Prairie Fire Review - Saskatchewan Heroes and Rogues

Reviewed by: Faith Johnston

Ruth Millar, who ran the local history room at the Saskatoon Public Library, has chosen to write the biographies of twelve characters, all with some connection to Saskatchewan. Among others are Big Tom Hourie, who swam the South Saskatchewan River to deliver an important message to General Middleton during the Riel Rebellion, Jean Ewen, a nurse who went to China with Norman Bethune, Father John Claffey and Joan Fletcher, both responsible for organizing dramatic resuces during World War II, and Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen who, after a career on the wrong side of the law in Saskatchewan, turned his talents to China, where he served as loyal bodyguard to Sun Yat-sen. Some subjects do not fall easily into the category of either hero or rogue, but all are people whose exploits are bound to prompt the comment, "Amazing! Someone should write a book about that!" Well, Ruth Millar has.

Her purpose, she says, is "to rescue from oblivion some lesser known heroes, rascals, adventurers, and trailblazers" and, in some cases, to call attention to earlier works on these characters that have been neglected. Millar has made a great effort (evident in the text, endnotes, and photos) to track down all relevant material through archival searches and interviews. She has read widely to provide a historical context for the events she is narrating. Unfortunately, she occasionally becomes so absorbed in describing the historical context (in China, for example) that the reader has to wade through unnecessary detail before picking up the trail of the hero (or rogue). However, with her conscientious digging Millar also manages to turn up soem fascinating details about Jewish and Chinese settlement in Saskatchewan.

I was glad to see Jean Ewen included. There have been numerous books written about Norman Bethune that scarcely mention her name, yet she was the "Chinese expert" who accompanied him to China. She had worked there before and knew the language as well as the state of medical practice. Emma Woikin I found a strange choice. Woikin, a young woman from a Doukhobor community in northern Saskatchewan, worked in Ottawa during World War II and became implicated in the Gouzenko spy scandal. I see her as a tragic figure, neither hero nor rogue, and although Millar's treatment of her is sympathetic, it has all been done before in a full-length biography, Emma, by June Callwood.

For me the most fascinating figure of all was Kathleen Rice. Here was a woman who in 1906 graduated from the University of Toronto with an honours degree in mathematics. After a few years teaching in high schools, she turned her talents to an entirely different sort of life. First she took off to the Rockies where she learned to ski. Next she became a prospector during a gold rush in northeastern Saskatchewan, an adventure she eventually shared with a man who was probably her lover. After living in the bush, prospecting and trapping for fifteen years, Rice became a minor celebrity when she struck copper in 1928, but her lifestyle did not change. 

I'm not sure that Millar's account, vivd though it is, will lead me to search out the fictionalized biography of Rice, written by Helen Duncan in 1984, but should I come across Rice's name again, I will certainly think, "Now there's a story!" And I will know that someone has written a book about it. Since that is what Millar set out to do, I would say she has accomplished her goal.

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