Books by John Boyko, Robert McGill, and Dr. Virginia Winters
A round-up of some recent books by alumni authors
Back in his high school years, John Boyko, Ed’80, disliked history classes, and so it’s fair to say that he made an unusual – and odd – career choice.
Boyko, who earned degrees at Trent and McMaster before graduating from the Queen’s Faculty of Education, is a history teacher and administrator at Lakefield College School, near Peterborough, ON. What’s more, because he’s someone with passion and a flair for making a subject come to life, he’s also the author of five critically acclaimed books. His latest is Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation (Knopf Canada, $35). This fast-paced, deftly written work of popular history has earned glowing reviews both in Canada and the U.S. It’s also selling briskly on both sides of the border, 2013 being the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
So how did Boyko’s conversion from history-class hater to history lover come about? A good question, he says.
“I found high school history classes boring beyond measure,” Boyko recalls. “They were mostly about memorizing names and dates for exams, and I hated that.”
But, he hastens to add, where history as a subject is concerned … that was “a different matter altogether.”
Hamilton-born, Peterborough-raised, Boyko is the eldest of four boys. His mother was an avid reader who enjoyed history as a subject. There were always piles of books around the house, and talk of history and current events was regular fare at the family dinner table. In the Boyko household, history wasn’t the stuff of rote learning and dusty tomes, but of rousing good stories filled with larger-than-life heroes and villains who were involved in battles, mayhem, mystery, and romance.
“All historians worth their salt are storytellers,” says Boyko.
That’s true in spades where he’s concerned, and Blood and Daring is a prime example. In the hands of a less inventive and passionate writer Canada’s involvement in and response to the Civil war probably would have been a dry recitation of names and dates. But the “War Between the States” was an intense, traumatic conflict that in four years of fighting, 1861-65, left more than 600,000 dead and many more wounded and shook the U. S. of A. to its very core. Boyko makes it the stuff of high drama. The fact that some 40,000 Canadians fought in the war – most of them in Union blue, against slavery – provided an added element of interest for Boyko, who has been intrigued by the Civil War all his life.
He’s visited the Gettysburg battlefield “about 20 times,” and he can recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with emotion – something he does dressed up as Honest Abe and orating before the students of his history class. “That really gets their attention,” he says with a laugh.
Boyko adopted a similarly unorthodox approach to the writing of Blood and Daring. He has framed his narrative around the stories of six “guides” who were involved in the war or were deeply affected by it. Three of them are well known: John A. Macdonald, George Brown, and U.S. Secretary of State William Seward. The other three guides are obscure figures: John Anderson, a runaway slave from Missouri who found refuge in Canada; Sara Emma Edmonds, a woman who pretended to be a man in order to serve in the Union army; and, Jacob Thompson, a slave-owning Mississippi politician who set about establishing a spy network and stirring up mischief in Canada.
In telling the stories of these individuals, Boyko also explains how the momentous events that reshaped America also played a vital role in fostering the conditions that in 1867 led to Confederation, with Macdonald and Brown playing key roles.
Boyko notes that American readers are as surprised as Canadians are to learn how involved Canada was in the Civil War and the impact that conflict had on this country’s push for nationhood. When Boyko sent a draft of his manuscript to Princeton professor emeritus James McPherson, a leading Civil War historian who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his own writing, McPherson was enthusiastic in his praise.
“He told me there’d been a gap in the history of the Civil War that needed to be filled,” says Boyko, “and that my book fills it. I’m really proud of that.” - KEN CUTHBERTSON, Artsci'74, Law'83, QAR Editor
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The runner as writer
Robert McGill, ArtSci’99, knows that writing, like long-distance running, requires persistence. The winner of the 1998-99 Jenkins Trophy, one of Queen’s oldest student athletic awards, logged thousands of kilometers running along Kingston’s scenic waterfront. But the recent release of his second novel, Once We Had a Country (Knopf Canada, $24.95), marks the end of different kind of marathon: six years of writing, rewriting, and immersing himself in the history of the tense waning days of the Vietnam War.
