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Portage Into the Past: By Canoe along the Minnesota-Ontario Boundary Waters – J. Arnold Bolz

17 February 2016

I’m always on the lookout for regional history, both for my personal library and the book shop. I was tidying up my shelves the other day when I came across this one. I’d forgotten I had it. Not only that but, since it is the only one I’ve ever come across, I’d forgotten such a book even existed. I began to read…

I wish I’d known about it when I first started learning about this area’s history. Originally published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1960, Portage into the Past serves as a wonderful little introduction to the Fur Trade era and the Boundary Dispute that made this portion of the Canada/US border one of the last to be determined. And it does all this in a very novel manner.

Bolz, J. Arnold. Portage into the Past (Minneapolis, U of MN Press, 1960) Sixth Ptg. 1979.

If you find a copy, this is a wonderful introduction to Boundary Waters history!

The author and his wife are both outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs. Bolz has spent years amassing a library of original source material about the route between Lake Superior and Rainy Lake. They decide to invite a friend who runs an outdoor tripping business to go with them on a five-day canoe trip following the trade route. They plan to introduce him to the region’s history through reading excerpts from the diaries and journals of early travellers and surveyors around the campfire each night and at various stops that they make along the way.

The result is that readers experience a wonderful blend of the past and the route as it had become by 1958. Their friend also ends up catching the history bug, and by the end of the trip he, too, is taking a turn at reading the passages aloud. All three of them spend their breaks from paddling trying to find the exact location described by Henry, Hind, Delafield or any of a number who left a footprint on the trail over the past 250 years.

The book is illustrated by Frances Ann Hopkins, John Bigsby and Francis Lee Jaques, all of whom travelled through at some point in their careers during each of the three periods of history covered.

While the book offers only a superficial history of the Boundary Waters, it does so in an entertaining manner that encourages readers to go farther, and provides an excellent list of primary sources to facilitate further study.

Island Voices: Traditions of North Mull – Ann MacKenzie

17 January 2014

IslandAnother pick from my personal library…

Shortly after my very memorable trip to Scotland in 2006, I learned that my 3g-grandmother was from Mull; sad, because I travelled through the island on my way to visit Iona without any idea that I was treading on ancestral ground. I resolved to learn more about her homeland, and the purchase of this book was the result.

My ancestress, actually from Cameron or Camberon near Lochbuie in South Mull (by Canadian standards, just a hop and a skip from the North – Islanders see it a bit differently, apparently!), left the island in 1812 with her new husband enroute for the Red River Settlement (now Winnipeg, Manitoba). I had hoped that I might learn something of the lifestyle they lived prior to their emigration, maybe even recognise some Mullishness that remains in my own family 200 years on. In the latter, I was disappointed!

The book does provide some fascinating insight into the history of Mull, its northern denizens and their folklore. It consists of snippets from historical collections and living memory gathered together topically. Gaelic is usually interpreted, and there is a short list at the back of Gaelic words and terms. There is some story repetition that may be of use to scholars looking for the root of a particular tradition or tale. I found it a bit annoying as few of the details varied significantly and a footnote would have sufficed to indicate other sources. Fortunately, such repetition is not too frequent. An index of personal and place names, etc., would be a useful addition, too. Otherwise, I found a bedtime read turned into time spent with an Island storyteller and very pleasant at that! I could almost smell the peat smoke and hear the coos moo….

Some of the stories go back into the 1700s, one or two even earlier, but most are older residents’ memories of what their grandparents used to say about their lives, or perhaps more recent anecdotes of the time interviewees spent as children and young people on Mull. In other words, this is a better book for those looking at 19th and early 20th Century life, although I imagine some aspects of island life were relatively timeless well into the 20th Century. For family historians, there is a fair bit of interest in terms of names and also in descriptions of Tobermory during this period. And there are three sections of old b&w photographs. The Clearances started later on Mull (1850s) than elsewhere in the Highlands (late 1700s-1850s), so there is also a good deal of material pertaining to that black spot on the island’s past which helps to shed light on evolving eviction techniques in Scotland.

If you have history in Mull or other parts of the Hebrides, I’m sure you will find Island Voices an interesting and entertaining read!

Antiquities of the Orient Unveiled… – M. Wolcott Redding

3 January 2014

Antiquities 3I am not only a used book dealer, but also a collector of sorts. I don’t go after books as an investment, necessarily; that’s not the kind of collector I am. I’m more a soaker-upper of volumes that strike me as interesting or beautiful or maybe curious. I think that’s how most true book collectors are. Mind you, if I had the budget, I might find some tomes that met the criteria and made great investments, too!

