"This is nervous. I look around - I'm standing in the corner, got my suit on feeling uncomfortable to begin with..."
Manuscript notes: The novel was started May 31, 1996 in Walpole, Massachusetts, at 5:05AM.
It was one of those stories I was aware of, but did not have the inclination to pursue until I received a call one night from one Patrick Hogan in Dawson City, Yukon, inviting me on a recreation of the infamous Dawson 1905 Stanley Cup challenge to the Ottawa Silver Seven. I had written a novel entitled Dawson City Seven that was published by Goose Lane Editions in 1993. During my book tour across Canada I had occasion to visit Dawson City, engaging a somewhat raucous group ill-tempered because they were missing their favorite TV show - Hockey Night in Canada. After the talk my host John Flynn held an impromptu party attended by most of the Dawson hockey intelligencia, and I noticed one individual hanging back from the others, a serious, intense, polite individual who eventually came forward and introduced himself. After some small talk, his eyes boring through me, the man leaned close.
"We're thinking of recreating the story," he said.
And that was it. True to his word, the call came three years later from Pat Hogan, and the trip was on. Which got me to thinking: the success of the Dawson story, my first published novel, spawning the dream of all writers, a book tour across Canada, appearances in documentaries, the wonderful fulfillment of simply staring at book with your name on the cover.... I decided to pursue the same path of that success. I wrote a proposal to Laurel Boone, my editor at Goose Lane, proposing a novel about the life of Frank McGee. Laurel was enthusiastic; go for it, she encouraged me.
I had learned a great deal about McGee from researching the Dawson novel. But there was something peculiar about the information I gathered; all of it dwelt on his hockey fame, and inevitably ended with words to the effect: "...and McGee joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was Killed in Action overseas, in 1916." A secondary inclusion, almost an afterthought, as though it somehow paled in comparison to his hockey-playing fame.
This was unsettling. I never liked that; I grew up with guys who made the major leagues, and I delivered newspapers as a kid to homes that lost sons in Vietnam. One I will never forget, the Fitzgeralds of North Avenue, who built up a shrine to their son John on their mantelpiece, a large picture of him proud in his marine uniform, flowers, cards, and candles surrounding it. And the worst part, his father inevitably sitting there in the dark, staring at it whenever I knocked on the door, collecting. A stark contrast to the Hebner household, to which I also delivered newspapers, jubilant with their son Richie's emergence as a star baseball player with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Most people in my hometown of Norwood, Massachusetts knew Richie only as a hockey star, one who had been offered a contract by the Boston Bruins at a time when Tommy Williams was the sole American in the NHL. One day - okay, off the track, but it's a good story - one day I walked up the Hebner driveway to find Mr. Hebner leaning over the open hood of his car, swearing. I asked Mr. Hebner how he felt about Richie finally making the parent club, and he waved away a dirty hand. "Aw fuggit," he swore, "he could have played with Bobby Orr..."
The point being that I knew guys who made the major leagues, and I knew families who lost sons in Vietnam. Norwood had two other guys make MLB during that era, Billy Travers, a left-handed pitcher who made the American league all-star team in 1978, and one Skip Lockwood, a converted third baseman to pitcher, a guy I did not know. Norwood also lost four others to Vietnam besides Johnny Fitzgerald of North Avenue; Keith Landers, Larry Mitchell, Rich Murphy and Jimmy Sansone. And it occurred to me, in the twenty years since, that even in Norwood it was the athletes that people remembered from that turbulent time, not the poor souls who gave their lives in service to their country. It was the heroics on the ice arena against Needham or Arlington, the baseball diamond against Durfee or Dedham, that people fondly reminisced of, the tremendous achievements that made Norwood proud, not the young men who died in the jungles of Southeast Asia. And it never seemed right to me, never seemed fair, that only on Memorial Day were their names even remembered; indeed, today most Norwoodites probably couldn't name one man who died in Vietnam, though most brighten at the mention of Travers or Hebner.
So in the McGee story I drew a parallel to my experience in my hometown. It did not seem right to me, it did not seem fair, that this immortal figure of early Canadian ice hockey history was remembered solely for his remarkable achievements on the ice at the turn of the last century, and not for giving his life in the battle of the Somme in 1916. And it was in this frame of mind that I approached Laurel Boone with my idea, and in which I began to develop a game plan for my novel, Killing Frank McGee.
How the hell do you start a novel? You start it with a bang if you can, a tragic accident (The Horse Whisperer), a mad dash at a treasure (Indiana Jones), a mind-boggling entry into warfare (Saving Private Ryan). So I begin my story in the McGee living room on Daley Avenue in Ottawa, Ontario, on Saturday, September 23, 1916. I have decided to have two parts to my story, both to be given equal time. I want to tell the true story of the first dynasty in hockey history, that of the Ottawa Silver Seven, of which McGee was their star, as well as the story of Canada's entry into World War One, and through this, the general experience that McGee must have endured.
I read the newspapers from Friday, September 22, 1916 in the Ottawa archives. I read that brother Darcy McGee had told the Ottawa Citizen "as far as we know, Frank is alive and well." It was in response to a rumor that had surfaced that week quite to the contrary. And on this Saturday, a mind-boggling experience was to be endured by the McGee family in their living room on Daley Avenue, so similar to what was experienced fifty years later by five families in my own hometown...
