Often when I pick up a book I find myself wishing it could tell its story to me. What could it tell me of its owners over the years? What had it seen of history from its place on the bookshelf, desk or table top? If only books could talk…
So, I decided to play a little game for this episode of Peroosnik. I pulled from a box a heavy tome, pretty battered up but still intact: Macaulay’s History of England, Philadelphia, E. H. Butler, 1861. I opened it and looked at the owner’s name. Immediately, I knew it was one of a lot of books I had bought from Mrs. Fife, the last of her family here, widow of the last owner/manager of the Fife Hardware, one of Kenora’s best known landmarks and longest running family-owned businesses. She was clearing out her house prior to moving east. This Joseph must have been a relative of her late husband.
I’ve known the Fifes for most of my life. My father and uncle had another of those old established family businesses – electrical appliances – and the saying around town used to be, “If you can’t get it at Fife’s, try Campbell Brothers,” or vice versa. Several times I had spoken with Mrs Fife about her genealogical research because it was an interest we both shared. I always understood that the Fifes were Scottish-Canadian for some reason. Yet here was one in the American Navy! Who was he?
Next to this book was another, Macaulay’s Essays, Boston, Phillips, Sampson & Co., 1859, equally battered with several items acting as bookmarks at various intervals. It, too, had a signature on its front free endpaper.
Pasted onto the first several blank pages are several religious poems, and one lengthy one entitled Canada, which stirred my curiosity some more. Is this someone yearning for his homeland, or is he intrigued by the prospect of visiting/emigrating? I can understand someone wanting to leave a war-torn country, and wanting to come to Canada, but why would a Canadian leave to become embroiled in someone else’s civil war? Oh I know it’s been done by many. But why?
Since the two books were of a period, Dr. Fife was obviously in the US when he got them, and one indicated that he was in the US Navy, I decided to see if I could find out any more about him. There is a lot of available material on those who served during the Civil War. If he was in the USN in 1864ish, then he might he have been seeing some battle action.
All I was able to find was a brief mention. The Register of the Commissioned, Warrant, and Volunteer Officers of the Navy of the United States including Officers of the Marine Corps, and Others for 1862 and 1863 both show Dr. J. A. Fife serving as the Acting Assistant Surgeon on the Schooner F. A. Ward.
I tried looking for him in New York and found that he was still there in 1865, studying medicine at Bellevue Hospital Medical College. Joseph Fife’s thesis on iodine has been digitised and is available to read, if you are curious (click the link). His signature on the cover page closely matches the 1864 one above. Along with it is the answer to one of my questions: Joseph A. Fife (is) of Canada. The paper is handwritten and a testament to the penmanship of the day.
Had I only realised it, another clue to Joseph’s past lay in that poem on Canada, pasted into Macaulay’s Essays. The prize of ten dollars was awarded to its author, Rev. B. Longley, at “the late convocation of Victoria University”.
When I searched for Dr. J. A. Fife in Canada, I came across mention of him in relation to his son, Col. Ashton Thomas Fife, the founder of the Fife Hardware Co. back here in Kenora. In an online biography of that man written by James Retson, I discovered that the Colonel was born in the Peterborough area of Ontario. This led me to a history of Peterborough in which a biography of the Doctor appeared.
Joseph was the son of Thomas Fife, who was the son of John Fife and Agnes Hutchinson, 1820 immigrants from Kincardine in the Kingdom of Fife, Scotland. The Fifes homesteaded in Otonabee, near Peterborough. Joseph was born on lot 26, concession 5 in 1838. His uncle, by the way, was David Fife, the man after whom the Red Fife wheat variety is named.
In 1860, Joseph Fife entered Victoria College of Medicine in Cobourg, Ontario. Victoria University? Perhaps that poem was read at his own convocation?
1863 and Fife had moved to Washington DC in hopes of gaining a position in the navy, but the history does not elaborate on the reason the youth craved such experience, or why, as a British subject, he wouldn’t seek it in the British Navy. He immediately obtained a commission as Assistant Surgeon in the US Navy. As a member of Admiral Dahlgren’s fleet in the South Atlantic Squadron, he was present at the bombardment of Charleston and spent two years on blockade duty during the American Civil War.