I can’t even remember where I picked this book up now; I’ve had it for years but only got around to reading it the other day. Although it was published in 1874, it looks like a relic from a much earlier era in publishing history. Every page has a border framing it and its chapter headings scream 18th-Century layout – heavy, but rather lovely in a way.Antiquities 2

The other thing I find interesting about it is its unashamed Masonic references. There’s a definite wink-wink, nudge-nudge thing happening between brothers here that I find intriguing. It’s as if I missed the ladies’ withdrawing room and ended up an accidental and almost-but-not-quite ignored intruder in the library, where the men are enjoying a drink after dining. Curious, I looked the book up and discovered that later editions actually had added “Masonic” to the beginning of the title, perhaps to avoid such embarrassing intrusions by the uninitiated!

I’ve always been a keen fan of Biblical Archaeology. From a practical standpoint, this book is really outdated, of course. But it is full of wonderful engravings of ancient sites that have since been ravaged by pollution, war and development, not to mention archaeology itself. And it really is fascinating to take a few hours to step back into a completely different mindset to examine mysteries of the past. It serves to illustrate just how much the science has changed over the years, how our perspectives have altered and how that has aided or maybe sometimes obscured our ability to interpret artefacts.

Antiquities 1

Bethlehem in the 1870s


I’m going to be spending some time in 2014 on an archaeological project of my own: digging through my library to examine some of my hoarded “treasures”. Hope you’ll enjoy the ride!

Mead and Wine: A History of the Bronze Age in Greece – Jean Zafiropulo

3 January 2013

Something about the Greek myths and Homer has fascinated me since I was a child. I don’t know what stimulated the interest; it seems to me that it has always been there. I’d read both Bulfinch’s Mythology and the Harvard Classics’ Homer before I entered high school.

I knew all about Schliemann and his amazing discoveries at Troy, by then, too. Unlike students a hundred years before me, I understood, thanks to Schliemann’s archaeological work, that Homer was based in historical fact. I had never considered the same of the Greek myths, however; it has taken reading Mead and Wine to think about them as memories of a distant past.

When I learned that this was the first book detailing this period in Greek history, I found myself checking the publication date: 1966! But archaeology was more treasure hunting than a scientific discipline until the 20th Century. And the written records that have survived from the period Zafiropulo considers (c. 1450-1100 BC) were written in Linear A, which has yet to be deciphered, and Linear B, which was decoded during the 1950s, just a few years before this book was written. The author gives an interesting summary of that process in his second appendix.

Mead&WineZafiropulo builds his chronology of the events of the Bronze Age in the Aegean world in the first chapter, creating parallels between Crete, mainland Greece, Troy and Egypt using three main disciplines of history, archaeology and linguistics. He then shows how the gods and heroic characters of mythology and Homer fit into his scheme. He limits the cultures of the Aegean world to variants of two main groups: bull worshippers, who controlled the lowlands and held the political power for the most part, and goat worshippers, who were generally pushed into less hospitable mountain landscapes and who became adept at guerrilla-type raid tactics to survive. The negative dynamic between these two groups led to the ultimate downfall of Greek civilisation, but also to the remnant cultural survival evident in Roman civilisation.

I thought Zafiropulos went a bit far in linking the Israelite tribe of Dan with the Achaeans or Danaans, all of whom, he maintains, were bull worshippers (think golden calf at Mt. Sinai). And he takes the conflicts between bull and goat worshippers right into Christian thinking where he says the goat is relegated to hell and the bull to heaven in the form of St. Luke, whose symbol is the bull. His arguments in these cases are interesting, but I’m not buying into them just yet!

Mead and Wine is a very readable book. Zafiropulo’s charts and genealogies really helped keep the tangled web of events clear and logical. One thing for sure… I’m going to be going over my Bulfinch again, and some of my Greek history and archaeology books, too! Time to pay long overdue visits to some old friends on the shelf….

The Ring – Lyn Hancock and Marion Dowler

3 March 2012

Young Dennis Dowler had a severe case of hero worship. The objects of his admiration were his grandparents, Sam Livingston and Mary Jane Howse. Sam died a long time before Dennis was born, but his grandmother lived with his family. He took advantage of every opportunity to ask her about her adventures with Grandfather Sam, or to re-enact in his back yard the adventures of his grandparents. Even when he could probably recite her stories verbatim, Dennis still loved to sit at Jane’s knee, to watch her face as she talked about the old days.

