"Twenty-years-old, five-foot-six and a hundred-forty-five pounds..."
Manuscript notes: Chapter begun 7/10/97 in Holiday Inn, Salt Lake City, UT, continued enroute Boston-Minneapolis, Bloomington, MN Holiday Inn room 342, "NJ somewhere", and Walpole. Margin notes include, "Sometimes you wonder if hockey teams weren't formed just to organize our stealing", "women are always cold", and "Aug 7 same place, Garth Brooks on Central Park".
Hey, it's not all stuff to be proud of…running out of beaneries… When I was a kid growing up in Norwood, running out of Chinese restaurants was the thing. I needed Alf Smith to reminisce about his growing up, playing hockey, and the mischief the youngsters got into, so I harked back to my own days in Norwood.
I wrote a paper in my Japanese Culture class at the University of Massachusetts in which I argued that the backlash, as modest as it truly was, against the oriental community was directly related to the US's involvement in Vietnam. Didn't know if this was accurate or not, but wrote it anyway, and my professor was excited with the paper, came to me and assured me he thought it was right on the mark.
I'd seen many a mad run out the doors, the brown sacks of Chinese food swaying in the wind. Seen friends caught and forced to wash dishes, and the scene in this chapter where Smith recounts jumping onto the back of the wagon and yelling to Spittal to Go! Go! Go! is an actual recounting of an episode that occurred in Boston's Chinatown. I'd gone there with a group of friends who, one by one, without ever telling me what they were up to, left, leaving me alone as I finished my meal. Well…I didn't have the money to pay for it all, so I moseyed toward the door as nonchalantly as possible, but this big bull saw what was happening and began to chase me, out the door to the waiting car which I opened the back door of, tried to get in, but the guy had reached me and grabbed my arm, and for one split second we stared at each other until I yelled Go! Go! Go! and Bobby Mulcahy pressed the accelerator, and we were off…
But the dumbest experience I ever was involved with occurred in Westwood, outside of a restaurant that would eventually be closed down for serving cat. This time I can't plead ignorance…I was the getaway man. As Billy Barrett went inside to receive the brown bags of food, I waited at the curb outside, on route 1A, a relatively busy thoroughfare.
I watched as Barrett went in, saw him at the counter through the windows. And at that moment, waiting for a fellow idiot to come tearing out of this Chinese restaurant both hands filled with bags of food - the cops pulled up behind me! Parked on the side of a busy road, they had stopped to see what was the matter…well…I just looked at the cop, looked at the restaurant, and slumped in my seat…hey, we were kids. What can I say?
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
With apologies for replicating some thoughts already submitted, this is the text of an article I submitted to The Society for International Hockey Research Journal.
The Society for International Hockey Research is engaged in a worthy endeavor, but one that requires some thought and reflection if it is to attain the highest standard in regard to the quality and reliability of its primary goal, research. Through a series of inquiries I have come to experience a number of situations which portend to a better understanding, and hopefully, a better reliability of the words, articles and books that result from these investigations.
I have been fortunate enough to have my words published. It is an old admonition - "Don't believe everything you read in the papers" - but an admonition evolved from a marginal truth that indeed, people do tend to believe what they read. And if the writer is under a cloud of suspicion as 'a member of the Society for International Hockey Research' or worse, an 'expert,' these people, I assure you, will believe every word you write. It is therefore imperative to acknowledge this respect we as researchers have attained, to assure an unwary public of the integrity of our printed words.
I have not always attained this goal. I have researched two primary hockey stories, first, the infamous Dawson 1905 trek to play Ottawa for the Stanley Cup, and second, the team they played, the Ottawa Silver Seven, particularly their legendary center iceman, Frank McGee. The first story resulted in my publishing a novel called Dawson City Seven, and several newspaper articles which appeared in Canadian newspapers as the result of my participation in the reenactment in 1997 of the same story. The second story, that of the Ottawas, has resulted in the publication in our own research journal of "Killing Frank McGee" and an unpublished, making-the-rounds manuscript about McGee of the same name. From this I have acquired a marginal, questionably deserved reputation as a "hockey expert." And thus I have seen some of the pitfalls and errors one can commit when suddenly recognized, and your words are exposed for all the world to see - and believe.