Perhaps the answer can be found in the mention that in politics, Fife was Reform. I would need to delve deeper than I have to determine precisely what that meant in that day in Canada. It may have meant that he had strong anti-slavery convictions. Britain had already banned slavery by this time. Perhaps fighting for the Union side against slavery gave him an opportunity to act upon his ideals. Maybe it was just that the USA was closer to home. Maybe he felt he could put his training to better use in a war-torn country. Perhaps it was all those things.
I also found an article the doctor wrote for the Canadian Lancet in 1877 (Vol. 9, p.225, also available to read online) in which he describes his treatment of, and the 14 year-old patient’s recovery from, a gunshot wound to the head.
Fife was practicing medicine through the 1890s. He died in 1902, after which his widow came to Kenora, according to Retson. Perhaps that’s how his books ended up here. Bill Fife, the late husband of the lady who sold me these volumes, was a great-nephew of the Colonel, and probably inherited the books as well as the business. And so, they have taken a long journey from a bookshop in New York or Washington, perhaps, over the waves to help the good doctor while away the hours of tedious blockade duty off the coast of Civil War South Carolina, back to grace the shelves of his home and consume his off duty hours to the day he died, then by train to the booming frontier town of Rat Portage (soon to be renamed Kenora). Now, after over a century of living on the bookshelves of Kenora Fifes, they wait for another owner to treasure and learn from their contents, and to wonder, “If only they could talk, what stories would these books tell?”
A rare Sunday installment!
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Every now and again I need a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of everyday business. You know – sweeping and washing floors, hauling boxes down to my work area, processing said boxes’ contents, dusting, window dressing, neatening shelves, etc. Today is one of those days.
I decided when I came in that I needed to do something different.
When I came in the back door, I looked once more at the stack of Scribner’s Monthly custom-bound volumes that came in this summer. I’ve been wanting to give them a spa day before putting them out for sale. Today is that day – at least for some of them.
This is part of the operation most people don’t see. My bread and butter sales come from more current titles, bestsellers, etc. that turn over quickly. But my heart is with the antique books, the fine bindings – books that were made back when book-binding was an art, and artisans took pride in their work. These are the aristocracy of the used bookshop’s stock. As such, they need a little pampering from time to time.
This set was bound for an individual library. If you look at the photograph, you will see, near the tail (bottom) of the spine, a wreath with the initials GH enclosed. Gervais Holmes has become a very real person to me over the last six months, and I have started looking into his history (the genealogist in me…). I have acquired a quantity of books from his family library. Many of them are inscribed with the loveliest, most tender notes to his wife, or from his wife, to or from his children. I love reading them. So do my customers. Some of the books I’ve sold just because of the sentiment the donor has shown the gift’s recipient. It’s a special collection.
Back to the Scribner’s Monthly set. It isn’t complete. It isn’t worth very much. But it is lovely. It has been read. There is a partial index that the owner has ever so neatly annotated on the the blank sides of the pages. The leather spines have faded in relation to the leather that has been protected, and over the years, that leather has become dry. The edges have begun to powder – red rot, they call it in the trade. That condition is irreversible, but it is containable. It results from changes in humidity and temperature (one of the reasons fine libraries and archives are so concerned about maintaining constant temperatures, light and humidity levels).
Like any other skin, leather needs to be conditioned once in a while. That’s something a lot of people who own leather bindings don’t realise. Archival supply companies sell gel to help condition and seal affected leather, and conservation wax helps to maintain, clean and preserve healthy leather, and to give it that lustrous patina we admire so much in the collections of the fine libraries of the world.
It requires time and elbow grease, but it’s so worth it in the end. If you have leather volumes you’d like to treat to a spa day, make sure to consult with someone who has some experience before you spend a lot of money on product. Some is better than others or has specific applications. And you don’t want to buy something that may harm your treasures, either!
