Once upon a time, twenty-three years ago actually, I worked as the daytime babysitter for Stephen and Jeannie Kimber. At the time he was a journalism professor at the University of King's College in Halifax, and together they also published a magazine called Cities. It was pure delight to work for the Kimber's. I loved their three children so much. It was such a rich time of my life.
We kept in touch over all these years, though it had been awhile since I'd seen everyone when I attended Stephen's book launch two weeks ago. Click here for our Time Warp.
The whole family was there except for the oldest son, who's on the west coast these days. Twenty-three years later, Stephen is still a professor at King's. Well, okay, now he's the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism. Whatever.
Since it was a book launch, I got my very own copy of Loyalists and Layabouts. Narrative nonfiction is Stephen's specialty, and opening the pages of this book is the type of thing H.G. Wells dreamed of when he wrote The Time Machine, but without actually disturbing the time continuum.
1 - Loyalists and Layabouts is a RandomHouse release and is his seventh publication. Stephen is also the author of:
Sailors, Slackers and Blind Pigs: Halifax at War
Not Guilty: The Trial of Gerald Regan
Flight 111: The Tragedy of the Swissair Crash
More Than Just Folks
2 - Part of RandomHouse's Doubleday Canada imprint, Stephen's hardcover history book is part of a newer genre known as narrative nonfiction. "Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction," says Lee Gutkind, an author and editor who has helped to shape this genre from journalism into something with its own parameters.
3 - The first thing we encounter is the Dramatis Personae, where we see the names and descriptions of forty-one people whose stories beckon from the pages of the book. I don't know about you, but I think Dramatis Personae is so much cooler than List of Characters. And I suppose because each person profiled in the book was an actual - not fictional - person, they can't be considered 'characters.' They're most definitely an assortment of individuals who seem capable of rounding a corner and smacking right into the reader.
4 - The events of the book begin with the fall-out of the American Revolution. All those who'd remained loyal to Britain became instant pariahs in their rebel colonies. Mobs broke into fine homes bent on tarring and feathering, or riding the hated Tories on the 'rail'. Men formerly of means began meeting at secret and exclusive clubs. One group in particular began forming a plan to move a sizable number of Loyalists to the nearest British outpost on this side of the Atlantic.
5 - Nova Scotia in the early 1780's had expelled the French population a generation ago, resettling the Acadian farmland with New Englanders. The Loyalists who met at Roubalet's tavern called themselves the Port Roseway Associates and planned to sail an assortment of tradesmen and artisans to carve their ideal of what New York could have been out of the wilderness.
6 - Stephen uses the actual diary entries, memoirs or letters written by those who appear in the narrative. He peppers the quotes so effortlessly into the events, we can hear the actual voices of people like Sir Guy Carleton - General George Washington's British adversary. Carleton was in charge of British forces and met with Washington in this capacity to hammer out terms of British withdrawal from the newly minted United States of America. A particular sticking point were the Certificates of Freedom which Carleton granted to black Loyalists. These spelled out plainly that 'the said negro has hereby his Excellency Sir Guy Carleton's permission to go to Nova Scotia or wherever else he may think proper.'
"Washington had begun by reminding Carleton of the terms of Article 7 of the peace treaty, which forbade the British from 'carrying away any negroes.' Carleton responded [that] those Washington called slaves could no longer be considered the 'property' of anyone because they'd already been freed by British proclamation.
'No interpretation,' Carleton imperiously informed Washington, 'could be put on the articles [of the treaty] inconsistent with prior engagements binding the national honour which must be kept with all colours.' "
7 - Making the fateful decision to relocate to Shelburne speaks more of the desperate hopes of the refugees than any clear-headed thinking.
"There was no Shelburne in Shelburne. No one had even been sent ahead to survey the townsite or lay out the lots; Benjamin Marston and the other surveyors arrived just days ahead of the first 3000 clamouring refugees. Shelburne was an idea, an improbable dream of a new and better New York that would become 'an ornament to the British Empire,' a beacon of hope in a bleak time. But hope blinded them to the reality that their Mecca was nothing more than a spit of rocky shoreline bordered by impenetrable forest and icy water. The would-be settlers were selective too in who they listened to, selective even in what they heard. They heard the province's surveyor-general, for example, when he told them Shelburne offered 'the best situation in the province for trade, fishing and farming,' but they closed their ears when he qualified that with the fact that they should 'expect indifferent land in every part of the province.' "
8 - The full title of Stephen's book is Loyalists and Layabouts The Rapid Rise and Faster Fall of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, 1783-1792
For a Nova Scotian, the idea that Shelburne could ever have been considered as a rival to New York is roll-on-the-floor funny. The Shelburne of today has a population of 2000 people, while Halifax, the capital city is home to 373,000. Almost puny, when one considers today's New York City (8,214,000.)
But in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Shelburne swelled from a few hardy souls to a population of 10,000. New York's population by 1790 was 33,000. We can perhaps forgive the heady days of Shelburne's boom town mentality when considering that it was already a third of the size of New York.
9 - I really, really love Stephen's ability to take a nebulous concept like 'free black settlement' and show us what it actually took to make a home there. Five of the people profiled in Loyalists and Layabouts are free blacks and former slaves who originally made their way to Shelburne but ultimately helped to found the nearby black settlement of Birchtown, named for Brigadier-General Samuel Birch. His signature appeared on the majority of Certificates of Freedom held by those who finally turned their labour to their own interests.
Today Birchtown is home to the Black Loyalist Heritage Society.
