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Bookends: Game of Thrones Goes off the Main Track February 8, 2018

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A Feast For Crows

Bookends: Game of Thrones Goes off the Main Track

By Dan Davidson

February 1, 2017

– 916 words –


A Feast for Crows

(A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)

by George R,R, Martin

Random House of Canada

947 pages



In a postscript for A Feast for Crows, George Martin admits quite frankly that the story got away from him and he probably became a bit too intrigued with some of the secondary characters in his expanding cast. So he and his publisher, knowing they could count on scads of sales any way, broke the book in half. This book and number 5, A Dance with Dragons, take place within the same time frame, and deal with different members of the cast.

If you want to know how Jon Snow is making out back at the Wall, you’ll have to wait until you get to book 5, because Samwell Tarly is about the only member of the Night’s Watch you will follow in this book, and he’s on a quest that takes him away from that place. Jon is mentioned only in terms of his early interaction with Sam.

We do follow two other members of the Stark family, Sansa and Arya, but they spend a lot of their time being other people. Sansa has been taken in hand by Littlefinger (Lord Petyr Baelish), perhaps to save her from the machinations of Queen Cersei, or perhaps for Littlefinger’s own devious ends. She is not using her own name and pretends to be his daughter. We do see that she is becoming more of a person and less of a Barbie doll princess as she copes with her various problems, but her destiny remains uncertain.

Arya is simply trying to survive, as she has been pretty much since her father was executed back in book 1, and to do that she takes on a number of personas in several different locales. The youngest of the Stark girls, she is a long way from making her mark in the world, yet she continues to seem to have a lot of promise.

Brienne of Tarth, the mannish woman who would be a soldier, has pledged to Jamie Lannister that she will find and protect Sansa Stark – but she doesn’t know where to find her and ends up having many adventures on her way to a very nasty cliffhanger that I’ll just bet doesn’t get resolved until book 6, if it does at all. Martin has a habit of actually terminating characters that he’s made us grow fond of, so who knows.

Jamie, meanwhile, is on his own quest, happy to be away from his sister, wishing he could rescue their remaining son from the madness that he can see enveloping her, coping with the loss of his sword hand, and actually doing quite a bit of good in the world.

Our first impressions of this man were supposed to have been set by that scene back in book 1 where he caused young Bran Stark to fall from a great height and lose the use of his legs. Between that and the incest that produced both of his sons, there seemed nothing to like about this man. Over two books, Martin has succeeded in shining light into the better parts of his nature.

Cersei seems to have been driven further round the bend by brother Tyrion (aka – “the Imp”) murdering their father and the loss of her eldest son, Joffrey to poison by persons unknown, both events in the previous book. Determined to be a female version of her father, Tywin, she engages in a multiplicity of plots, while serving as regent for her very young son, Tommen, who is now the king. Most of these schemes simply serve to isolate her more and leave her in a dreadful mess at the end of this book.

If these weren’t enough characters to have to juggle, Martin introduced a whole new subplot of characters from the Iron Islands, who will, apparently, play a big role in the next several volumes, of which there are supposed to be three.

If you only know this story from HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation, be aware that these books are just as violent, but not nearly as sexy as the TV series. In fact, this book is notably less prurient than the earlier three. HBO has insisted in showing us highly detailed scenes that are generally more lightly sketched in print.

If you’re dying to know what happened to Jon Stark and the Night Watch, Bran Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, Varys the Spider, or Melisandre (the Red Priestess), you’ll have to wait.

I’ve been reading this series as part of a four volume e-book version that I acquired during a KOBO sale a few years ago. This works pretty well on a pad, but referring to the material in the appendices at the end of each volume is a nuisance, and I’ve found it easier to check on family details in one of the numerous Wikipedia pages devoted to this series.

Martin is a novelist and short-story writer in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres, as well as being a television producer and screenwriter. The other large project he’s involved in as editor and writer is the Wild Cards shared universe anthology series about people with super powers, which currently totals about 21 volumes, the earliest of which have recently been reissued with additional material added.





Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action March 10, 2017

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Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action

By Dan Davidson

January 11, 2017

– 779 words –

Black River Road 

Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character

By Debra Komar

Goose Lane Editions

224 pages


also available in e-book format.

