Canada Day 2016 Preview:
“I knew it was time to engage Canadians in our past in a new way. I’ve always been fascinated by the gap between the modesty of my fellow citizens and the extraordinary success of this country. Every issue, every period, every region I explore, I find intriguing characters, painful tensions and surprising triumphs. Yet most of us know so little about the layers of history and ideas that make this country work.
We have a unique and lively history, but too often it is told from only one perspective. Sometimes that perspective is political, other times it is regional, but it rarely captures the complexity of our sprawling land and diverse people. A big birthday, like Canada’s 150th, is the perfect time to bring both national heroes and unexpected guests to the table. I want their personal dramas and brilliant visions to bring a sparkle to the sesquicentennial.”
—Charlotte Gray on The Promise of Canada, available October 2016 from Simon & Schuster Canada
The Promise of Canada:
Shaped Our Country
This is my Big Book for a Big Birthday!
Ever since I arrived in Canada nearly forty years ago, I have been intrigued by what holds this country together. What makes it different from all other countries? What does it mean to be Canadian?
Canada has constantly reimagined itself in each successive generation since 1867, and has quietly overcome stresses that might have shipwrecked it. As the 150th anniversary of Confederation approached, I decided to write about some of the people whose ideas over the years have helped shape our national identity.
So I have woven together compelling portraits of nine influential Canadians from across the country, and set them within the larger context of our shared history. I avoided prime ministers because I didn’t want this to be a top-down story. Instead, readers will get to know a different set of individuals, from George-Étienne Cartier and Emily Carr to Tommy Douglas, Margaret Atwood and Elijah Harper. They will learn about how these people’s ideas developed from their own experiences, and how those ideas contributed to our sense of Canada.
Yet even in the decades that I’ve lived here, the country has seen profound changes, and I wanted to integrate the past with the present and show the sturdy evolution that continues. So I’ve also highlighted some of today’s Canadians who are shaping our collective tomorrow – people like Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, musician Shad and artist and author Doug Coupland who are continuing the national conversation.
I had fun writing The Promise of Canada, which is lavishly illustrated so readers can also enjoy a visual narrative of Canada’s development. I realized that, for all its faults and challenges, this country is an extraordinary success story. And I incorporated some of my own adventures as I became a Canadian. I was lucky to be working, once again, with my long-time editor Phyllis Bruce.
"Simon & Schuster Canada is proud to publish Charlotte Gray, a writer who has
brilliantly captured significant individuals and dramatic moments in our history. She
makes our past come alive and she opens doors into our present and our future.”
— Phyllis Bruce, Phyllis Bruce Editions, Simon & Schuster Canada
The Massey Murder:
Shocked a Country
I love exploring Canadian history, but I’m well aware that many readers feel it is not for them. Many prefer other genres, including murder mysteries, dramatic trial scenes and true crime. I share their choices too! So my ninth book takes a real event from our collective past, and shapes it into a narrative that will appeal to mystery lovers and history buffs.
The event occurred nearly a century ago. In February 1915, a member of one of the wealthiest families in Canada was shot and killed on the front porch of his home in Toronto as he was returning from work. Several eyewitnesses rushed to help the dying man. They saw who had killed him in cold blood: Carrie Davies, the eighteen-year-old domestic servant in the Walmer Road household.
But who was the victim here? Charles “Bert” Massey, a scion of a famous family or the frightened, perhaps mentally unstable Carrie, a working-class British immigrant? When the brilliant lawyer Hartley Dewart, Q. C., took on her case, his grudge against the powerful Masseys would fuel a dramatic legal struggle that pitted the old order against the new, wealth and privilege against virtue and honest hard work.
The Massey Murder is an intriguing true crime book, with a cliff-hanger of a trial. But it is much more than this. Toronto was exploding with new immigrants, Canada was a country in flux, and in Europe young Canadians were within range of German guns. Newspapers resorted to any tactics to increase circulation, and women were finally challenging Victorian conventions. Could the law keep pace with all these bewildering changes?
More About The Massey Murder
Additional Resources for Readers
- Notes for Book Clubs — Thanks to reader Mary Pigott for helping with these notes.
- Massey family tree
- Interactive map of Toronto sites mentioned in The Massey Murder, prepared by Colin Old
- View the Endnotes for the book
Klondike, based on Charlotte’s bestseller Gold Diggers, to air in January
The six hour television mini-series, based on Charlotte’s 2010 bestseller and largely shot in Alberta, will be broadcast on the US Discovery Channel early in 2014. A $25 million production, it stars Sam Shepard, Abbie Cornish, Tim Roth and Richard Madden. Watch Charlotte talk about the Gold Rush, and get a sneak preview at the series at: klondike-history.discovery.com
This is the most ambitious book I’ve done so far, and I am very excited about it. I describe how, between 1896 and 1899, thousands of people lured by gold braved a grueling journey into the remote wilderness of North America. Within two years, Dawson City grew from a mining camp of four hundred to a squalid, raucous town of over thirty thousand people. The stampede to the Klondike, a tributary of the Yukon River, was the last great gold rush in history.