10 - Stephen really knows how to end each chapter with a hook. Like this, for example:
"As one jaded loyalist soldier wrote in his diary, the colonists 'hoped that the emanations of the leaden George [a toppled statue] will make as deep impressions in the bodies of his red-coated and Tory subjects...as the super-abundant emanations of the folly and pretended goodness of the real George have made upon their minds.'
The war for America had seemed to stutter into existence over the course of more than a dozen years as the legalistic feint and parry of British act and colonial resistance slowly but inexorably gave way to harsher measures on both sides. Had the tipping point been Lexington and Concord? Or had it come a few months later, in August 1775, when the British government ignored the Americans' Olive Branch Petition and issued its own Proclamation of Rebellion, declaring the American colonies in a state of 'open and avowed rebellion,' and calling on its subjects to 'withstand and suppress it.' Or had it actually come on July 4, 1776, the day the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence?
For Benjamin Marston, Joseph Durfee, David George, and thousands of their fellow loyalist colonists, trying to determine when disagreement had turned to rebellion no longer mattered. The fact was that the Americans had now - symbolically, at least - toppled their king. And none of their lives would ever be the same again."
11 - Stephen follows a wide range of figures in his narrative, from David George, a freed slave who became a Baptist preacher, to Edward Winslow, a Mayflower descendent who petitioned Sir Guy Carleton for grants of land due to the British regiments on behalf of the men who had fought for the king. We meet Margaret Watson, a camp follower (army wife) whose first husband died in battle and who remarried his friend, a fellow captured soldier. And John Parr, Governor of Nova Scotia, a veteran of the Battle of Culloden in the Scottish highlands, a career soldier and eventual colonel promoted to Major of the Tower of London, and then on to the governorship of Nova Scotia.
12 - He has a Whatever Happened To... section at the close of the book, detailing the fates of fifteen of those we get to know throughout the course of the book.
13 - I leave you with an excerpt. Enjoy!
"Benjamin Marston stood slack-jawed on the wharf, appalled at the parade of human misery before him: 'men and women, boys and girls all together, each as naked as God made them, saving a piece of coarse linen just to cover what nature most commonly dictates to human creatures to hide.' Each had a wooden identity tag around his or her neck. Benjamin had never seen a slave auction before and, watching now - wanting not to, but mesmerized by the awfulness of it all - he hoped he would never have to see such a thing again.
Benjamin was no stranger to slaves. His family had had a few of its own at Marston's Farm, and he encountered them in the finer homes of Halifax, too. But it was another thing entirely to watch human beings be sold in a marketplace.
For the first time, he tried to imagine what it would be like to be on the other side of slavery's lash. 'If the Misses B and L and S and G, with the young gentlemen of those families, should be torn from their country and carried into perpetual servitude, we should see and feel the atrociousness, the dreadfulness of the wrong. But as it is only Miss Yawyaw and Miss Pawpee and the young gentlemen Messrs. Quashee and Quomino, whose skins are black, whose hair stout and curled, whose noses flat and lips thick, why we think there can be no great harm in it.'
Boston King knew all about that which Benjamin Marston could only imagine. He had been born a slave but was now free - or as free as it was possible for a black man to be in America in these turbulent times. He was, initially at least, an almost accidental adherent to the king's cause, as were thousands of other black Loyalists. Sometime in 1780 his loyalty was put to the test.
Fifty horses! All of them stolen from the British army, probably a few at a time, and then hidden on this island by the traitorous militia officer who'd laid claim to Boston too!
So much had happened since yesterday morning when he had left the British camp to catch a few fish to fry for Captain Grey's breakfast. By the time he returned an hour or so later, his regiment had gone. Captain Lewes was in charge of the small band of Rocky Mount Militia the regular army had left behind to disband the camp. Two hours later, Boston and Lewes and the others set off together, ostensibly in search of the rest of the regiment.
But as they were marching, Lewes surprised Boston with an out-of-nowhere question. 'How will you like me to be your master,' he'd said, more a statement of fact than a question.
'But I'm Captain Grey's servant,' Boston answered, hoping he sounded less indignant than he felt.
'I have been long enough in the English service,' Lewes confided, 'and I'm determined to leave them.'
Leave them? Desert was what he meant. Captain Lewes was going to turn his back on the British king, the same king who had given Boston King, a poor black slave from South Carolina, his freedom and his name. Boston King was indignant. And he let Captain Lewes know it.
But Lewes was not about to be criticized by an uppity coloured boy barely out of slavery. 'If you do not behave well,' he informed Boston sharply, 'I will put you in irons and give you a dozen stripes every morning!'
He was Grey's servant, not his slave. It was an important distinction for Boston in this new and different world of freedom, but one he knew was lost on the traitorous Captain Lewes. So Boston bided his time, waiting for his chance to escape. It would come soon enough.
The morning after they'd left the British camp, Lewes had ordered Boston and a small boy to wade across to a nearby island and fetch him some horses. Boston soon discovered that the horses had been stolen from the British. When he and the boy brought them back to the captain, Lewes immediately mounted one and went off on his own. Which is when Boston slipped away, too. In the other direction. He had to find his regiment, inform Captain Grey that Lewes not only had deserted but also was the one who'd taken the king's horses. He hoped the British would believe the story that he, Boston King, a freed black man, a loyal subject of the king, had to tell them."
- Stephen Kimber, 2008
Join me next week for a review of Wylie Kinson's Law of Averages. Then I'll be featuring Resisting Command by Jennifer Leeland on June 12th, and Fox's Bride by Amy Ruttan on June 19th.