LESSON ONE: REAL DEAD PEOPLE HAVE REAL LIVE DESCENDANTS
The greatest lesson I have learned is that real dead people have real live descendants, who care deeply about them. This can be particularly vexing when writing historical fiction, but it can also create problems when recounting historical truth. When I first began writing Dawson I did not know anything about the individuals involved. Searching for information on a bunch of men who all were dead, and where they died is not known, is like searching for the proverbial you-know-what. But if one is to wait until all the information is accumulated before beginning to write, one would never begin. I am still receiving information about the guys on the Dawson team, in fact, as recently as last month I finally, after nine years, found out where one of them is buried.
My problem began when my writing began. Without the facts, unprepared, I made assumptions about these Yukoners that were essentially wrong. I viewed them in generalities, as romantic images of what I wanted them to be, wild, wooly, prehistoric behemoths descending like hard-drinking Vikings from their frozen land of beyond. There is an unsubstantiated legend involving the Dawson story where one unnamed member of the team denigrates Frank McGee in a pub prior to the second game, a game in which Frank McGee would score his infamous fourteen goals. And so I melded my fictional need to identify this individual with my misconceptions, and emerged with Norman Watt, a hard-drinking, humorous, thoroughly romantic image of the north. The only problem was that Norman Watt's daughter is still alive and well, and reacted with horror to my creation.
An incredible coincidence brought Lydia Watt and I together. She was in Whitehorse at the archives when a clerk overheard her asking for any information they might have on Norman Watt. The clerk told Lydia that it was odd to have two people in two days inquiring about the same individual, that the day before some writer from Boston had called about her father. Curious as to why a writer would be interested, Lydia was amazed to first hear of her father's involvement in what has become known as one of the greatest hockey stories of all time. Norman Watt had died of a heart attack before Lydia was a year old, and she never knew her father. She wrote a letter to me introducing herself, and made herself available to help out with the novel in any way she could. The first thing I did was tell her over the phone the role I had created for her father, and my choosing him to be the one in the pub to denigrate McGee - all of which was met with an icy silence.
"My father never drank in his life," Lydia finally uttered, her diction, her words clearly conveying an abhorrence of what she had just heard. I promised Lydia to reevaluate her father's role in my book, but in truth it was too much of a task to completely rewrite, or insert another character in his place. I was concerned with this problem to the extent that I discussed it with Ken Forrest, the grandson of Dawson goalie Albert Forrest. Ken told me his grandfather also never touched liquor, and I realized my image of these guys was very imprecise when in perusing microfilm of Dawson newspapers I also found out team member Randy McLennan was Secretary of the Dawson Temperance Society! My only consolation came in a discussion with Yukon writer Dick North. I met him for breakfast in Whitehorse, and he was very interested in the Dawson story. Turning a copy of my book in his hand, he remarked that he did not know any of the original players, but knew people who did know them. "They partied their asses off in Ottawa, did you know that?" he said. "In fact, one of them puked on the ice before the second game."
Ken Forrest and I discussed the problem at length. We came to the conclusion that what a man was like when he was nineteen or twenty, away from home for the first time in his life, might be somewhat different from how his children and grandchildren would remember him. Armed with this small consolation and the knowledge that SOMEONE on the team was drinking, I was not to know the depth of Lydia Watt's concern of my portrayal of her father until four years after the novel's publication, when she conducted a writing campaign to Yukon newspapers during the re-creation, when she knew "the expert" on the Dawson story would be participating.
Another instance of my not appreciating the human factor occurred not so much because of a misinterpretation of any fact, but a blunt recounting of the same. In my article Killing Frank McGee I recount my search for the truth of what happened to the man during his Great War experience. The article was gleaned from information I had accumulated while writing another historical novel of the same name. In gathering this information, I had occasion to visit the late Frank McGee, who was then a retired judge living in Toronto. Two-eyed Frank as I fondly called him was the son of Walter McGee, the youngest and sole survivor of the three fighting McGee brothers who served in that first world war. He was named Frank Charles McGee in honor of Walter McGee's two older brothers who had both lost their lives. He was a fun-loving, thoughtful, intelligent man with a taste for good whiskey, and we enjoyed discussing his family's history. Virtually nothing was known of the original Frank's war experience and death, not even where he was buried. And so it was with momentous excitement that I finally sent Frank my article, which graphically recounts the horror of trench warfare as well as, it is hoped, convincingly deduces the probable, distasteful conclusion that Frank McGee was disintegrated by an artillery shell.
