Saskatoon StarPhoenix Review - Saskatchewan Heroes and Rogues

Millar reveals Saskatchewan history full of fascinating characters
Reviewed by: Ned Powers

Years of research work in the Local History Department of the Saskatoon Public Library have paid literary dividends for Ruth Wright Millar.

Some of the research was so intriguing that Millar took early reitrement from the library in 2001, assembled all the information she could find on a dozen favourite Saskatchewan-connected subjects and wrote the book, Saskatchewan Heroes and Rogues.

The book, published by Coteau Books, is intended to rescue from oblivion some lesser-known heroes, rogues, rascals, adventurers and trailblazers - all with colourful pasts - and introduce them to modern audiences.

"The quality that links these extraordinary people is audacity and self-confidence," says the Saskatoon author. "Most had a profound belief in themselves or their own convictions or were drive by an unquenchable will to survive. . .

"Not all of the people were heroes, some were downright rascals. I think I have gathered enough information to put them all on the stage and that allows the readers to make their own judgments about who could be cast as heroes and who could be cast as rascals."

Millar's personal favourite was the story of Jean Ewen, who grew up in the Westmount and Bedofrd Road districts, became a nurse and went to a hazardous job in China in the 1930s, where she travelled a war-torn nation with Dr. Norman Bethune. She risked her life to save the injured during the bombardment by the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese war.

Morris (Two-Gun) Cohen came to Saskatchewan from England, lived on the westside of Saskatoon and discovered much about the Chinese immigrants who were finding new homes in Canada. His life as an adventurer would change dramatically when he repeatedly risked his life as a bodyguard for Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Cohen would be chosen an honorary general in the Chinese Army and spy, then survived the Japanese prison camps at Hong Kong.

Emma Woikin grew up on a homestea near Blaine Lake and went to work in the External Affairs Department in Ottawa. There she was seduced by a Russian army officer, fell into the shadowy world of espionage sparked by Igor Gouzenko's defection and went to prison in 1946 for two and a half years.

For a taste of the Old West, there is a story about Will James, a renowned cattle rustler who triggered a most remarkable deception in American literature. Then there is Charlie Parmer, who may have ridden the Quantrill gang and may have known the James boys before settling in Dundurn. Another yarn focuses on Big Tom Hourie, a many of legendary exploits, who swam across the North Saskatchewan River as a messenger during the Riel Rebellion.

Joan Bamford Fletcher, originally from Regina, shepherded 2,000 civilians out of a Second World War prison camp in Japan.

Father John Claffey, who would settle in Saskatoon, protected fugitives from the Nazis while he was in Rome during the Second World War.

And there are stories of Kathleen Rice, a daring prospector; Richard St. Barbe Baker, a crusader who believed in saving trees; Norm Falkner, a famous one-legged skater; and Gladys Arnold, a Regina reporter caught up in war-torn Europe. 

Millar brought journalistic instincts and a natural curiosity to the project. She worked in The StarPhoenix newsroom in the mid-1960s and her father, Percy Wright, was an editorial writer for the newspaper after a lengthy career as a teacher and horticulturist. 

When she began work at the Saskatoon Public Library, Millar clipped newspapers and magazines and "a lot of these stories started collecting in my head." She wrote for magazines, mounted photo exhibitions and created a television series of vignettes for SCN.

People started telling her these stories should be in book form. Edna Alford,  former writer-in-residence at the library, suggested a proposal be written for Coteau. The publisher gladly brought into the plan.

"It seemed like a good idea. TV documentaries had been produced on Cohen, Arnold and Fletcher and there had been published works on others. But none seemed to build on how each was linked to Saskatchewan.

"The Eureka moment came when I started talking to members of the families. While Jean Ewen, I met with three members of her family and talked to a fourth. Then I plunged into a lot of reading, drawing out the backgrounds for the Riel Rebellion, the two great wars, the Sino-Japanese war. It was time-consuming; I never could have written the book without devoting full time to it."

Her knowledge of Saskatoon history will be put to good use in an upcoming new edition of Saskatoon: A Century of Pictures, assembled in association with Bill Delainey, co-author of the 1982 original, and Jeff O'Brien. 

And she will come back to her Saskatchwan connections a Heroes and Rogues sequel, maybe in two or three years.

"There was no hesitation in my mind about the dozen I wanted to include in the first book. But I know there's at least 80 more characters who have stories I'd like to investigate."

 

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