Debra Komar is the author of three previous books that have used her forensic investigative skills to reexamine real life historical crimes that have taken place somewhere in Canada.

In The Bastard of Fort Stikine, she took on a case from 1842, in which a miscarriage of justice in northern British Columbia was hushed up by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The death of John McLoughlin Jr. may have been a justifiable homicide, but Komar gave it the hearing it never got at the time.

In The Lynching of Peter Wheeler she looked at the evidence in the case of a coloured man who was hanged on the assumption that he has murdered a white girl. In 1896, forensic detective work was in its infancy and Komar concludes that several competing narratives were permitted to overcome the facts of the case

In The Ballad of Jacob Peck, Komar examined an even earlier case, from 1805, in which Amos Babcock was found guilty of killing his sister, under the influence of a religious mania. That he did the deed is not in doubt in her view, but how he came to do the deed, how he was inspired and by whom, become clear during Komar’s narrative.

Her method is to visit the archives, pull out the available material on cases which are somewhat shady, and see what a full “cold-case” examination of the existing records will reveal.

Each book so far deals with a particular manner in which the facts of a case may be distorted. Her most recent book, Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character, provides its theme in the title.

What is, or should be, the role of an accused person’s character in determining his or her guilt or innocence? The murders of Maggie Vail and her child are particularly instructive in examining this premise, for this 1869 case, taking place in St. John. New Brunswick, is seen to be the first in which the social standing and reputation of the accused, respected architect John Munoe, were used as the main argument in his defense by his trial lawyer.

“His lawyer’s strategy was as simple as it was revolutionary,” for that time and place, she writes.

“Munroe’s wealth, education and exemplary character made him incapable of murder.”

These things had not rendered him incapable of having an extramarital affair with Maggie, or of fathering a child with her. That he was connected to her in a number of ways and could be traced to the area where, some months latter, a group of teenaged berry pickers stumbled across the badly decomposed bodies, were facts dismissed by his lawyer as incongruent with his character.

Komar prefaces the elegantly told story of Munroe’s life with an essay titled “The Dahmer Effect” in which she shows how the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer led forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz to develop his theory of universal lethality. In short, under the right circumstances, anyone can make the decision to become a killer; it’s the ability to decide and the will to act that make the difference.
Dietz wrote, “I think people are born with the inherent ability to be cruel and harmful and destructive and selfish and acquisitive. It’s the function of many of the institutions of society to train us out of that.”

To some this would seem to contradict the notion that people are naturally good and that crimes such as murder are committed by deviants. To others this might well put a new spin on the older notion of original sin, divorcing it from any connection the sexual act.

In the courts of the post-Dahmer days, character, and its adjunct, motive, matter less than decisions and actions, and it is this point that Komar uses the Maggie Vail case to illustrate.

She does so in a prose style that deliberately echoes 19th century writing and is supported by useful maps, photographs, memorabilia from the high profile trial and a very thorugh listing of footnotes and references.

Debra Komar was the fall to early winter writer-in-residence at Berton House, having turned to writing non-fiction crime books after 23 years as a practicing forensic anthropologist. She has testified as an expert witness at The Hague and throughout North America and is the author of many scholarly articles and a textbook, Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.


Bookends – Getting Ready for Another National Birthday Celebration February 17, 2017

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Bookends – Getting Ready for Another National Birthday Celebration

By Dan Davidson

November 30, 2016canada-history

– 815 words –


Canada – An Illustrated History

By Derek Hayes

Douglas and McIntyre

296 pages



With Canada’s 150th birthday coming up, it might just be a good time to dip into this highly readable short history of our nation. This is a “revised and expanded” edition of a work that originally came out in hardbound copy in 2004. Apparently the final chapter, “The Third Millennium”, contains the bulk of the new material. The publisher indicates there weren’t that many more changes, and the increased page count seems to fit with that addition.

The book is a lovely package, a well-bound paperback with over 450 illustrations, ranging from photographs to historical paintings and maps, as well as posters, stamps, cartoons, stained glass and tapestries. In the section on Louisbourg one of the paintings was a wall mural that I saw on display there last summer. There is full colour throughout and not a single page without some type of illustration – though there are some pages that have no words.

