Some time around New Year’s Day 1912, the Montreal Star commissioned Stephen Leacock to write a series of interconnected short stories. Over the course of six months and for $600, Leacock created Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. One chapter was published in the Star every second Saturday from February 17 to June 22, 1912. It was re-published in book form on August 9, 1912. Set in the fictional town of Mariposa, the first chapter opens by saying “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.” However, there is little question that the setting and the characters of Sunshine Sketches are largely based on one particular town: Orillia, Ontario. About 100 kilometres north of Toronto, Orillia is where Leacock spent most of his summers.
Orillia’s reaction to Sunshine Sketches was varied. Some residents appreciated being Leacock’s inspiration. They even wanted in on the joke. For example, Leacock said that Orillia lawyer Mel Tudhope “wrote me a mock letter threatening to sue me for libel against these people.” As well, a review of the book in the December 12, 1912 Orillia News Packet said “there is no room for resentment, in fact Orillians are rather proud to think that Orillia is the ‘little town,’ which has been immortalized as a type of Canadian life.”
However, not everyone in Orillia was tickled. The local barber—who became a character in the book—told the Globe and Mail in 1951 that “I used to talk to the fellow while I was shaving... but I never thought he was going to put it all in a book.” And one local in particular—Leacock’s mother Agnes—was reportedly not happy with how Sunshine Sketches mocked Orillia’s Canon Greene, even though she liked the book as a whole. Nevertheless, Canon Greene himself reportedly never resented Leacock’s portrayal of him.
Regardless, it was clear to the people of Orillia that they were being mocked. This probably contributed to changes made to Sunshine Sketches when it was converted from serial to book. Several character names were changed to obscure Leacock’s Orillian inspirations. According to Leacock, the “names were too transparent.... it was only in fun but it led the publishers to think it wiser to alter the names.”
Even though Leacock was mocking his fellow Orillians in Sunshine Sketches, Leacock most likely had good intentions. As he says in the preface to his book Humor and Humanity, “the essence of humor is human kindliness.” To be sure, there is a critique of people and a critique of society in Sunshine Sketches. Even so, Leacock portrays Mariposa as a community of kindly people with forgivable flaws. As D.H. Carr wrote in the introduction to the book’s 1960 educational issue, Leacock “is having fun, but it is fun with something he loves—the life, in all its patterned variety, of a little Ontario town he knows with easy and perfect intimacy.”