The novel begins in the summer of 1972 as Maggie Dunne, an American schoolteacher, follows her draft-dodger boyfriend Fletcher to a farm near Niagara Falls with the ambition of starting a commune and living off the land. But the young lovers’ idealism begins to falter amidst the tensions of life in a new country and the disappearance of Maggie’s estranged father, a missionary in Laos. It’s a coming-of-age story not only about Maggie, but of Canada as “a peacekeeping nation, a progressive alternative to the United States,” McGill says.
However, the novel doesn’t gloss over Canada’s periphery role in the conflict. “When I wrote this novel, I wanted to honour people’s memories of the time, but also challenge the various stereotypes that have become dominant,” McGill says.
Growing up, McGill was no stranger to Queen’s; his parents, Bruce and Marcy (Cook) McGill, both PhysEd’72 and Ed’73, met on campus and were married before fourth year. Growing up, the family made the trip from Wiarton, ON – to Kingston every few years to celebrate Homecoming. “Even before I came to Queen’s, I had affection for the place,” McGill recalls.
Introverted and soft-spoken, McGill majored in English and was very much invested in his identity as an athlete. It was a third-year creative writing course with Carolyn Smart, who became a good friend, that cemented his future; “I knew that writing fiction was what I really wanted to do.”
Awarded a Rhodes scholarship in his graduating year, McGill earned a Master’s degree in philosophy from Oxford and a Master’s of Creative Writing degree from the University of East Anglia.
McGill, who completed his PhD in English at the U of T in 2006, wrote most of Once We Had a Country, while he was a junior fellow with the Harvard Society of Fellows between 2006 and 2009, where his outsider’s perspective probed him to think about “what really distinguishes Canadians from Americans.”
Now a professor of creative writing at the U of T, McGill recalls, “At Queen’s, I studied with several professors whose teaching has stayed with me. Not just what they taught me, but how they taught me,” says McGill. “They’ve influenced my own teaching to a great extent.” – JANE SWITZER, ARTSCI’10
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The doctor loves a good mystery
Ottawa Valley native Virginia (Wurm) Winters, Meds’70, grew up in a family and a community obsessed with books, reading and storytelling.
Her high school English teacher, Pat Bolger, encouraged Winters to read beyond the curriculum, and to write. So the good teacher may have been disappointed when her charge went off to Queen’s to study medicine, not literature. Little did either of them know that a career in pediatric medicine would prove to be pretty fair preparation for writing fiction.
“Getting beyond the ‘what’ to the ‘why’ – the essence of medicine – helped me to be a better writer,” says Winters, who has authored a series of mystery novels. “Medicine also gave me a perspective on the lives of others at times of stress and worry and pain. That’s invaluable to any writer. I don’t mean lifting the details of patients’ lives to include in works of fiction, but using the insight they give into the human condition to create characters who are not just cardboard cutouts, but who step off the page into reality. At least I hope they do.”
After Queen’s, marriage, and residency in Toronto (pediatrics for Winters, internal medicine for her husband George Winters, Meds’71), the couple moved to Lindsay, ON, where they set up their medical practices and started a family. When there was time – aside from her family responsibilities, busy practice, medical administrative duties, a stint as chief of medical staff at Lindsay’s Ross Memorial Hospital, recording texts and literature for the blind, promoting local French immersion, and fund raising for a new arena – Winters wrote some poetry and a mystery novel called Murderous Roots (1998). However, at the time, she couldn’t find a publisher. Short stories followed. Various writing contests, circles, retreats, and workshops later, a much-revised version of Murderous Roots finally made its way into print with an American publisher (Write Words/Cambridge Books, 2010). Winters followed up with another mystery novel, The Facepainter Murders, which was also published in the U.S..
When she retired in 2010, Winters set to work on the third book in what she’s now calling her “Dangerous Journeys” series. No Motive for Murder appeared in the summer of 2012.
Encouraged by her 2012 win in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly (London, England) short story competition, for a story called “The Decision”, Winter is now working on more short stories and another novel. “I hope to find a Canadian publisher for this novel,” she says. – BRIAN MCFADZEN, ARTS‘68, MA‘71
The Dangerous Journeys series is available at amazon.com and writewordsinc.com.