The publishers’ notes indicate: “The book covers the events, the newsmakers, and the ordinary folk that shaped the Canadian experience. Here are tales of the famous, the infamous, the popular, and the unknown: the natives, the nation-builders, the separatists, and the statesmen; the soldiers, the settlers, the rebels, and the refugees; the artists, the astronauts, the invaders, and the inventors; the motorists, the mail carriers, the fur traders, and the photographers—a myriad of individuals who shaped our country.”

Don’t let that generic list or the table of contents fool you. While they read like a standard history of Canada, marching on from First Nations habitation through the Vikings, French, English, wars, rebellions, Confederation, and on to the present day, there are a lot of sidebars on specific issues or trends that stand out from the main text by having a different background colour and a different type of content. Some are single page segments, but most are two page spreads.

These are the pages where the book gets away from the military and political themes that used to dominate historical writing and begins to deal with social issues. There are sections on the plague ships that led to quarantine islands, the 19th century’s discovery of oil, the Underground Railway, the development of the railway, the evolution of law and punishment, the development of the telephone and Standard Time, photography, fire fighting, bicycles, the Klondike Gold Rush, catalogue shopping, the postal service, and many other topics. The one problem I have with it relates to the glossy paper and the 91/2 by 113/4 inch size. It’s a somewhat cumbersome book and it’s hard to find a position where light isn’t reflecting off the pages. It turned out that it was easiest to read while sitting at the kitchen table.

Derek Hayes , a geographer by training, has a passion for old maps and what they can reveal about the past. He is the author of the bestselling Historical Atlas Series, which includes the Historical Atlas of Canada , Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley , Historical Atlas of the Arctic, Historical Atlas of Toronto and Historical Atlas of the United States . His website lists 15 books on a variety of geographical and historical topics.

The book provides a lot of material for trivial pursuit fans. For instance, did you know that:

  • Germans landed in Canada during the Second World War
  • Canada was valued at a billion dollars in 1872
  • a new boat was demonstrated in Toronto in 1897 that rolled over the
  • waves
  • up to 1930, Norway claimed a vast territory in Canada’s North
  • the first automobile crossed the Canadian Rockies in 1904 – by driving
  • on the rails of the Canadian Pacific
  • Canada once issued a 25 cent bill – and a $50,000 bill
  • Canada nearly had a flag with three maple leaves, not one
  • it was not until 1949 that all of Canada drove on the right
  • a major Canadian bridge collapsed not once but twice
  • the first transatlantic phone call was made in 1927 by radio
  • the first Canadian railway began running in 1836
  • the original “Red Indians” lived in Newfoundland
  • during the War of 1812 a cannon made in 1657 was used to defend
  • Toronto against the Americans
  • it took only a hour for French Canada to fall to the British
  • Canada’s first newspaper was the Halifax Gazette, published in 1752. It
  • was a single sheet of paper
  • one of the principal French forts is today a traffic island
  • France imported women into Canada, and then passed a law requiring men to marry them
  • Samuel de Champlain expected to find China at the western end of the Great Lakes
  • part of Canada is named after a brand of gin, and another after a beer





Bookends – Another kind of Remembrance is also important February 17, 2017

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Bookends – Another kind of Remembrance is also important

By Dan Davidson

November 8, 2016

– 640 words –


the-holocaustThe Holocaust: The Origins, Events and Remarkable Tales of Survival
By Philip Steele

Scholastic Books

96 pages

$15.00 in paperback edition


The Holocaust, the deliberate murder of six million Jews and some five million Slavic people, as well as Roma (Gypsies), is the Nazi policy that justifies the role of the Allied Nations in the carnage that was World War II.

There isn’t really a passable excuse for the extended family feud that was World War I, but the Second World War does have a palpable evil that needed to be fought against, stopped, and defeated. Nothing demonstrates that better than a close look at the Holocaust.

Philip Steele’s book provides just that in a version that has something to say to all ages, though it is primarily aimed at younger readers.

The book is set up a bit like a museum between covers. There are hundreds of images, maps and documents, each of them identified with descriptions and explanations, set in a variety of typefaces, that look like museum cards and tags.