Dennis grew up and married. One day, he showed his wife an intriguing ring – Jane Livingston’s wedding ring. It was gold with a deep band of black enamel, out of which rose the words, “IN MEMORY OF”. It was a ring that had fascinated him as a child; he used to watch his grandmother sitting quietly, abstractedly turning the ring on her finger. Although he asked, she put off telling him its story. That would be a tale for another day….

The authors of this book met through Marion and Dennis Dowler’s daughter, who was one of Lyn’s students. Lyn was intrigued by the story of Dennis’ grandparents. They were not obscure pioneers of the West: Sam Livingston is the celebrated founder of the City of Calgary, and his Métis wife was the daughter of Janet Spence and Henry Howse of the Red River Settlement. The writing duo decided to record the stories Dennis collected as a child in the book Tell Me, Grandmother, which was published in 1985 as a book for older children. The Ring is an updated and expanded edition, published in the fall of 2010.

The Ring is an easy read and makes a fine quality-time read for the whole family. Not only is it a great way to introduce youngsters to an interesting period in the history of the development of Western Canada and the role Red River Settlers played in that expansion; it is a wonderful vehicle for fostering an interest in family history in our youth. This new edition contains lots of historic and other photographs along with the original sketches to help hold the interest of children. It also has appended a moving story of how recording our family’s oral history can have far-reaching and amazing consequences for the lives of others – but I won’t spoil the suspense!

Lyn Hancock is a well-known Canadian author/publisher with over twenty books to her credit. In an era when it can be difficult to engage our youth in their history, her book could be a real boon to those looking for a way to introduce children or grandchildren to the stories of our own ancestors.

Exile in the Wilderness: The Life of Chief Factor Archibald McDonald, 1790–1858 – Jean Murray Cole

25 February 2012 4 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about my family history lately, as this year will be the bicentennial anniversary of the arrival of one of my maternal branches in Canada. The first of them arrived at Red River Settlement (RRS) in 1812. One of the sources I’ve been using to learn more about them has been the journals of Archibald McDonald, so I was really interested in reading this book when I learned of its existence!

When he was only 21 years of age, Archibald McDonald was recommended to the Earl of Selkirk as a suitable man to lead the 1812 recruits both to and in their new home at Red River. Selkirk immediately recognized the young man’s potential when the two first met in Ireland, just as the settlers were about to sail. The earl held Archy back from the expedition and instead took him to London to ensure that he received further training that would be useful to him at Red River. As a result of Selkirk’s decision, McDonald left with the 1813 group to begin an eventful career in North America.

The first section of the book details McDonald’s experience on the voyage and with the fever that took so many lives, enduring the bitter winter near Churchill and the long spring trek to York Factory, struggling to deal with the wickedly clever manipulation of the settlers at the hands of the NWCo’s Duncan Cameron, and through the aftermath of the resultant destruction of the RRS in 1815. It is this section that was of most interest to me, but by the time I finished with McDonald’s involvement in RRS matters, I was curious enough to want to see how Archy progressed in his new career as a family man working west of the Rockies for the HBC. The career move was interesting, particularly when the HBC had just absorbed the NWCo. and our hero found himself working with men whose actions he came to despise at Red River!

This book is well written and very readable, although sometimes there is a hint of sentimentality that creeps into it. Jean Cole, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Archibald McDonald, has taken great care to allow her ancestor’s voice to tell his life story; she uses his journals and many letters extensively. She is obviously very fond of her subject, but perhaps not unjustifiably so; McDonald was obviously well loved by his contemporaries, and a man who accomplished a great deal wherever he happened to find himself. He was a man deeply concerned for the welfare of his neighbours as well as one whose desire was to serve his employer to the best of his ability. The result was that he led a very interesting and rich life that makes for excellent reading.

Manitoba Trip – Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon

28 January 2012

[Originally published in Lake of the Woods Area News Magazine]

The Strickland siblings Samuel and Catherine Parr have left a solid imprint in Canadian Literary history. Their sisters Elizabeth and, more notably, Agnes were well-known contemporaries on the English literary scene. But it is Susanna, married to John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie, who is most widely recognized by Canadian readers for her book Roughing it in the Bush.

The Moodies’ daughter, Agnes Dunbar, married Charles Thomas Fitzgibbon, and illustrated Catherine Parr Traill’s famous book Canadian Wildflowers (1868). The aunt-niece duo collaborated again to publish Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885).