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NEW ON THE BOOKSHELF
SARA BANNERMAN, MUS’98, has written The Struggle for Canadian Copyright: Imperialism to Internationalism, 1842-1971 (UBC Press, $95), The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, first signed in 1886, is still the cornerstone of international copyright law, but the Bannerman book reveals the deep roots of conflict in the international copyright system over the years. Sara argues that Canada’s signing of the 1886 convention can be viewed in the context of a former British colony’s efforts to find a place on the world stage. The author is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications and Multimedia Studies at McMaster U.
ANDREW BINKS, ARTSCI’82, has published his second novel, Strip (Nightwood Editions, $21.95), an unsettling yet inspiring story of a male stripper and his floundering dance career.
FRASER BROWNLEE, LAW’73, is the author of Twenty Eighty-Four (Baico Publishing Inc.), a twist on Orwell’s classic 1984. Fraser imagines the world a century after Orwell’s tale, in the age of terrorism.
ERIC CROUSE, PHD’97, has written his fourth book. The Cross and Reaganomics: Conservative Christians Defending Ronald Reagan (Lexington Books, $65) discusses conservative Christians in the United States as champions of free-market economics.
CYRIL DABYDEEN, MA’74, MPA’75, has a new collection of short stories in bookstores: My Multi-Ethnic Friends & Other Stories (Guernica Editions, $20). From the jungles of Guyana to the urban jungle of Ottawa, the stories highlight the struggles of immigrants living in a society that talks multiculturalism but doesn’t always walk it. His characters straddle many worlds, but tend to feel comfortable in none.
BILL GLOVER, SC’72, has published his second book, Friends of a Mad Miner (Cranberry Tree Press, $19.95), a collection of 15 non-fiction stories about mining characters past and present in the Krkland Lake area of Northern Ontario. Bill writes: “Some of these ‘rock stars’ have had their 15 minutes of fame, while others still cry out from the grave for justice.” This book is available from the Museum of Northern History in Kirkland Lake or directly from the author through email@example.com.
GERALD IRWIN, MEDS’55, has chronicled both sad and funny stories from his early medical career in It’s Full of Sandwiches (AuthorHouse). The author is a retired Professor of Radiology at SUNY Stony Brook, NY.
TUDOR ROBINS, ARTSCI’94, has published her first young adult novel, Objects in Mirror (Red Deer Press, $12.95). The story follows a teen-aged competitive horseback rider as she struggles with her intensifying eating disorder, while trying to win back the chance to jump, and show, the horse she loves. Tudor is an Ottawa-based author, a writing workshop leader, and a blogger on writing themes at www.tudorrobins.ca.
CATHERINE HIGGS, ARTSCI’84, is the author of Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa (Ohio University Press, $22.95). She traces the early-20th-century journey of Englishman Joseph Burtt to the Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe (the “chocolate islands”), through Angola and Mozambique, and finally to British Southern Africa. Cadbury Brothers chocolatiers hired Burtt to determine whether the cocoa it was buying from the islands had been harvested by slave labourers forcibly recruited from Angola, an allegation that became one of the huge scandals of the early colonial era. The author is Associate Professor of History and Vice-Chair of Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee.
JIM WADDINGTON, SC’63, and his wife Sue have created a coffee table book called In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven, published this fall (Goose Lane Editions, $55) and called “splendid” by reviewers. For the past 36 years, the pair have been locating and photographing the scenes that inspired the Group of Seven painters almost a century ago, often hiking or canoeing to reach their vantage points. Their book compares the paintings with photos of their real-life locations.
Long-time friends MARYANNE WAINMAN, ARTSCI’10, and JESS KOEHN, ARTSCI’11, have collaborated on their first children’s book, Lawrence, The Story of a Hedgehog Who Wanted to Fly (Epic Press, $15.99). The story, written by Maryanne and illustrated by Jess, explores two themes: the importance of children believing in themselves and the power of kindness