An introductory section provides a framework within which to understand what the message of the book will be.

The Coming Storm provides a history of the Jewish people in Europe, from the time of the initial diaspora from the original homeland. It shows how these people became embedded in countries all over Europe, and the long history of anti-Semitism, running through the Middle Ages and up to the 20th century.

It also chronicles the contributions the Jews made in the realms of philosophy, science and culture.

There is a brief section on the First World War, and then Steele develops the post-war background that leads to the growth of the Nazi party in Germany as a result of the Treaty of Versailles and failure of the Weimar Republic. There are large panorama shots of Nazi rallies and the images showing the beginnings of the propaganda that created the national will to accept the obvious persecution of an entire race of people.

Just how much the general public in Germany knew about the euphemistically termed Final Solution has never been entirely certain, but there were certainly thousands of soldiers and SS members who were involved in the process and who knew exactly what they were doing.

The book chronicles the ways in which many Jews were enabled to escape Germany before the worst came, though those who only managed to escape to countries that were overrun by the German armies after 1939 were often scooped up later.

To the immense shame of much of the rest of the world, relatively little was done to help these people flee Europe entirely, though one two-page spread is dedicated to those who, like Oskar Schindler, did what they could.

Part II: From War to Genocide, goes into detail about life in the camps and the procedures that were carried out there: the dehumanizing daily routines, the forced labour, death by starvation, overwork and gas chambers.

Part III: Freedom and Remembrance, covers the end of the war, the problem of displaced persons, the trials at Nuremberg and the founding of the state of Israel. It concludes with a section about the various memorials and special events by which the Holocaust is remembered. This is not because people want to wallow in miserable memories, but because it is too easy in this world for such things to happen again if the memory grows too dim.

There is so much evidence in just this one slim volume that it is incredible to thing that there is an underground industry of Holocaust deniers who would have us believe that none of this ever happened. It is because of such people that books like this are very important.








Bookends: How Beavers shaped the Geography and History of North America January 19, 2017

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Bookends: How Beavers shaped the Geography and History of North America

By Dan Davidson

July 13, 2016

– 761 words –


Once They Were Hats:0nce

In Search of the Mighty Beaver

By Frances Backhouse

ECW Press

261 pages



There are a number of beaver lodges in the Klondike. One family has been known to create emporary difficulties along a branch of the Klondike River that meanders past Henderson Corner and Rock Creek. Other families are thought to be the cause of occasional outbreaks of “beaver fever” (Giardiasis) in some of the rural areas south of Dawson.

They’re a chubby, somewhat comical little creature, often used in cartoonish ways to represent Canada, as in that annoying pizza commercial currently flooding evening television (beaver with tartan cape and hockey stick) or the recent cartoon demonstrating Canada’s increased commitment to NATO (little beaver in combat gear hauling tiny toy cannon). Unless their activities have caused us some inconvenience, we don’t tend to take them seriously.

Frances Backhouse says that much of what we refer to historically as the New World was once Beaverland, shaped and influenced by the activities of a creature that was more numerous and widespread than the fabled herds of bison about which we read so much in western lore. They occupied and influenced the landscape of every part of North American that was not desert, or too cold for them, or patrolled by alligators. “Wherever they could find water and wood, beavers were there.”

Indeed, as the book moves on, we discover that beavers had quite a bit to do with the existence of both the water and the wood. It appears that they are Mother Nature’s landscape artists, that their presence or absence can have a profound effect on an ecosystem.

Beavers go back a long way into history, and came in a variety of sizes over the millennia. Not all of them were dam and lodge builders like Castor canadensis. Not all are now, Some of them den under river banks for instance.

Backhouse begins by taking a number of trips into areas where the landscape is most like what it would have been when there were a lot fewer people on the continent and, having described those places, asks us to imagine much of the continent looking that way. Sure, the First Nations people trapped and used the beaver, but not to the extent that Europeans would when they got here.

While the Southern Hemisphere tended to be explored as the result of the search for mineral wealth, North American exploration was driven by the fur trade, and beaver pelts were considered one of the prime commodities.