This Christmas, my mother and I took in a couple of Christmas movies we hadn’t seen before on the TV. We never know what we’re going to find. Sometimes they’re pretty sappy, sometimes we find a little gem. The Bridge fell into the latter category. We became completely engrossed in the story of Molly, a society girl trying to find her own way in life, and Ryan, a music student with a dream of making the ‘big time’ in Country, whose lives collide at a college in Tennessee. Their delightful friendship grows in a wonderful bookshop called The Bridge, owned by a couple who used the shop both to bring themselves out of the darkness caused by the loss of a child, and to help others bridge the abyss between yesterday and tomorrow.
And then, abruptly, the movie ended with the caption: “To be continued…”. Yet we looked everywhere for the sequel without success.
Fortunately, I noticed that the movie was based on the book of the same title by Karen Kingsbury. Knowing my limits in the art of cliff-hanging, I ordered the book. Both Mom and I really wanted to know how the story ended. And we all know how much better the book is contrasted with the movie, right?
At first I was thrown off kilter. The book starts where the movie hadn’t even begun to take us. As I read further, it became apparent that the movie is actually the backstory of the novel. Part two, which will be released about Christmas of 2016, will probably eliminate the book’s flashbacks and focus on the story as it continues seven years from where the first movie ended.
The story is a lovely ‘feel good’ read, not very deep but engaging enough to keep readers turning the pages. I actually liked the movie better because I felt that the characters were more developed in it. And the chronology was straightforward, without constant reference to the incident that becomes the ending of the movie and the focal point of the novel (I don’t want to give anything away here!). The movie allows the story to tell itself without the interference of characters’ frequent and inconclusive ruminating. Seeing the movie first may have handicapped me in that regard, for having seen it, I already knew what lay behind the characters’ actions. Perhaps someone reading the book first wouldn’t mind the author always bringing her back to that moment when….
I have only one other complaint about the book. The Bridge takes up only 3/4 of the volume I purchased. In addition, there is a book club discussion section of a few pages, then nearly one quarter of the page count is devoted to the backstory of the book shop’s owners. A good idea, but why is the prequel positioned after the novella? And why is so much of it repeated almost verbatim in the novella? That really is annoying. If the two are packaged together, then, editor, sharpen your quill!
This is a great little ‘slow down, take a rest and enjoy a few moments of peace during a busy, busy time’ book. I like these Christmas novellas that come out for that very reason. They aren’t necessarily important bodies of work in themselves (Dickens’ Christmas Carol being a notable exception), but they do serve a purpose. Perhaps they even help us refocus on some of the things that really matter in life at a time when we are so easily distracted by the crush of busy-ness.
Enclosed herewith is check in the amount of $250. which is being refunded to you and represents your deposit for a Deck Cabin aboard the Polynesia for the cruise of March 9, 1982.
By the time we received your deposit for a Deck Cabin, we had already received deposits for these accommodations.
We are sorry that you are not cruising with us as planned, but we do look forward to your Windjammin’ with us at some future date.
No, no. Not that Napoleon Bonaparte…
This Napoleon Bonaparte is a man who, caught between two worlds, takes the best of both and runs with it through his career as a Detective Inspector in the Australian police force. That may be saying quite a bit today but, when you consider this series first began in the 1920s when racism was systemic and the idea of a ‘half-caste’ achieving any kind of rank in society was unheard of, you begin to grasp the incredible achievement, not only of this character but, also, of this series of books.
Some years ago a customer alerted me to Upfield’s mysteries. Intrigued, I found a few, gasped at the prices and bought them anyway (it was a strong recommendation). Even the paperbacks are collectible; even reissues are not so easy to find. They were worth every penny, too.
Boney only works the ‘unsolvable’ cases. Like Sherlock Holmes, they intrigue him, and even though they may have gone cold in the eyes of other detectives, Boney has yet to be defeated by crime.
When a small batch recently arrived at the shop, I found myself unable to resist the temptation of reading them, too. It has been a friendship worth renewing and, since his cases take him all over Australia, a great way to get in a bit of armchair travel as well.
I was also surprised to see from the covers of these reissues that the series was televised during the early 1970s. If anyone from Mystery! Or TVO reads this, how about resurrecting them? Curiosity almost makes me want to join one of those TV/Movie websites like Netflicks. Anyone know if there’s one that carries Boney? Although I think I’d still rather read the books…