Plunged into darkness for six weeks each winter, Dawson’s inhabitants were completely cut off from the outside world for most of the year. Scurvy, dysentery, frostbite, and starvation stalked all who dared to be there.
And yet the possibilities attracted people from all walks of life — not only those mining for gold, but also newspapermen, bankers, prostitutes, priests, and lawmen, all hoping to make their mark.
I combine the grim details (frostbite, death, murder) with portraits of individuals who rose to the challenges. Gold Diggers follows six stampeders — Bill Haskell, a farm boy from Vermont with an insatiable hunger for striking gold; Father Judge, a Jesuit priest who aimed to save souls as well as lives; Belinda Mulrooney, an ambitious twenty-four-year-old from Pennsylvania who became the richest business woman in town; Flora Shaw, a British journalist who transformed the town’s governance; Sam Steele, the commanding officer who finally established order in the lawless town; and most famously Jack London, who left without gold, but with the stories that would make him a legend.
Drawing on letters, memoirs, newspaper articles, and stories, Gold Diggers tells a brutal, enthralling tale of the gold madness that swept through a continent and changed a landscape and its people forever.
Gold Diggers is more than a recreation of a momentous historical event. It is also a glorious reminder that life can be lived in a style that is bigger and braver than most of us can imagine. Today, the same hunger for escape and experience persuades adventurers to scale mountains, paddle through white water, and test themselves to the limits. In exploring the psyches of the six characters I met, I began to understand why people will plunge into the unknown.
Charlotte Gray's biography of Nellie McClung, the leader of the first wave of Canadian feminism, has been called "an inspired pairing of tale and teller."
One of Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series, this short biography is a candid look at the firebrand who helped get women the vote, participated in the Famous Five court case to secure the right for women to sit in the Senate, and championed the rights of immigrant women.
McClung's wicked wit and strategic political sense helped shape the Canada of today. A Western populist, she embodied the values that still characterize Canada – faith in government, a collective commitment to social programs.
However, this slim volume is also an essay by a seasoned biographer on the nature of biography, the reliability of primary material, and the characteristics that define Canadian women today.
Excerpt from the Book
"Getting to know Nellie McClung over the past year has crystallized insights into Canadian women that have intrigued me ever since I arrived in this country in 1979. I have often noticed a sort of robust self-assurance exuded by women I’ve met here. And now I realize that Nellie has had a lot to do with this trait."
Excerpt from Review
"Gray provides a wart-and-all look at fiery Nellie McClung … Gray’s persistent research means that we have a detailed portrait of the times and the issues, and a very lively read."
From the Extraordinary Canadians film series, PMA Productions, first broadcast December 2011
This extraordinary biography explores the brilliant mind of an eccentric, obsessive man. There can scarcely be a reader who has not heard of the inventor of the telephone. Yet this invention was only one of the many ideas that Alexander Graham Bell developed into fascinating new theories and technologies.
Bell investigated how to transmit speech along light waves, how to distill fresh water from sea-water, and how to reinflate collapsed lungs by means of an early version of an iron lung. In Washington, he became the esteemed head of the National Geographic Society, and a regent of the Smithsonian Institute. In Nova Scotia, he established a remarkable family fiefdom on a headland near Baddeck, and bred a flock of “supersheep” that regularly produced twins. He was in at the birth of aviation, and supervised a team of young men (“Bell's Boys”) who made important contributions to the early history of flight. In his final years, he built a hydrofoil that broke all speed records for water craft.
Born in Edinburgh, Bell originally dedicated himself to helping the deaf. Thanks to his father, a speech therapist in Edinburgh who moved to Canada, he understood how human speech and hearing works. It was the insights from human anatomy that allowed Alec Bell to invent the telephone before his many rivals got there.
However, throughout his life the inventor remained committed as a teacher and advocate to the interests of the hearing-impaired. He was a beloved mentor of Helen Keller. And as a teacher, this intense and neurotic man met a young deaf woman who gave him the stability and security he required to explore his genius.
Mabel Hubbard lost her hearing when she was five years old, and met Alec Bell when she became his student in Boston at age 14. She never let her disability hamper her, in society or in the raising of their family in Washington. Nevertheless, she was ambivalent about Alec’s lifelong devotion to the deaf as she herself did not want to be seen as handicapped. She gave Alec more encouragement for his technological work on communication and aeronautics, and saw to it that their two daughters received as much attention as his inventions.