Chapter three details how the beaver was trapped nearly to extinction over just a few hundred years, as ever more efficient ways of catching them were developed and the European mania for hats made of beaver felt took hold.

No tale of the return of the beaver would be complete without mention of the work of Archie Belaney, the transplanted Brit who fooled most of the word as Grey Owl. He was, perhaps, more of a convenient poster child for an existing moment, rather than quite the eco-hero that legend has made him, but his story remains of interest.

In connection with those hats, Backhouse spent time at the Smithbilt hat factory in Calgary, and visited the North American Fur Auction in Toronto, as well as actually learning how to skin a beaver under the tutelage of a professional trapper.

The book wraps up with some discussion of the beavers’ impact on water tables, growth of peat bogs, development of wetlands which help to control forest fire hazards, and how their activity paves the way for diverse flora and fauna during and after their occupation of an area. She provides several examples of how beaver activity in certain areas has been controlled and shaped without having to kill them.

Frances Backhouse is perhaps best known to Yukon readers as the author of Women of the Klondike (Whitecap 1995) and Children of the Klondike (Whitecap 2010). The former was her first book length project, written after a number of years of shorter form journalism. The latter was the book she worked on during her stay at Berton House, in 2008. Both can be found on a lot of book racks in the territory’s stores. Sadly, her 1999 book about hiking the Chilkoot Pass, Hiking with Ghosts (Raincoast) is out of print, but perhaps the buzz about this book will bring it back, or at least hasten that promised e-book version.



Bookends: An Incisive look at world problems and relief efforts January 18, 2017

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Bookends: An Incisive look at world problems and relief efforts

By Dan Davidson

June 28, 2016damned-nations

– 866 words


Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies, and Aid

by Samantha Nutt

Signal (Random House Canada, Incorp.)

240 pages



“There are certain rules about war, and rule number one is that young men die. And rules number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one”

-Col. Henry Blake to Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H


There are all sorts of problems with our international aid systems, and Samantha Nutt, who has been involved with these systems since her inaugural experience as a 25-year-old medical school graduate back in 1995, delineates a lot of them in this book. It is, as most of the really gripping books of this nature are, a combination of personal memoir and impassioned, sharply reasoned argument.

Nutt has been a regular feature on several of the CBC’s panels on the National since this book appeared in 2011. She is also the founder of War Child (with branches in Canada and the USA), an international humanitarian organization with a particular focus on how children and families are affected by conflict.

This book alternates between personal experiences and analysis, beginning with her very first mission in Somalia.

“Goats, burned out cars, and a few spindly trees interrupting a expanse of copper sand: this was what the landing strip outside Baidoa, Somalia, looked like from 3000 metres in 1995. Baidoa: the City of Death. Where three years earlier 300,000 people succumbed to starvation and disease. Now, a new wave of famine was failing to rouse any degree of outside interest.”

Famine wasn’t the only problem. There were armed gangs running around with that favorite of Third World weapon, the nearly indestructible AK-47, and Nutt would find herself on the wrong end of one before her stay was over.

The curse of arms sales is a theme in this chapter, poignant in light of our nation’s own recent deal with the Saudis.

“…Availability of cheap weapons in fragile impoverished states is an invitation to war. Even Mikhail Kalashnikov has expressed regret that he did not invent a lawn mower instead.”

Of course, the rising death toll in America tells us that too many weapons, too easily acquired, anywhere just might be a bad idea.

Chapter two, “Chaos Incorporated”, takes us to the Congo, and a discussion of rape, kidnapping and the sale of mineral resources to finance conflict. Diamonds aren’t the only substance you can put the word “conflict” in front of.

The chapter ends with a tense encounter near a transit centre for supposedly former child soldiers. When it emerges that she has no money to give to a boy who raps on her vehicle’s window demandingly, he looks at her and says, “The next time you come here without any money, we’re going to rape you, pour gasoline on you, and set you on fire.”

“Winning Wars, Losing Peace” is a chapter that deals with the aftermath of the misguided and disastrous invasion of Iraq by America and its Coalition of the Willing, the military action which probably has the most to do with the rise of ISIS a decade later.

