To the New World
- Richard White (Author)
Gentlemen Engineers: The Working Lives of Frank and Walter Shanly. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Don N. S. Gillmor (Author)
The Desire of Every Living Thing: A Search for Home. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Many books deal with immigration, with individuals and families who, in search of paradise or refuge (or something in between), come to Canada bearing, if almost unwittingly, pieces of a past life too deeply embedded to be left behind. What does come here in the way of recollections and customs often contributes markedly to the Canadian cultural loam, yet those unforgotten elements frequently prompt their inheritors or objective observers in later generations to reconsider the past. Such reviews can take on the form of a physical journey as in The desire of every living thing or, indeed, revelations of historical record, probed and analysed, as in Gentlemen Engineers.
Gillmor’s book attempts to fathom the past of his maternal grandmother (whose illegitimacy comes as a shocking revelation to the family) and maternal great-grandfather, of the Ross and Mainland families respectively. The first two chapters set the narrative in Winnipeg, with a brief glimpse of a later move by the family to Calgary. They nicely weave details of early Scottish migration to the prairies with elements of family history. Gillmor’s interest in his grandmother Georgina (Ross) Mainland takes him to Scotland to look at family sites and to search for genealogical details; here personal heritage is woven seamlessly into broader historical and modern issues as the narrator pursues his quest from the Lowlands to the Highlands (reminiscences of the battle of Culloden and the later infamous clearances come clearly into view along the way) on the road north, to Inverness, Scourie, Kinlochburn, Strathnaver, and Lerwick in the Shetlands. The mixture of the new and old works magically, offering a blend of fact, humour and imagination given immediacy by the first-person viewpoint and inclusion of various voices encountered on the way. The seventh and later chapters return the focus to Canada, to look at the history of the Selkirk settlement, hence, the background of Winnipeg and the rise ofthat city, at the loss of a family farm, the 1919 general strike and riot, Gillmor’s grandparents’ sojourn in Detroit and return with the Great Depression, and the rise of young, modernistic Calgary as the oil industry takes hold. Along the way, as the description moves to meet the present, are memories of the author’s own youth, adolescence and maturity, often moments of poignancy and anguish related with a mixture of sensitivity and resolve that has real charm. Through the account, too, there is a telling universality. Many readers, even if their families have only recently arrived in this country, will find themselves thinking of their own lineage. If there is any regret about this book, it lies in the lack of a detailed bibliography that would have been of particular value to students of social history. Gentlemen Engineers, which looks at the careers of brothers Frank and Walter Shanly in the nineteenth century, is also concerned with a family exodus, this one from Ireland in the 1830s to Ontario, where their father thought gentlemanly existence on a substantial rural estate could be pursued without great impediment. Difficulties and debts mounted, and the children moved away, Walter and later Frank turning to engineering and learning on the job rather than through any organised professional training program. As White’s fascinating, clearly organised and well written account develops, the reader is given insight into early business and construction enterprises, especially in Canada’s West and the northern United States, and the way in which both brothers perceived themselves as gentlemen despite an increasingly competitive, burgeoning world in which contracts were not always easily obtained, nor, therefore, the money which would allow them to live with security in a manner befitting their ideals. Walter got on with his life and became the family’s financial pillar, providing money for his father and for Frank, who fathered an illegitimate child in the United States, later married and had a family in Canada, continually expended vast sums well beyond his means, and died in debt, despite an admirable reputation and no mean range of accomplishments. The narrative is thoroughly documented and offers details of the day-to-day work of engineers, contractors and consultants, the roles of governmental and corporate boards, the nature of surveys in the bush, construction difficulties and practices, and the preparation of financial estimates. In one sense, this is an insightful comment on the struggle for survival of old-world, gentlemanly mores in a changing, commercial ethos; in another, it is a fascinating study of the building of some of the central components in the major transportation network which would facilitate the movement of goods and people, mostly in central Canada, including the Weiland Canal, the Grand Trunk Railway and the Intercolonial railway, as well as the Hoosac tunnel in the United States. Walter and Frank rose to senior positions. Walter’s career, his technical insights and his insistence on high maintenance standards in his projects are particularly impressive. He was sometime Manager of the Grand Trunk and a Member of Parliament (a Tory, on Sir John A. Macdonald’s side of the House), though he did not always vote with his party. Fully annotated, White’s book offers a remarkably full and clearly arranged bibliography, along with an index and a selection of pertinent illustrations.
- Family History by Claire Wilkshire
Books reviewed: Hard Light by Michael Crummey and Memoirs from Away: A New Found Land Girlhood by Helen M. Buss and Margaret Clarke
- From There to Here by Colin Nicholson
Books reviewed: Always Give a Penny to a Blind Mare: A Memoir by Eric Wright
- Charlie's Choice by Lawrence Mathews
Books reviewed: Baltimore's Mansion by Wayne Johnston
- Orphans and Ghost-towns by Gernot R. Wieland
Books reviewed: The Accidental Orphan by Constance Horne, The Doctor's Apprentice by Ann Walsh, and The Brideship by Joan Weir
- Imaginary Geographies by N. E. Currie
Books reviewed: A World Under Sentence: John Richardson and the Interior by Dennis Duffy and Hamatsa: The Enigma of Cannibalism on the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim McDowell
MLA: Gooch, Bryan N. S. To the New World. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #168 (Spring 2001), Mostly Drama. (pg. 145 - 146)
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