An evening spent with old friends

Í'm getting close to filling the web pages of this site. Last night was a trip down memory lane as I listed the books that have helped me write the Jake and Eli stories.  It felt like a quiet evening hanging out with old friends -- some of whom I haven't seen in a long time.

But there they all were, piled up beside me on the living room sofa.  I took each one and opened it to the cover page to take down the information about the publisher and the date of publication. Occasionally I flicked through them to remember just what a buzz it had been to absorb the information they contained.

I've made a stab at the first of two lists. It's geared toward teachers and scholars who want to do some serious research into Jake and Eli's world.  In a few days, I'll create another list of books recommended for younger readers. 

The two lists will intersect with some titles.  When it came out in the early 1980s, Pierre Berton's two-volume history of the War of 1812 was a Canadian best-seller and for good reason. Berton and his researchers did an excellent job of bringing together the facts, and his compelling narrative makes these books a good place to start for the young reader as well as adults who want to learn more.

In fact, I vividly remember my reaction when the books came out and I read about the civil war that was fought among Canadians in the Niagara frontier in 1813. This is not the way the War of 1812 had been taught to me at school.  I had no idea that Canadians fought on the American side, and I'd never heard of Joe Willcocks. I wondered why this dramatic part of our history had been suppressed. The seed was planted for a story I would like to write someday.

I was very fortunate in those days to be working on my Master's thesis under the direction of one of Canada's great scholars of military history, the late Syd Wise.  A few years after graduation, I mentioned my interest in Willcocks to Professor Wise. He told me I should talk to one of his other Master's students -- someone who was compiling a list of the Canadian Volunteers and assessing their effectiveness and impact on the course of the war.  And so I arranged to meet Don Graves.

This was a few years before Donald E. Graves earned a reputation as the foremost military historian of the War of 1812. We talked and shared ideas. He had a very dark view of Willcocks'character and motivations and at one of our subsequent encounters (at a re-enactment at Pioneer Village in Morrisburg) he harrumphed, "You're not making him a hero, are you?!"

Willcocks was indeed a very complex man, and I don't know how to answer Don's question even today, but I will say that his books have been most imformative about Jake and Eli's world, and his unpublished Master's thesis remains to this day the most thorough source of information about the Canadian Volunteers and their leaders.

Many of the books listed highlight particular aspects of the war, such as individual battles or elements of social history. One book has been particularly influential in shaping the story arc of Jake and Eli:  Carl Benn's The Iroquois in the War of 1812. The role of First Nations in the war cannot be overestimated and, while many books have been written about Tecumseh and the war on the Western frontier, very little has been said until now about John Norton's remarkable contribution to keeping the Grand River Iroquois on the side of the Crown.  I've been in correspondence with Professor Benn and have been very encouraged by his news that he will soon be coming out with a book about Norton.

So much has been written about the War of 1812 that covers familiar ground. I can go on quite a rant about this. With all respect due to Wes Turner and his biography of Brock, or James Laxer and his book about Brock and Tecumseh, or the many books that tell Laura Secord's story, we don't need more of these. We need books that tell the stories not yet told.

There are books to be written about the occupation of Niagara -- about the way the male residents of Newark were rounded up and shipped to the United States -- about what is was like for a piece of Canada to be under enemy occupation. There are books to be written about the political tensions in the Upper Canada Assembly before the war, and how that shaped the crisis of loyalty for so many. There are books to be written about Joe Willcocks -- the greatest traitor in Canadian history. There was a time when parents could send their recalcitrant children to bed with the warning, "You'd better behave or Joe Willcocks will get you." He was Upper Canada's bogeyman, but his name is scarcely remembered today.

I hope that some of the young readers of the Jake and Eli stories may, like I did, turn their curousity as young readers into a lifetime of inquiry. And some of them may one day help fill in more of the colour and detail of Jake and Eli's world.