I called Frank in Toronto on the evening I knew he would read the account. When he answered the phone his voice was shaking. So distraught at being confronted with what physically happened to his famous uncle, he could barely speak. "It's too much...I can't even show this to (wife) Meira," he said. "She lost a brother in the second war, you know." Frank McGee abruptly ended our conversation, leaving me with a churning regret, and an understanding that I had been foolish never to consider the emotional impact the true story would have on the namesake of that long-lost man. These two instances made me realize the importance of considering the existing families of these old hockey players we research, and though I will staunchly and stubbornly defend the necessity to write the truth we uncover, I now appreciate the necessity to be damn sure we're right before we do so, and to convey the result with a modicum if not lavish layer of respect for their families who will be affected by the truth.
FOLLOW THE LEADER
Another problem that occurs when you become recognized as an authority on a subject is that ALL your words will be considered well researched and verifiable as truth. The truth is no one ever starts out as an expert, but accumulates enough information on a subject that becomes relative to what others know about the same subject. I won't even guess the percentage of knowledge I have accumulated on, say, the Dawson story; for all I know it could be forty, fifty, sixty percent of the actual truth. But a day comes when relatively speaking I know more than anyone else does about the story, and so I become an "expert." This can lead to some vexing problems which are very difficult if not impossible to rectify. The most original method of dealing with this problem is in a James Mitchener novel, where in an appendix he actually lists what is truth and what is fiction. Barring this somewhat intrusive - and expensive - device, researchers must remain vigilant in this area.
For instance, since I arbitrarily chose to portray Norman Watt as the individual on the Dawson team to denigrate Frank McGee in the pub on the eve of the second game, I have noticed at least two other articles stating that he was the guy who shot off his mouth. These articles state this as fact. This is a lesson to all researchers, and I wonder how many times I myself have read a fact in so many places that I just assume it is true, and neglect to verify it? The example of the player who denigrates McGee may be a great example: I have never uncovered any prime, first hand account of the scene, but only found it repeated in all printed accounts of the story. Is it true? My own feeling is that it probably is, because most legends have a seed of truth to them, but that is not the point. The point it is, is it verifiable truth? Until someone uncovers more convincing facts, it is not.
Another example of this problem occurred recently when a bit of information about where and how McGee lost the sight in his eye was recounted in another publication and the author, in a footnote, identified my Killing Frank McGee article as the source of the information. Well...I got the particular information from another book, where I had assumed it to be accurate. Again, this poses a problem for the researcher. Be careful what you write - you may be held responsible, and your image or reputation may be tarnished, if the "fact" turns out to be fiction.
CULTIVATE A HEALTHY SKEPTICISM
Another part of a researcher's responsibility is to logically assess unsubstantiated information. Don't believe everything you read in the papers! In learning about the Yukon Territory I saw more than once the following recipe for determining temperature, first written in what is considered the gold rush's prime source, Tappan Adney's The Klondike Stampede: "...Old timers measure temperature this way: mercury freezes at -40, coal-oil (kerosene) freezes at -35 to -55 according to grade, "painkiller" freezes at -72, "St. Jacobs Oil" freezes at -75, and Hudson Bay Rum freezes at -80." At first glance this seems rather benign, until it is melded with the fact that the lowest recorded temperature in the Yukon is -81 recorded at Snag, Yukon, February 3, 1947. (also check freezing point of mercury) This sheds an entirely new light on this bit of information; it strangely suggests it was more of an old-timers tongue-in-cheek reference to the debilitating strength of Hudson Bay Rum as well as a reference to the ingredients contained in both "St. Jacobs Oil and "painkiller" than any rational method of recording the temperature. And yet, if you delve into arctic lore, you are apt to run across this in any number of publications, the paragraph extended as fact.
In hockey I came across another, more legendary example. When I first read of how Frank McGee tricked the Canadian Army into accepting him despite the blurred vision in one eye, I was immediately skeptical. Because my reasoning has previously appeared in our journal I will not go into detail here, but suffice to say that I found the original explanation suspect, and then proceeded to give another, hopefully more reasoned one. Since then I have been very pleased to note that other published accounts of McGee have considered both positions, and found the newer one more plausible. In logically assessing myths, suppositions, and unverifiable information, it is possible to redirect this flow of history through its endless channels of time. And - at the risk of taking this simile too far - this redirected channel may eliminate more of history's detritus host material, uncovering even more hidden golden nuggets.