“Paved with Good Intentions” is, of course, a reference to what the road to Hell is paved with, and offers a number of examples of well meaning efforts that have turned out badly. Some of these efforts have been attempted by internationally known charitable organizations that have gone in with the wrong message, the wrong approach and the wrong emphasis.

She cites the biggest problem as being the focus on emergency relief, when what is needed is a less fraught, but more consistent, steady, regular aid. While the response to a crisis is generally pretty effective in the short term, most of the problems around the globe are more intractable than that.

Consider Liberia, Haiti, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burundi, and other such places. In all of them there is an inefficient duplication of effort, an emphasis on making sure that the brand of a particular agency is seen to be doing things, and an assumption that the arriving “saviors” know more about what needs to be done than the locals who are actually suffering.

Nutt believes that a focus on sustainable development would be of more use than the many rescue missions which are now the standard practice, which the next chapter defines in its title: “Pack Your Bags, We’re Going on a Guilt Trip.” Humanitarian programs run the great risk of becoming a kind of disaster tourism if not carried out properly.

The final chapter, “A Just Cause”, offers a short list of issues that need to be tackled: the gender divide and inequality of opportunity; the burden of poverty and unemployment; legal aid (to deal with rape, war crimes, etc.); alternative solutions to the business-as-usual attitude to international and internal conflicts.

She concludes the chapter with a very useful list of common sense things to think about when planning to donate to the various organizations that regularly appeal for you to loosen your cheque books and credit cards. It’s a good list, and I was pleased to find we were already doing most of those things.



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

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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



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.




Bookends: An Extreme Act of Remembrance February 7, 2016

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Bookends: An Extreme Act of Remembrance

By Dan Davidson

November 11, 2015

– 787 words –


Through Blood and Sweat

A Remembrance Trek Across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds

By Mark ZuehlkeBlood & Sweat

Douglas & McIntyre

215 pages



When Mark Zuehlke was at Berton House in 2003, he had finished writing a series of popular history books about the Canadian efforts in the Italian Campaign during the Second World War and had moved on to writing another series about the action during and after D-Day on the other side of the continent.

At the time he was also writing a series of three mystery novels about a coroner on Vancouver Island, a character inspired by his non-fiction study of those odd immigrants called Remittance Men. I’m hoping he’ll get back to the Elias McCann novels but, as it turns out, the Canadian Battle Series (11 books and counting) and the other Military Heritage series (four books), plus two in the Rapid Reads easy reading series have so far kept him too busy to plot another murder mystery.

It was his 2008 book,
The Canadian Invasion of Sicily, July 10–August 7, 1943 (Douglas & McIntyre) that got him involved in the adventure chronicled in this memoir. The trek was the brainchild of Montreal businessman Steve Gregory, who was walloped by the muse of inspiration while visiting a Canadian military cemetery in Agia in 2006. It was after that experience that he read Zuehlke’s book and began a single minded campaign to organize the 2013 event and to have Mark be part of it.

Needless to say, he succeeded, overcoming resistance from not only Mark, but also his partner, Frances Backhouse. On the other hand, Gregory was not successful in mobilizing what he had hoped to be a large number of walkers, including a sizable contingent of military personnel. Oddly, for all its sabre rattling, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper had a minimal interest in this celebration, and made service people available only near the end of the month long event.

They set out in July 2013 to attempt, so far as it was possible, to follow the 300 kilometre route taken boy the soldier of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division in 1943. Along the way they planted hundreds of markers to memorialize the service men who had died during Operation Husky, their ultimate objective being to reach that cemetery where 490 of the 562 Canadian dead were buried.

Each day meant marching under the grueling Sicilian sun, in temperatures sometimes topping 40°C, dealing with heat rash and dehydration, and also standing through day after day of very moving, but very long, commemorative ceremonies in each of the towns and villages that they passed along their way.

It needs to be pointed out that none of the core group of 10 on the march were young people. They were middle aged to elderly, from reasonably healthy for their ages to being barely able to cope with the strain. There were some illnesses and at least one short hospital stay before the trek was over.

Zuehlke had driven the routes they took while he was writing the earlier book, but writes that walking the countryside gave him a far greater appreciation of both the land and the difficulty experienced by the soldiers in 1943.

