Tag Archives: History

Katherine Govier – The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel.

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The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel – Katherine Govier (2016, HarperAvenue, Toronto)

I admit the only reason I picked up Katherine Govier’s book The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel was because it is set in the Rocky Mountains, in a town called Canmore (called Gateway in the novel) – I live very close to the area and have always been fascinated with the history of it.  Did I make the right choice? I sure did!

This is a long book, a heavyweight that unspools at just the right pace right up until just before the ending.  The story pivots on the mystery of the disappearance, in 1911, of the Hodgson expedition while hunting for fossils in the mountains. Every event that takes place over the next several decades, over more than one generation, is influenced by this significant loss.  I loved the journeys of the characters involved: Herbie Wishart, the former poacher turned mountain guide, a man with dark secrets and obsessed with the truth; Gwen Hodgson, orphaned by the tragedy and burdened with questions about her family and her place in the world; Helen Wagg, the writer and representative of the newly-formed Parks Canada, tasked with spinning the mystique of the Rocky Mountains for the world; and Iona, the rebellious daughter of her Quaker mother and wandering father, offering up secrets of her own to her family in her old age.

Of course, Govier’s book is a work of fiction, but it was sometimes hard to separate story from fact – a testament to her skill at making the reader believe in her characters, their motivations, and the way time unfolds over the span of many decades. There are so many wonderful details in the book that make it as authentic as possible – there is no doubt Govier spent countless hours doing research (it surely helps that she lives in Canmore part time).

For some reason, however, the ending felt rushed to me – even the sentences reflected this, with many turning into choppy phrases.  I suspect this was an intentional stylistic move – after all, time seems to fly as one advances into old age, as Iona does.  It could also express the way modern living is characterized by fast-paced busyness.  Still, it appears an interesting choice to shutter the entirety of the book’s mysteries in a few brief paragraphs, when the book itself is over 400 pages long. (I’m not sure what the alternative could have been; the story couldn’t go on forever, even if I wanted it to).

Beautifully told and highly recommended.

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L.D. Cross – Code Name Habbakuk.

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Code Name Habbakuk:  A Secret Ship Made of Ice – L.D. Cross (2012, Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., British Columbia)

Sometimes history reads a lot like fiction.

One of the strangest experiments the Allies attempted during World War II was the construction of a prototype of an aircraft carrier made from ice.  From concept to build, the story of Habbakuk is riveting and slightly off-kilter – we have a (mad) scientist with a wild idea, a dashing and powerful military sponsor, and a desperate British Prime Minister determined to save the lives of his soldiers and their allies from the German U-boats.  There is an important Alberta connection to this story as well, which is particularly fascinating to me.   Even if you’re not a military history buff, you’ll enjoy this quick snapshot in time.

James Essinger – Ada’s Algorithm.

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Ada’s Algorithm – James Essinger (2014, Melville House Publishing, London)

Did the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron really “launch the digital age,” as this book from British writer James Essinger claims?  Whether or not Ada Lovelace truly wrote (recognized?) the first computer program, there is no denying her influence on the work of inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage, a close friend and creator of the Difference and Analytical Engines (which, although never realized in his lifetime, were prototypes of early computers).

Dominated by her intelligent, forceful mother and shadowed for her entire life by the memory of her very famous, very absent father, Ada’s astounding mathematical prowess was constantly tempered by the fact that she was a woman living in what was very much a man’s world – she simply was not taken seriously by academia, not 150 years ago, and not even until recently (and there are still detractors).   Essinger’s well-researched book enthusiastically immerses the reader in Ada’s time and place, chronicling her life (including dishing the dirt on all of her relatives and friends) and her work (in particular her published Notes, about Babbage’s Analytical Engine).  This meeting of history and computer technology is a fascinating read.

Dick Kreck – Hell On Wheels: Wicked Towns Along the Union Pacific Railroad.

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Hell On Wheels: Wicked Towns Along the Union Pacific Railroad – Dick Kreck (2013, Fulcrum Publishing, Colorado)

For train buffs and fans of American history, Dick Kreck has assembled a well-researched chronological account of the building of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1860s. Kreck details how the construction of the railroad burst open the West for migrants and travellers, as trains overtook covered wagons and stagecoaches as an expeditious means of transportation across the vast country.  His focus is on the wild, often-temporary towns nicknamed Hell on Wheels that sprang up as the UP snaked its way west, and the book is chockfull of excerpts from historical documents, including diaries and letters, describing the lawless, anything-goes nature of the transients that followed the rails.

A fascinating account all around, Hell on Wheels would nevertheless have benefitted from some tight editing: several sentences and paragraphs are repeatedly paraphrased, which frustrates the reader and causes the book to seem rambling at times.