Mabel and Alec exchanged letters with each other during their frequent separations and corresponded regularly with parents, children, friends, in-laws and acquaintances. These papers are rich in personal detail and reflection. With literary skill and psychological insight, Charlotte brings both Alexander Graham Bell and his wife vividly alive.
Excerpt from the Book
"As summer approached, the temperature rose in the attic workshop, and blueprints, electromagnetic coils, tuning forks, and steel rods accumulated on the wooden workbench. Next to the attic’s grime-encrusted arched windows, oblivious to the quiet hiss of an overhead gas lamp, Alec crouched over his latest prototype for the telegraph transmitter. He was trying to tune the receiver reeds… The breakthrough came on June 2, when the two men tested out a trio of transmitters and receivers. Alec put his ear next to the transmitter in his laboratory and heard a distinct 'twang.'"
Excerpt from Review
" Rich in detail and measured in pace … It is not only a fascinating book about an important inventor … but also a good story about two lives well lived."
The Museum Called Canada
Welcome to a book that is a virtual museum, divided into twenty-five chapters or "rooms" which bring together a breathtaking range of cultural artifacts, artworks and historic objects - many of them never seen in a museum before.
You’ll find high art next to pop culture, scientific inventions displayed beside prehistoric creatures - myriad pieces of our past, that tell the story of Canada. You will gaze into a hollow fossil tree trunk that trapped one of the first creatures ever to walk on land. You’ll have a chance to examine the intricate beadwork on the coat Louis Riel may have worn at the Battle of Batoche. And you’ll see one of the rubber bullets fired by police at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.
In The Museum Called Canada, author Charlotte Gray and curator Sara Angel have created a road map to the Canadian psyche. Charlotte’s twenty-six essays variously tell the story of a sixteenth century gold mine on Baffin Island, take the reader into the mind of a nineteenth century fossil-hunter, and explore the fragments of ballgowns that were patched together in 1867 by Fannie Parlee into her "Confederation Quilt."
Excerpt from Charlotte's Introduction
" Things. There is so much history in things, and not only those that have a personal relevance. Whether they are natural objects, such as pebbles or bones, or artifacts such as teapots, maps or feather bonnets, things allow us to engage with history in a way that is far more immediate than the abstract connection offered by the written word. An old plough or an archival photograph triggers a tactile or visual response to the past. … When I pick up old glass rolling pins at a local flea market, I can almost feel flour on my fingertips."
Excerpt from Review
" The essays demonstrate (once again) why Gray is one of Canada’s foremost popular historian’s. Each is a small, evocative wonder, simultaneously answering and raising questions."
Canada, A Portrait in Letters
Charlotte Gray weaves together hundreds of letters written by Canadians over the course of two centuries. Charlotte read over 3,500 letters, and selected those that express intimate and moving moments in the lives of both the ordinary and the famous, as well as those that reflect significant historical events as seen from unexpected perspectives. Uncensored, spontaneous, and written from the heart, these letters capture the uniqueness of the time at which they were composed.
Complemented by maps, sketches and photographs, together with Charlotte’s own witty and insightful commentary, the letters touch readers with the timelessness of the emotions they express – loneliness, excitement, determination, pride and fear. They cover personalities as varied as Louis Riel and Lucy Maud Montgomery, and events ranging from British naval expeditions in the Arctic to twentieth century wars.
Canada: A Portrait in Letters reveals history in the making, before judgements have been passed and meanings ascribed. It is a personal and honest portrait of a nation and its people.
Excerpt from the Book
" Letters have a magic all of their own. Like locks of hair, they encapsulate some essential element of the personality of whoever holds the pen. I can almost hear the writer speak to me, across time and distance."
Excerpt from Review
" For the every day moments of ordinary lives, the actual building blocks of the nation, Charlotte Gray’s book is a treasure trove."
Flint & Feather
Why does Pauline Johnson (or Tekahionwake, as she was known to Mohawk admirers), the nineteenth-century daughter of a Mohawk chief and English gentlewoman continue to haunt our collective imagination?
When the beautiful young poetess Pauline Johnson swept onto the stage in her buckskin "Indian" outfit and bear claw necklace or one of her elegant silk evening gowns, she mesmerized audiences from coast to coast. At a time when women rarely travelled, she crossed the country nineteen times and the Atlantic three times, equally at home in the salons of the rich and powerful and in the whistle-stop towns that dotted a growing country.
Ironically, after gruelling years on the road and little income, Pauline finally realized her dream of becoming a best selling author as she faced death. She left us with an enduring mystery: who was the young man in the locket she always wore and who sent beautiful flowers and a loving note to her funeral?