This isn’t strictly a first person, present tense, journal of the march. There are things we actually need to know about cemeteries, markers and how the whole cemetery program developed after the First World War. Zuehlke gives us this information in a different typeface and a different tense, dropping out of the narrative from time to time when needed to tell us what we need to know to appreciate what’s going to happen next as the marchers move on.

There are some spooky bits in this story. Sicilian stray dogs are not noted for being particularly friendly, but two dogs, at different times, join the walkers and turn up at what seem to be significant moments along the trek. Dubbed Husky I and Husky II, the serendipity of the dogs’ appearances lead the marchers and some members of the support crews (there’s a logistics team planning routes and Max Fraser’s film crew) to begin to wonder if there isn’t some sort of supernatural connection involved. Could the dogs be channeling the spirits of the departed soldiers?

As with his popular histories, Zuehlke makes a strong effort to include the voices of others in his narrative, giving us background stories and first hand observations and reactions from various of the participants.

This is an engaging book, one that not only tells us about the event itself, but about the history that inspired it.




Bookends: When Canada almost fell apart October 12, 2015

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Bookends: When Canada almost fell apart

By Dan Davidson

February 18, 2015

– 834 words –


The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day tThe Morning Afterhat Almost Was

By Chantal Hébert

With Jean LaPierre

Knopf Canada

320 pages

Kindle edition$14.95

With the recent Quebec provincial election having shown that the citizens of that province have so thoroughly rejected the call of the Parti Québécois, at least for now, this is perhaps a good time to look back at a time when the separatist option was riding high and almost managed to win the day.

The results of the October 30, 1995 referendum could have given our nation the worst Hallowe’en ever if the vote had tipped just a little bit. As it was, 50.58% of the citizens voted against the vaguely worded question put to them, and 49.42% voted in favour of that same question.

Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

That might mean immediate separation, or the beginning of negotiations to lead to that result. It turns out that even the three men leading the charge had quite different intentions when it came to what the morning after a successful campaign would look like.

Chantal Hébert, with the assistance of Jean LaPierre has delved into this topic by interviewing 17 key players from that period. From the Yes Camp there are Lucien Bouchard, the evangelist for the movement, Mario Dumont, the somewhat reluctant player, and Jacques Parizeau, the chess master behind the event.

Parizeau could not sell the idea himself, so Bouchard was brought on board as a front man, and his presence nearly clinched the deal. It turns out, however, that he had a softer option in mind than the Quebec Premier and that both he and Dumont would have been in for a shock had the Yes Camp have won.

In Quebec, the No Camp was led by Lucienne Robillard, Jean Charest and Daniel Johnson. They put up a not terribly effective opposition.

The Feds, who were not necessarily united in their approach, included Sheila Copps, Brian Tobin, Paul Martin, Raymond Chrétien, André Ouellet and Preston Manning. Some changed opinions during the debate, Manning would happily have negotiated Quebec’s departure.

Not all the premiers were involved. Roy Romanow seems to have been the one man in the debate with the sense of urgency to develop contingency plans. Other players included Mike Harris, Frank McKenna and Bob Rae.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien gets the last word and Hebert refers to him as the Conjurer.

What we learn is that there was no consensus on the Yes side as to what victory might mean for them. Parizeau would have taken it to mean “independence now” while the other two would have settled for a restructured federal state.

Those who were fighting for the No vote were almost too late to the game. At first they didn’t know what to make of the referendum, but seemed to be sure they would win it easily. Then, as Bouchard’s presence lit a fire under the campaign for the Yes side, they panicked, and really did not seem to have a coherent plan of action.

On both sides, no one was talking to anyone else, and if Parizeau was playing his cards close to his chest, Chrétien’s were just as well concealed. He made some last minute concessions that may have helped the cause; but the Sponsorship Scandal connected to the ongoing debate, that later brought down the government of his successor, Paul Martin, also unfolded mostly on his watch.

Hébert is familiar to CBC watchers as a regular member of the At Issue weekly panel on The National. In English she holds forth in the Toronto Star and in Quebec she appears in several publications.

