From the Introduction…
By Stephen Kimber
I am not now, nor ever have been an historian. By training, I’m a journalist; by inclination, a storyteller.
I knew from the beginning of this project that trying to translate the usual fragmentary, sometimes contradictory, often dubious details of the lives of ordinary people, all of them long dead, into a narrative that captured not only the reality of their lives but also the larger truth of how and why a 225-year-old city rose and fell within the historic blink of an eye–and do all of that without playing fast and loose with the known facts–was going to be challenging, and probably frustrating.
And it was.
As a journalist, I’m accustomed to writing about recent events. When I do that, I have the luxury of interviewing flesh-and-blood human beings. Later, if I can’t make sense of some sequence of events, or simply want to know more about an interesting incident that I’d missed or that they’d casually passed over the first time we talked, I simply pick up the telephone, call, and ask them.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ask the dearly departed to clarify or elaborate when you discover something in their life-on-paper that puzzles or confuses. You’re stuck with what you know and–just as importantly–what you don’t.
I still don’t know enough about the women of Shelburne, for example. When I began my research, I had hoped to discover a strong female character whose story could become part of this book. There undoubtedly were many of them in Shelburne. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the time to write about their experiences because they were too busy living them, or if they did, those diaries and letters have largely long since been lost to history.
During the course of my research, I came tantalizingly close on a couple of occasions to finding the female character I was seeking. Margaret Cowper-Fletcher-Watson-Cutt, for example, could have made a fascinating central character. She certainly lived an extraordinary life. In the mid-1770s, she and her two young children followed her soldier-husband from London across the ocean to America, where she witnessed his death in a revolutionary battle. Then both of her sons died. A few years later, she married again, to a man who’d been her late husband’s cellmate while they were prisoners of war. Margaret had two more children by him. In 1783, she and her second family became part of the historic exodus of refugees who sailed from New York to Shelburne. They’d barely begun to settle into their new lives when husband number two died, probably of a heart attack, leaving Margaret to fend for herself once again. Which she did by marrying a third time. That husband died too. Margaret, having had so little luck with husbands, eventually became an innkeeper in Shelburne. There is undoubtedly the makings of a novel in her Perils-of-Pauline life. But there aren’t enough letters, diaries, and accounts to make a full-fledged non-fiction narrative out of all those fascinating facts. I know. I tried.
Just as I did with Mary Swords, who was the mother of two young Shelburne printers. For more than a decade after the war, Mary relentlessly pressed her seemingly reasonable claims for compensation for her wartime losses, which included a husband and another son, as well as valuable property. No one listened. Despite that, she continued to be the most resolute and steadfast of Loyalists. Until she wasn’t. In 1795, she had a sudden and unexplained–and now inexplicable–change of heart and swore an oath of allegiance to the new United States of America.
Hannah Booth, the too-delicate wife of a British soldier stationed in Shelburne, also seemed at one point to be a candidate for principal-character status. But all I could find out about her came from her husband’s diaries and letters, written from his perspective. There is no written record to explain what was going on in her mind when the fates–and her husband’s superiors–dispatched them both to Shelburne.
These women do make cameo appearances, but I would have preferred to focus more on their personal narratives–if only I’d been able to find the details I needed.
That, of course, is the difficulty of writing non-fiction. And the reward, too.
The writer’s joy comes in those occasional aha moments when he discovers something unexpected, or suddenly connects the dots between seemingly disconnected events or characters.
During the course of my research, I did discover some incredibly rich and tellingly detailed first-person accounts of eighteenth-century life in the diaries and letters of a number of people who had called Shelburne home: Benjamin Marston, an acerbic surveyor who chronicled the town’s founding and first tumultuous year; William Booth, a British army captain who spent two melancholy years in Shelburne during its precipitous decline; and perhaps most intriguing, David George and Boston King, two former slaves who were central to the development of both Shelburne and Birchtown, the black loyalist community on Shelburne’s fringes. Their “slave narratives” offer another, quite different window to the story of the rise and fall of a loyalist town, as well as to black life in North America in the 1700s.
Their personal stories–and others, too–are the threads that interweave to tell the larger story of Shelburne. In many ways, the history of any place is the sum of the flesh-and-blood stories of those who lived it. During the period I’m writing about, Shelburne went through tumultuous, turbulent times. People came and went, oblivious to my narrative needs and desires. Benjamin Marston, who is such a central character in Shelburne’s founding and early days, for example, departs its stage forever after little more than a year, while William Booth, whose own diaries chronicle the town’s eventual demise, doesn’t begin his Shelburne sojourn until more than three years after the arrival of the first Loyalists.
Since I’ve chosen to tell the stories of these central characters as much as possible in narrative form, and usually from the point of view of the characters themselves, it’s certainly fair to ask whether I’m making anything up, or at least imposing my own notions of what these people must have been thinking at any particular time.
The short answer is no.
Charlotte Gray, one of Canada’s most respected writers of historical narrative non-fiction, put it this way in attempting to explain how she wrote Sisters in the Wilderness, her brilliant, bestselling account of the lives of two nineteenth-century English sisters in backwoods Ontario: “I don’t invent. But I take known facts, and imagine. . . . From the relatively little documentation available, I tried to read between the lines of those of their letters that have survived. I used my judgment in what to include and what to omit; what to emphasize and what to ignore; how to distill an untidy, sprawling mass of facts into a tidy package.”
Me too. Or at least that is my aim.
You can find at the beginning of the Endnotes an example of how I have developed my source material into a narrative. To maintain the narrative flow, I’ve consigned to those Endnotes most of the details of my sources. Through that section and the Bibliography, any reader should easily be able to discover the factual underpinning of what I’ve written. (Throughout the text, Roman numerals refer the reader to an endnote, while Arabic numerals refer to a footnote.)
Part of the fun of writing a book like this is in the occasionally rewarding “detective” work of trying to fill in the gaps in knowledge, or find the missing piece that will solve some puzzle or another. But there are still many gaps and puzzles, such as whatever happened to the mysterious Eliza, Benjamin Marston’s love interest during his early days in Halifax? Freshly widowed but clearly smitten, Benjamin wrote love poems to her and once confided in his diary that “the pleasure of again seeing that dear girl has abundantly rewarded me for all the disagreeable feelings of a ¬six-¬months’ imprisonment.” And then, nothing . . . Eliza suddenly disappears from the pages of his diary and, so far as we can tell, from his life, too. Did they have a falling out? Did she move away? Take up with another lover?
In a novel, it would be a simple enough matter to tie up that loose end with a plot twist; in the messier world of non-fiction, however, we’re bound by what we know–and don’t. That’s what makes it non-fiction.
Halifax, September 2007