IROQUOIS – “I plan murders for a living.”
Author Maggie Wheeler drew plenty of laughter as she introduced herself to a South Dundas audience gathered to hear her speak at the Iroquois Public Library on Saturday, October 21.
“That is a line I’ve had a lot of fun with,” the noted mystery writer and historian said, then added straight-faced, “but I do not do contract work.”
The author of several well-received and popular crime novels featuring the amateur sleuth Farran MacKenzie, Maggie Wheeler was in Iroquois to discuss her latest novel, All My Worldly Goods, just out this year.
In her latest novel, two of the writer’s most passionate historical interests have coincided.
Wheeler has consistently used events and changes surrounding the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s as a framework for her earlier mysteries. However, in All My Worldly Goods, she has also introduced another historical element into the plot: the lives and times of British Home Children, more than 100,000 of whom were shipped to Canada from the late 1890s right up until 1927.
Delving into these two topics during research for her book fascinated the author.
“The reality is that something like the Seaway could never be built in this day and age. But at the time, it was the single greatest engineering project in North America in the 20th century.” At any one time, thousands of outside workers lived and toiled along the Seaway.
Naturally much has been written about the construction of the massive dams and the extraordinary commercial waterway jointly undertaken by Canada and the United States.
However, as she made clear in her talk, Wheeler strongly feels that there is actually “another story”, that lies underneath tales of the engineering “wonder of the world.”
It’s a story that has been largely ignored.
This is the story of the land and the coastlines, and of those people who “stood in the way” of the project, and were swept aside in the name of progress. She believes that people moved by the Seaway “lost generational homes and farms, their waterfront and their collective and social history. In the truest sense of the phrase, they became a group of ‘native born Canadians who can never go home again.’”
The other story that fascinates Maggie Wheeler, and has been incorporated into her new mystery, involves another group who generally “did not get to go home again”, the British Home Children.
While she believes that ultimately organizations like Bernardos were trying to “do the best they could”, the reality is that poor and destitute children from the British Isles were scooped up and shipped to uncertain fates in the far reaches of the Commonwealth.
Wheeler’s own grandmother was a British Home Child, and like so many of those children, her grandmother never told any of her descendants anything about her life before Canada or what it was like to be a BHC, (often contemptuously dismissed by many Canadians as “street arabs” and “gypsies.”)
Supported by a Canadian Council for the Arts grant, Wheeler was able to go to England to research the extensive Bernardos’ files, to learn in detail who these children really were, and what life in Canada did for – and sometimes to – them.
The two historical strains find their way into Farran MacKenzie’s life when she undertakes to look into the mysterious death of her maternal grandmother, a woman called Evie, a BHC who was “run down” on a dark night in 1953. The driver was never found.
As she looks into Evie’s background, Farran begins to realize that there are huge, unexplained gaps. In fact, following the birth of Farran’s mother, there is no paper trail of Evie at all: it’s as if she never actually existed.
And then, Farran uncovers another murder.
Did the confusion and social disruptions during the construction of the Seaway present a “golden opportunity” for someone to get away with the perfect murder?
All My Worldly Goods ends, the author laughs, “on a cliffhanger”, which to excited readers suggests that Maggie Wheeler, “the Seaway Valley’s Queen of Crime,” is already at work on a new mystery novel.
“I believe my books may have helped people to get talking, and to start sharing the stories about how the Seaway really changed their world,” she said.
Wheeler had one further, rather chilling observation.
“At a time when cement for the Project dams was being poured 24/7, well, organized crime knew a good thing when it saw it. It was undoubtedly a splendid opportunity for murder.”