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Bookends: Who were the Remittance Men anyway? January 17, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, News, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Who were the Remittance Men anyway?

By Dan Davidson

scoundrelsJune 1, 2016

– 839 words –

 


Scoundrels, Dreamers & Second Sons

British Remittance Men in the Canadian West

By Mark Zuehlke

Harbour Publishing

231 pages

$24.95

 

It’s rare for a book’s title to so perfectly describe its contents, but Mark Zuehlke’s first serious popular history book does just that. It is the history of British Remittance Men in the Canadian West, and a good many of them were scoundrels, dreamers and second sons, which was how they ended up that way in the first place.

In terms of writing, Zuehlke started out as a journalist, and one of his first books was The Yukon Fact Book (1998), fun to read, but quite outdated now. By that time he had already written and published the first edition of this book in 1994. It was reprinted, with a few changes in 2001, and then pretty much vanished until Zuehlke became famous in popular history circles for the dozen volumes of his Canadian Battle Series and four other books in the Military Heritage Series. Now it is back in print again.

Chapters 12 and 13 of Scoundrels, telling the tales of what happened to the Remittance Men who went off to battle of Britain in what was once called the Great War was a fairly good indication of how Zuehlke would tackle popular history once he got around to it.

But the whole book is a predictor of his career in subject matter and in technique. The Remittance Men flourished from the late 1880s until World War I, after which most of them vanished from the landscape. Lots of them wrote journals and published books about their time in the Prairies and British Columbia, and much as written about them by other people and in the newspapers of the period.

This material provided Zuehlke with a sizable compendium of raw material, which he could had to the oral history he had heard as a boy in the Okanagan Valley, where many of these strange immigrants settled.

When he came to write his histories later on, he wasn’t content to mine the official record. He tracked down and interviewed as many WWII veterans as he could find, and wove their human recollections into his factual research.

Chatting with Zuehlke during his signing at Mac’s Fireweed during The North and the First World War conference, at which he was one of the speakers, he remarked that he may have to revert to the methods he used in Scoundrels to finish the last few volumes of his series. There are so few veterans left, and some who are, are no longer up to the rigors of recalling their experiences. Fortunately there are still diaries, journals, memoirs and archives to be mined.

The Remittance Men were members of the gentried and noble classes who were surplus to requirement and who did not fit in, for a variety of reasons, in the mother country. They were encouraged to move to the colonies and provided with a regular stipend to keep them there. They arrived full of British class prejudices and notions of colonial life mostly at odds with the society and geography they were invading.

They dressed funny, had know idea who to farm or ranch or whatever that had set their sights on. They made a serious effort to create Little Britains wherever they touched down. They were eccentric visitors and inspired the sort of local reaction and legends that Zuehlke heard as a boy.

Zuehlke learned that they had little cabins scattered across the countryside, and when word reached them that Britain had declared war on Germany, they made this pact that they would all go off to war. So one guy rode to another’s cabin, and he burned it down, and the owner of that cabin rode to the next cabin and did likewise, and so on, until all the cabins were burned.

And they all went off to war, which seems to be the part of the legend that has some basis in reality, because most of them did just that, and a lot of them perished in the conflict exactly because their class status gave the sort of rank (first or second lieutenant) that took them into battle.

Writing this book influenced Zuehlke in another way. He liked the idea of the Remittance Men so much that he created a latter day version of his own, named him Elias McCann, popped him into the town of Tofino on Vancouver Island and made him the coroner in a series of mystery novels with title chosen from martial arts moves. The first was Hands Like Clouds and it won him the 2000 Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel.

The Canadian Battle Series has also been successful, and won him the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Popular History, which is called The Pierre Berton award. In 2003 he was working on both fiction and non-fiction when we was a writer-in-Residence at Berton House here in Dawson City.

 

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