Given the family’s propensity for writing, and their predilection for the wild spaces of Canada, is it any surprise that one of them should end up in our neck of the woods just as the railway was being built to open up the West?

The Fitzgibbons’ eldest child, Mary Agnes (born 18 June 1851, she used first one and then the other name during her career) was 25 when she ventured northwest to act as governess to a CPR contractor’s children at the Deception Lake railway camp. Her memoir of this experience, and her first book, A Trip to Manitoba (1880), notes the Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature, has been “praised as one of the best travel books relating to Manitoba”. Sadly, Northwestern Ontario readers often overlook this wonderful work because the title is now misleading. We must remember that, at the time Fitzgibbon was here, Manitoba laid claim to an area much further east than its current boundary with Ontario. So, Manitoba Trip actually provides a first-hand account of life at an important transition in our region’s history!

Open it up and relish it; Fitzgibbon’s is a wonderful narrative.

The Canadian (rear) and British First Editions

Her account illustrates the route people took if they were in a hurry to get from Toronto to Deception Lake in those days: all aboard for Sault Ste. Marie by train, then into the US and overland to the Mississippi, up that river by steamboat, over to the Red and up to Winnipeg once more by steamboat. Then travellers climbed into the waggons for a vertebrae-crushing ride over the corduroy Dawson Trail southeast to Northwest Angle, by boat to Clearwater Bay and overland to the camp at Deception Lake. Her observations of the country and the people she met along the way are personal and lively; full of humour and empathy, too.

One of the most delightful surprises for me was her account of visiting the Darlington CPR camp. Years ago I found the old railway camp site and brought it to the attention of the Regional Archaeologist. What a thrill to read a first-hand account of it alive as a community and of the canoe trip Mary made from there to landmarks I grew up haunting! It also was interesting to learn that the place names hadn’t changed over the century in time separating us.

Most of her narrative centres in Deception Lake, though. She captures with clarity and vivacity the lifestyle and the characters with whom she lived and worked or who visited that outpost. We can see them smiling around their pipe-stems and smell the tobacco smoke, too. Readers will sense that the stalwart nature and spirit of adventure Mary admires in them unconsciously reflects qualities ingrained in her own character.

Just a few people are mentioned by name, and I suspect those were changed to protect identities. Even her employers are mentioned only as Mr. and Mrs. C___ in that annoying Victorian habit. The value of this book would be increased exponentially if only she’d given us their names. Ah, well….

Another interesting element in Manitoba Trip’s history is related through one of the stories the book tells. On March 26, 1877 Fitzgibbon’s notes were burned when a fire started by sparks from the chimney engulfed the C___’s Deception Lake home. Without those notes, the author was forced to work from memory. The details she weaves into her account are convincing; her experiences must have been deeply imprinted!

Fitzgibbon remained at Deception Lake for a year and a half before returning to civilization in Southern Ontario. She refined her story for her publishers in London, England. A slightly later Canadian edition appended the subtitle “Roughing it on the Line” just to underscore her literary roots.

She continued in her mother’s footsteps by helping her great aunt Catherine Parr Traill prepare her last two books for publication: Pearls and Pebbles (1894) and Cot and Cradle Stories (1895). Fitzgibbon didn’t stop writing herself, though. In 1894 her biography of her grandfather, A Veteran of 1812; The Life of James FitzGibbon was published. It remains the book for which she is best known, although she wrote or co-wrote numerous other articles and at least four other books over the span of her career.

Throughout her life Mary maintained that women offered an important perspective and possessed unique opportunities through which to preserve history. She strove to engage her sex in what was then a male dominated area of interest. To that end, along with Sarah Anne Curzon, she established the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto in 1895 and served as its first Secretary. She certainly proved her point through Manitoba Trip. It remains one of the only preserved written accounts of its period in Lake of the Woods’ regional history – a wonderful legacy – and, unarguably, a railway history written from a very different perspective!

Detail view of the pictoral giltwork on the Canadian First Edition's front board.

Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon died on 17 May, 1915, aged 63, of a cerebral haemorrhage. She was just six months into her own presidency over her beloved historical society.

Manitoba Trip is out of print now. The original edition runs up to about $160, but print-on-demand copies are available for much less. Since there are no illustrations in the book (illustrations seldom reproduce well in print-on-demand copies), the latter option makes for a reasonably-priced cottage read!