INTERPRET THE HINTS
Part of the fun in researching is prying for the answers to innumerable questions. One of the more amusing aspects of the Dawson investigation was a minor one - did Albert and Paul Forrest speak French, English, or both? The question arose because the family originated in Three Rivers, Quebec. Because in my fictional account of the story I would be using dialogue, the language question became of interest to me. I asked Ken Forrest, and though he remembered no accent in the years that he knew his grandfather, the 50's and early 60's, he admitted that he did not know. He said his Albert spoke some Chinese, learned in his youth in Grass Valley, California, where his gold-seeking father had first taken them before rushing to the Yukon. But whether they spoke French he did not know.
The question remained unresolved, the book written and gone, when I stumbled across a 1904 cartoon in the Dawson Daily News. Albert Forrest, as well as being a great skater, was then a baseball star in Dawson's indoor baseball league. His brother Paul was also considered a fine athlete. Albert set a record for strikeouts in one game, and the next day the sports page of the News contained a cartoon of the two baseball-uniformed Forrest brothers, Paul pointing to Albert, with the caption, "Dats me brudder." Verifiable fact? Hardly. But the only way to interpret this is to believe in all probability that the two Forrest brothers from Quebec indeed spoke French, and English with a French accent.
"There's a difference between concern and worry..."
Manuscript notes: Chapter begun 10/15/96, in Memphis, TN. Continued in Birmingham, AL, and Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Margin notes include, "check map."
This chapter contains my favorite scene in the book, the scene in which all the lads pile into the tavern and begin drinking, and Kinnear loses it with his memories. I don't know why I like it so much, but I do. Some of the lines particularly, "...the Australians..." and I remember vividly the night I wrote it.
I was working in Montreal, staying across the river in Longueuil. I was well aware of the scene I wanted to write. And in an effort to immerse myself into the moment, the scene, I first went down to the lobby bar and began slamming down a few Blues. It was an interesting night to be an American in the Longueuil Holiday Inn bar; it was just prior a union meeting of ironworkers, who crowded the bar around me. Next to me sat an interesting soul, a French Canadian who spoke English well and discussed numerous things with me, and our conversation eventually turned to The Troubles, Canadian style. And at some point he waved a hand across the crowd:
"Of course there is feelings," he said to me. "Don't you see what has happened here tonight?" I looked around, previously oblivious - typical writer - to the subtle shift that had taken place at the bar. All the rest of the patrons had moved away from me and my French friend, crowding now only one side of the bar. I raised my eyebrows in surprise.
"They do not want to be near you, and I cannot tell you what they say."
"What, do you mean they don't like me? What are they saying?"
"I cannot tell you, you wouldn't like it."
"Tell me," I said, beginning to laugh at the situation. "C'mon, tell me what they're saying. It won't bother me."
"They are saying - how you say - that you are my American lover."
"Ahhhh!" I laughed, looking at the hardened crowd. And in this way I experienced for the first time prejudice directed at me for what I was, an American....and the thoughts provoked were interesting.
I felt if they only knew me, they wouldn't move away. Yes, I'm American, but I've also been an ironworker, I know what a come-along is. I've also been a trash man, a roofer, a Real Estate Salesman, a machine operator, and a furniture mover. I know what it's like to be fired. I know what it's like to be promoted. I know what it's like to work with men who stop at the package store each evening after work. Now I work all around the world, meet working-class people and eat with them in their homes, from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Mumbai, India. From Dublin to San Paulo. From Compton, California to Longueuil, Quebec.
So I felt, I imagined, something of what all people who have been subjected to prejudice must feel, that if they only really knew me...
I finished my beer alone as all the ironworkers filed away to their meeting. Or maybe it was after their meeting and they slowly filed away home. I sat staring at my bottle of Molson, or Blue. I don't remember really which. And then I walked upstairs to my room, sat down at the desk, pulled out the notebook and began scrawling, became a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force afforded an opportunity to drink beer in a tavern, with Scottish pipers being dragged in, the hardened Australians entering, and alcohol playing with the mind of one of us...