In Flint & Feather, Charlotte Gray explores the many dimensions of Pauline Johnson's life. Complex and talented, she was a native rights advocate ahead of her time; a lyric poet who performed vaudevillian skits; a childless New Woman who wrote for The Mother's Magazine; and an incurable romantic who never married. The arc of her life unfolds against the history of a country coming confidently into a new century, a country prepared to push native peoples aside in the name of progress.
Excerpt from the Book
" Pauline’s 1897 poem ‘Canadian Born’ summed up the muscular optimism that pervaded the young Dominion of Canada as it hurtled into the twentieth century. British North America had begun the previous century as a handful of small cities clustered on the eastern side of the continent… By 1900, it was a thriving and united federation … From Halifax to Vancouver, audiences rose to their feet and roared their approval as the beautiful and passionate poet, her dark curls cascading around her shoulders and the silver brooches on her buckskin tunic glinting in the stage lights, repeated the jingoistic refrain, ‘And we, the men of Canada, can face the world and brag / That we were born in Canada beneath the British flag.’"
Excerpt from Review
"A gracefully told story that sets Johnson firmly in the context of her time and place, and stresses her specificity as a Canadian and aboriginal figure. Perhaps this biographer’s greatest skill is her ability to create a richly textured historical and social background with a wealth of fascinating details."
Sisters in the Wilderness
Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill are icons of Canadian literature.
Their books, most notably Roughing it in the Bush and The Backwoods of Canada, have painted for readers in this country and around the world an enduring portrait of Canadian pioneer life. They have become almost mythic figures in the Canadian literary landscape, appearing in the works of Northrop, Frye, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley and Margaret Laurence.
Most of what we know of these two English gentlewomen who spent their adult lives scrambling to survive in Britain's hardscrabble colony comes from their own self-consciously crafted writings and from other writers’ sometimes fanciful depictions of them. But what were the women behind the authorial voices really like? What was their relationship to each other? And to their husbands, children and the family they left behind in England?
The answers are thoroughly captivating and not a little surprising. Their lives are revealed in the extremes that shaped them - fame and starvation, snobbery and passion, profound faith and ersatz spirituality. In Sisters in the Wilderness, Charlotte Gray breathes new life into the two remarkable characters and brings us a brilliantly clear picture of life in the backwoods and clearing of Upper Canada.
Excerpt from the Book
" Tall dense pine trees loomed over the Moodies, blocking any glimpse of the night sky, as they wearily clambered down from the heavy, horse-drawn sleigh. Susanna, John and their two little girls were exhausted, hungry and chilled to the bone. For eighteen hours they had lurched across packed snow and frozen swamp and through thick, silent forest. Now they had finally arrived at the home of Susanna’s sister Catharine Parr Traill and her husband Thomas, just north of the little Upper Canadian town of Peterborough. Susanna stumbled towards its promise of warmth and shelter – and reunion with her beloved sister."
Excerpt from Review
"A fine and astringent book… what distinguishes this book is – a most enviable quality in any biography – a superb trustworthiness. That trust is born out of intelligence and sympathy alike."
More About Sisters in the Wilderness
This is the superbly told story of a woman lost in the shadows of Canadian history.
Daughter of the "Little Rebel" William Lyon Mackenzie and mother of Canada's longest serving prime minister, Isabel Mackenzie King was intimately involved in the changing political and social landscape of Canada. Yet we have known very little about her.
Her son William Lyon Mackenzie King attempted to present her as the ideal woman, the epitome of motherhood and an angel of goodness and light. His biographers have portrayed her as an ambitious, grasping manipulator who pushed “Willie,” her elder son, into politics and then contrived to keep him a bachelor so that he could support the rest of his family.
In this absorbing biography, Charlotte pulls Isabel Grace Mackenzie King into the light, revealing her to be a gritty, lively survivor who was determined to escape the ignominy and the disgrace of a youth spent in exile, and the desperate life of genteel poverty to which she was condemned as a married woman. Charlotte explores the intense relationship between Isabel and her elder son, which would persuade the future prime minister to dabble in spiritualism.
Through the story of the King family, the reader relives the early days of Ontario small-town life, the changing social and cultural face of Canada’s fastest growing metropolis, and historic events such as the tuberculosis epidemic and the Boer War that transformed the lives of ordinary Canadians.
Excerpt from the Book
" The intensity of the relationship suited both these self-centred individuals. Isabel reveled in Willie’s admiration. She relied on him for financial and emotional support. In exchange, when she deemed it deserved, she lavished her approval on him. Willie, in turn, used Isabel’s approval to justify his own actions. If she didn’t question his motives, he felt comfortable that no one else would, either. She became his touchstone of integrity."
Excerpt from Review
" This is an outstanding biography that has all the insight, colour, drama and interest of good, entertaining fiction."