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Travelling in the Land of my Ancestors – Louise Erdrich

14 January 2012

[Originally published in Lake of the Woods Area News Magazine]

I don’t sell a lot of new books anymore; unless they relate to this part of Northwestern Ontario my stacks are strictly used and out-of-print. As a result, publishers have forgotten about me and seldom contact me when something in my area of interest comes out. Now, it is usually my customers who tell me there is something new on the Lake out there to read.

This particular book seems to have slipped under the radar of locals. I learned about it from a Manitoban author friend, Donna Sutherland, who knew of my interest as a former archaeologist in ‘Rock Art’ – that is petroglyphs and pictographs made by First Nations people on the bedrock of the nation. Donna mentioned she was reading it on her annual sailboat tour of the Lake of the Woods.

My curiosity was aroused; Louise Erdrich is a pretty big name on the U.S. literary scene. I’ve had my eye on her for a while but never have I read one of her books. I decided this was the one that would serve as my introduction.

Erdrich’s conversational, reflective style drew me to her immediately. I felt as if I was sitting with her in her kitchen, while her toddler pottered with various benign kitchen utensils on the floor beside us. The whole book has that sense of friendly intimacy about it.

We begin as Louise packs her vehicle and sets out from Minneapolis, where she has left her bookshop in the hands of capable staff. (Yes, there’s one more thing I find we have in common: a bookshop!) Throughout her drive to Lake of the Woods, she reflects on her love for and relationship with books; her daughters, her new daughter, whose father lives on Lake of the Woods and is a member of the Big Island First Nation; and her Ojibway culture and its ancient form of ‘books,’ ‘written’ on birchbark scrolls and the rocks along the waterways they travelled. This trip to Lake of the Woods is to meet with her daughter’s father and further explore these paintings and their shared culture with him.

Although I don’t entirely agree with history as she presents it – I feel the archaeological evidence doesn’t support as lengthy an Ojibway presence in this area as she believes – I find other information she shares about current interpretations of the images fascinating and enlightening. Although her figures regarding water level changes are historically arguable, the fact that several villages were permanently drowned out by the dams of the Winnipeg River is true, and reading her Ojibway version of recent history is really worthwhile. It is presented without malice or resentment, without hatred but with natural regret and disappointment, with an eagerness to preserve what remains of the culture and to build from that.

Of less interest, perhaps, to Lake of the Woods readers – but I doubt having read this far anyone could put the book down – is the last part of her journey, to Rainy Lake and the amazing island library-sanctuary of Ernest Oberholtzer.

Books and Islands in Ojibway Country is a beautiful book, a must for any Lake of the Woods library. As you read it, you’ll find that Erdrich’s writing style brings you right to the shore, her words the warm, summer water lapping at your toes. After reading it, you will see the lake with new eyes and feel a deeper affinity toward it . Louise is one of the best writers I’ve read in a long time. She brings you along without even trying, and you will find yourself loving every aspect of the journey.

Nurse at the Top of the World Launched

15 July 2010

There is something so wonderful about being able to watch a book come to life from the first of the author’s scratchings to the finished, hot off the press, glossy covered end-result of hours, and hours, AND HOURS! of work. On the evening of July 13th, I was at the launch of such a project: Gloria Hunter-Alcock’s Nurse at the Top of the World.

Gloria is a wonderful story-teller, and this memoir of her years spent in Canada’s high Arctic as a public health nurse in the service of Indian Affairs will have you laughing, shaking your head and marvelling at a way of life now lost forever. The book is full of tales of hardship, innovation and friendship – essential experiences of a life well lived. Pick it up. Gauranteed you won’t be putting it back down easily!

Eccentric Travellers – John Keay

31 January 2009

I think the fellow who wrote this book must be a bit eccentric himself! Once I adjusted to his writing style, though, I found the accounts quite entertaining.

This is a collection of biographies of seven world travellers: Captain Philip Thicknesse, Thomas Manning, James Holeman, Charles Waterton, Joseph Wolff, William Gifford Palgrave and Dr. G. W. Leitner; men who felt the urge to go where few, if any, of their race had gone before, despite the risks. Several were, at some time in their career, missionaries, others were naturalists, one was an outlaw of sorts, another was totally blind. All of them were, to say the least, quirky.

One of the things I found very interesting about the individuals discussed was how different they were from one another. Their reasons for travelling were diverse. The way each of them considered the environments they travelled through was sometimes surprising to me. It was fascinating to see through these somewhat extreme examples of travellers, just how different we can be from each other, how much our experiences are coloured by our perceptions and expectations, and how differently we are perceived by those we meet, even though we share something so significant in common: the compulsion to travel and explore the world around us.