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
At last I've had the opportunity to read McGee thoroughly and consider whether Goose Lane would be able to publish it, and if so, how and when. I'm sorry and embarrassed to tell you that we're not going to be able to undertake it, at least not in its present form. As you know, I really like the concept of the book, and I enjoy your writing very much indeed. Unfortunately, though, the book has fundamental problems that the attentions of a copyediting pencil couldn't address.
One of these is that telling both Alf Smith's and Billy Kinnear's parts of the story in the first person is extremely tricky because the interior voices of these two men must be completely different and distinct. I find them quite similar, and the similarity isn't superficial - it isn't just habits of grammar, dialect, or word choice. I see that you've made Kinnear more serious, better educated, and more refined than Alf Smith by giving him good grammar, longer sentences, and few swear words. Still, they both talk to themselves obsessively, and the rhythms of their interior narratives are similar. It's the context that tells immediately which one is "on stage," not the voice. Both voices are similar to Boston Mason's, which makes me think that the voice I'm hearing is in fact the author's, that it's coming out of his character rather than arising from the speakers' characters. This suggests in turn that you've done all you can to make them different. The only way to separate them adequately may be to tell the story in the third person.
In Dawson City Seven, we worked hard to make Boston Mason's speech match his origins and historical period. The beauty of adapting your own voice in this way was that Boston Mason is a fictional character from your own part of the world. You've got both the words and the music in your ear, and superficial anachronisms could be deleted. McGee, though, features two actual people from cultures different from each other's and from your own. Kinnear might talk a bit like elderly country people from around here, but I haven't a clue how Smith would talk; at any rate, neither sounds convincing. Again, you'd have a lot more flexibility in the third person because the reader wouldn't be right inside the characters' consciousness.
The settings give some trouble, too. Your recreation of Ottawa works pretty well; you've actually seen many of the buildings, streets, and other places. Similarly, your recreation of trench warfare seems to fit in with other descriptions, and you've seen the area. Sackville remains utterly wrong. In 1914-1916, the harbour wasn't even a memory, and the picture you create of stone walls, sea walls, and the shore doesn't match reality at all. This wouldn't matter if the story were set in a fictional town and especially if Kinnear were a totally fictional character, but under the circumstances, it matters.
A copyediting pencil couldn't simply cross out anachronisms, either. Some go pretty deep. I think The Girl's character is developed appropriately (that is, not very much), but to create a vivid secondary character in a few strokes it's necessary to rely on stereotypes to fill in the undeveloped spaces. By making her a horse-doctor, you seem to convey that she's more imaginative and forthright than usual, not that she's a woman of loose morals. The way in which she gets pregnant is believable for a town girl during WWII, or even for a working-class girl in a WWI factory. It isn't credible for a young woman self-employed in a rough business transacted in barns; she'd know exactly What Men Want and how to stay out of danger, and she'd have to guard her reputation to keep their trust. Her morals might resemble those of a farm woman; no decent farm woman would drink in a tavern with soldiers. Kinnear's life depends on this tiny scene, and it's not credible. Another pervasive issue is Alf Smith's swearing. He uses fuck and shit like a modern middle-aged man, whereas even contemporary teenagers and men who learned to curse during WWII put different spins on these words. How did men in 1915 actually swear? My sense is that both the words and the music need attention.
Copyediting couldn't take care of the numerous small anachronisms, either. When did knock-knock jokes begin? Were the terms Anglophone and francophone current before the 1960s? I got so hypersensitive that "heterosexual" on p. 106 sent me to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word first appeared in a medical dictionary in 1901 and in a newspaper in 1927.
I think you could salvage McGee by rewriting it in the third person, or possibly in the single voice of a fictional storyteller who meets both Kinnear and McGee overseas and lives to tell the tale. Either would make the narrating voice credible, and McGee, the ostensible subject of the book, could come into clearer focus. McGee and Smith could trade places in prominence, and the similarities between Smith and Kinnear (automatic questioning of authority, jokes tending towards wordplay and irony, fascination with hockey history), which now contribute to the lack of distinction between them, would become remarkable coincidences.
I'm terribly sorry to have to disappoint you like this. I wish I didn't have to, but the problems with McGee seem too deep-seated for simple correction. I'm sending the Ms back separately, and if you want to renovate it, I'd be glad to see it again.
All the best,