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Pat Traynor, website designer:
"Have done some work/thinking on our project. I expect to be down Plymouth this weekend, will you be there? I'd like to see you to talk over some of this stuff. I think the companion idea is terrific. Especially for the Internet literate. It will give them a closer feel to the author, as though they had a chance to sit around and shoot the shit a little about the book.
Are you planning on saying something about the online 'Companion' inside the book itself?"
Bob Mulcahy, who provided full names of the Norwood casualties:
"Big D.... sounds terrific.... if I can help in any way...let me know...I'd love to
Do a double check on Travers all star gig....think it was '75.....watched it in your front room at Crestwood Circle !!"
Paul Kitchen, President, Society for International Hockey Research:
I have looked at your McGee Companion and find the concept quite fascinating. I hope you go through with the full-scale project. I have no objection to your including my comments. As for the book itself, I am looking forward to reading it in its published form. I certainly hope General Store gives it a good build-up and that you will be required to come up this way in that connection. If so, we would definitely want to get together for quite a discussion.
"Something's wrong here. Nobody speaks. We march forward and nobody speaks..."
Manuscript notes: This chapter written the same day as first chapter, May 31, 1996 in Walpole, MA.
Establishing the dual narrative. I was tempted to tell the entire story from the view of the oldest McGee brother D'Arcy, but decided this would preclude the first person view of the trenches that I strongly wished to portray.
I grew up in a family that stressed history and geography. A lifetime reading about these subjects, particularly history, has provided me with immeasurable pleasure. Among my favorite books when I was young were the novels of Kenneth Roberts, particularly Rabble in Arms and Northwest Passage, and more recently Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, which is the finest historical novel I've ever read.
Our family vacations were spent in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Ticonderoga, New York, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. And one of the marvelous feelings in this world is to stand at the very spot history was made, and marvel at the scene. To stand on the breakwater in Plymouth harbor early in the morning, before the hustle and bustle when the fog still blankets the bay, imagining the lonely ship bearing in, on the brink of three thousand wilderness miles; better yet to travel out through the harbor and look back, following the contour of the land, the long, gentle slide of the Manamet ridge into the sea to the south, the hills of Kingston to the north, those contours of rising land above the shoreline the very same as it was four hundred years ago. Out on a boat I imagine a soul born in 1635, a man who spent every working day of his lifetime staring at this scene, so familiar to him, so alien to me.
To stand on Cemetery Ridge among the monuments and imagine the divisions under Pettigrew, Trimble, and Pickett, forming and beginning their long, arduous march across that field; to stand on the ramparts of Fort Ticonderoga, imagining the bark of muskets and war-wails of painted Iroquois as they streak from the woods, these are the greatest rewards of a family which fosters with word and deed the value of knowing our history. And of the myriad events that I have read about, I think that service in the trenches during the Great War was perhaps second only to the Holocaust - because of that horrors utter helplessness - as the worst individual experience modern man has had to endure.
And so I needed a dual narrative, someone to tell the story of the Ottawa Silver Seven, and another to describe in detail the experience of serving in the trenches of Picardy. I discussed this with Laurel Boone, and she seemed apprehensive, stressing that if that was the path I wished to follow in telling this story, then to make very, very sure that the two voices were absolutely distinct. In the first chapter I tried to introduce the narrator, as yet unnamed, as an insecure, irritable guy, obviously on the inside with the McGee family, while the narrator in this the second chapter I wanted to be more refined, though immediately concerned, aware, scared. I also wanted to continue, as the second harsh beginning for the second narrator, with another wham, so to speak, another entrance into a harrowing, mindboggling experience.
And so we begin: two narrators, two distinct personalities, one in Ottawa, one entering the trenches in France. And the promise that their paths will somewhere, somehow, cross in the future...
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND:
From Laurel Boone, Editor, Goose Lane Editions:
I promised you a fuller letter about Frank McGee, and here it is. (The Killing in the title will eventually have to go, though Frank McGee may not do either. But call it anything you like for now - the title can be chosen the day before the catalogue goes to press!) I need to see some of the material about Frank McGee himself before making a final decision about publication, though, as you know, we're all enthusiastic about the idea. Certainly we can decide before the book is finished and before the March trip.
The chapters you sent look like a good start. I appreciate that they're going to alternate (more or less) with McGee chapters and that you're not quite sure how this plan will work out yet; this situation is entirely appropriate for the project at this stage. Therefore, the only thing I'm going to say on that topic is that it will be important to make sure that Frank McGee is the focus of the book. Also, if all the parts are to be first-person narratives, it will be crucial to make the voices absolutely distinct.
From Paul Kitchen:
I received your manuscript with great anticipation and had a fascinating time going through it. You are surely very familiar with Red Badge of Courage. It's been nearly forty years since I read it but your work makes me think of it - fatalism, determinism, inner landscape. Have I read your piece wrong?
McGee is a prodigious piece of work. I marvel at the effort you have so obviously put into it and I wonder how many readers appreciate what goes into a work of that type. You did formidable research in conveying real events and places accurately and descriptively. I had to smile, even chuckle, at many of the small details you were at pains to describe with precision.
I found the structure very interesting, alternating between two narrators in very different places and yet tying together the threads of their stories. It must also have been a challenging job. McGee, himself, is the central subject, of course, but I wonder how much we learn about him since he is seen in most of the novel through the eyes of one man who has strong biases in his perception of him. It is true, though, that Smith, even if grudgingly, recognized many of McGee's qualities.