personnel at the publisher” and giving no more detail about its recovery than that it was found in the McKay home. One almost suspects that there is more to the story.
That would become a frequent impression while reading this book: that I wasn’t getting the whole story. McKay and Cannon were on assignment to assess the missions but virtually nothing is said about those missions in this book, save that the missionaries were virtuous and brave. We know from other works on McKay that this isn’t all that they found (see here for a reference in Woodger’s biography to some of the problems that McKay found in Tahiti). So if you approach this book looking for Church history or doctrine, you will almost certainly be disappointed.
However, if what you want is a good story, well-told in the quaint, wry style of a superior early-twentieth-century wordsmith, you will be delighted. Let me give you a taste of Cannon’s writing:
Numerous invitations to dinners and other social affairs where refreshments were served were extended to the special missionaries during the weeks immediately preceeding their departure. Such acts, intended as kindness and greatly appreciated, were poor preparation for a rough ocean voyage. Some of these delightful dinners were destined to come up later in a most distressing manner. Have you ever been aboard a vessel on an extremely rough sea? Have you felt it roll and toss and plunge, then when struck full force by a mighty wave which washes its decks, felt it shudder and tremble as though it had received a death blow and must assuredly sink? And all the while the stomachs of the sensitive passengers are performing similar evolutions and are dancing about as wildly as the ship itself. Frequently not more than a dozen people out of several hundred passengers were at meals. . . . Brother McKay, being the leader of this tour, maintained his supremacy in the matter of seasickness as in all other things. He does nothing by halves, but treats every subject exhaustively, going to the very bottom of it, and this occasion was no exception. Seasickness is undertaken with the same vigorous energy which he displays in running for a train. In either case those in front should dodge.
Seasickness becomes a recurrent theme in this book; they did, after all, travel 37,869 miles by water (Cannon is big on precise numbers: in India, he tells us, he removed 157 fleas from his body). Here’s a quotation from a letter that Elder McKay wrote home:
. . . before attempting to dress I ate an apple which Hugh J. handed me. Without hurry I put on my clothes and started for the deck; but the swaying staircase and the madly moving world of water stirred my feelings with a desire for solitude. Yielding, I hurried to my room, where in less time than it takes to tell you, the apple and I parted company forever. I wondered what there was in common between a Jonathan apple and a Jonah that would produce such like effects. Though I arrived at no definite conclusion, one thing was most certain: My sympathy was wholly with the whale. . . . Good-bye last night’s dinner! Good-bye yesterday’s luncheon! And during the next sixty hours, good-bye everything I had ever eaten since I was a babe on Mother’s knee! I’m not sure I didn’t cross the threshold into the pre-existent state . . . [He then describes the motion of the ship on rough seas and concludes that] the dance floor is not the only place where disgraceful, degenerate movements may lead to ill.
As a travelogue, this book succeeds marvelously. The photos are plentiful and rich; the wonder with which McKay and Cannon apprehend chopsticks and rickshas, live human shark bait, Maori war dances, and the mystery and magic of the international date line is such that we aren’t surprised that Cannon decided to leave out his notes from the zone conferences. To witness pre-globalization travelers describe a “Hui Tau” (the Maori take on a regional conference, replete with circus-sized tents and days-long feasts) is to instantly be able to forgive them their politically incorrect descriptions of the peoples that they encounter. It was all new and it was, to use Cannon’s favorite word, as he does at least a half dozen times, “indescribable.”
As prophet, President McKay had a strong desire to see this book published. I’m glad he did, and I’m sorry that it took so long to find that manuscript. This unusual little gem is a real departure from the standard ‘church books’ and a fun read.