Jean LaPierre has seen both sides of the issue. He was an MP in John Turner’s short-lived government, then joined Bouchard in founding the Bloc Québécois and ultimately came back to the Liberals under Paul Martin. Today he is a radio commentator on a couple of Quebec radio stations.

The book concludes with a series of short takes from each writer on how they met and interacted with all the people they interviewed for this book over the time they have known them.

To provide context, the book begins with a useful timeline of events between November 1976, when René Lévesque first led the Parti Québécois to power, up to the 2014 election which saw the minority government of Pauline Marois go down to defeat.

This is an excellent book and very good reading, but it does leave me a little worried. We would like to think that those who wish to lead us are a bit better organized than a bunch of kids on a playground playing let’s pretend, but it seems it’s not the case.


Bookends: All of Yukon Sport in one big package October 12, 2015

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Bookends: All of Yukon Sport in one big package

By Dan DavidsonYukon Sport

January 7, 2015

– 766 words –


Yukon Sport: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

By John Firth

Figure 1 Publishing

Distributed by Raincoast Books

352 pages


I’m kidding John Firth when I tell him that I’m getting my exercise in December by lifting and reading his new book, but he agrees with me immediately. It does, in fact, weigh in at about 2 ½ pounds on my bathroom scale. It’s what we call a coffee table book, and if you put legs under it, it could serve as an end table. It’s not the sort of volume that you hold in front of you in the air while reading it. A tabletop, or at least a lap, is required. When it comes to sheer heft, it’s not light reading.

I recall sitting down with John to discuss what little I know about Klondike sports in Riverwest Café on Front Street about a year and a half ago, wondering just how he would tackle this rather massive subject, and feeling a little odd to be on the other side of an interview. He had, of course, previously written a couple of interesting books about the Yukon Quest (Yukon Challenge) and the Yukon River Quest (River Time), as well as a book about Ramish Ferris’ quest to help wipe out polio (Better than a Cure) and the story of the Jamaican Doglsed Team (One Mush) but those were books about individuals or about a single sport. I reasoned that this was a vastly different project, requiring a different approach.

It also required a lot of interviews and research. Firth says he has been collecting stories, interviews and material for some three decades. In his introduction he credits Kathy Jones-Gates, my former co-editor at the Klondike Sun, with doing a lot of research as well.

The book is structured like an encyclopedia, with 97 entries, beginning with “Aboriginal Sport” and running through the alphabet to” Yukon Sport and Recreation”. Rather than being a general history of Yukon sports, it’s like 97 little histories, some of which overlap a bit. Each one offers up some of the bald facts of the activity, but many also contain little anecdotes, snippets from interviews and extracts from newspaper articles that were written at the time.

Most of them come with pictures but some, like the one pager on arm wrestling, are just text. The very next entry, “Athletics”, runs to seven pages and has seven photographs, one of which is in colour. The book doesn’t shy away from using colour, but a good number of the photos would have been taken back when colour pictures were less common, or when news photographers only used black and white film in the days before digital cameras, so the majority of them are black and white shots.

This is not a book to be read from beginning to end. It’s a browser, with items selected according to the reader’s interests. I can easily confess to not having read it all, and to bouncing back and forth as things I have some connection with caught my eye. Certainly I read the items that had anything to do with Dawson, and that’s a lot, because so many things start here.

Faro had an entry as well. Reading the memories of the late Tim Twardochleb not long after his passing was a bit of a wrench. I taught with Wes Sullivan in Faro, and one of my classrooms was not far away from where those weights were hitting the plywood in the hallway after school while I was marking papers during the early days of weightlifting in the Yukon.

Except for the mention of the first seasonal pool in Beaver Creek (they have a much better one now), all the entries mentioning our first Yukon home came from either before or after our three years there.

I should confess that I’m quoted three times in the book. The first one is about the revival of the Highland Games here in 2012 (not 2013, as I have since pointed out to John). The second one is how the popularity of slowpitch among high school students in the 1990s was one factor used to determine when the school year in Dawson City should begin and end. The third citation is in regards to the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race, which I have been writing about annually since 1986.

I enjoyed my time with this book and, coming from someone whose most regular approach to sport is just walking, that’s a glowing recommendation.