As I have mentioned before, I recently graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s MA in Public History. Finally finishing school is a pretty big milestone and turning point in one’s life but on the day of my graduation I also accomplished another big feat, seeing my first published book.
Graduation day with my book Letters to God's Country.
This book is the culmination of a semester-long project I did for Dr. Jonathan Vance’s class “Canada and the First World War.” Instead of writing a regular term-paper I had the option of editing a collection of First World War letters and getting the book published, which is obviously the option I chose.
At the beginning of the term I had a choice of which letters I would like to work with and this set particularly caught my eye. They were all sent from Canadian soldiers home to Reverend J. Ewing Reid of their church, Alhambra Avenue Presbyterian Church in Toronto, thanking him and the congregation for care packages they had received. I was fascinated by their contents, some as brief as two or three lines, others run on for pages talking about anything and everything except time on the battlefield. I knew immediately after leafing through them that I had to find out more information about these men.
Luckily for me, the United Church of Canada Archives had some microfilmed material from the Alhambra Ave. church which I was able to order through inter-library loan. It was mostly the minutes of various committee meetings, but it did allow me to gain some insight into the culture at the church and learn a little about the care packages. Again, luckily for me, one of the men mentioned that he attended Humberside Collegiate Institute in Toronto. I looked up the school and to my immense surprise, the school has its own archives! I was eventually able to set up a meeting time with the archivist after school and look through their records to identify all of “my soldiers” who had attended the school.
Aside from their names in the graduation programs at Humberside, the only other information I had to work from was the attestation papers of each soldier. While these documents come with their own unique set of problems, like the tendency for men to lie about past military service, age or profession to increase their chances of being accepted, they allowed me to broaden my knowledge of each soldier. In their biographical notes I was able to state when they enlisted, their profession and any other information which may have been provided.
Letters to God's Country, edited by me! Note that the picture on the postage stamp is Alhambra Ave. Presbyterian Church as it would have been during the First World War.
I also searched through the Commonwealth War Graves database to determine which of these men never returned home and to my surprise, I found only one entry. There were a few other troubles I encountered during the completion of this book, namely interpreting the handwriting. Although I made my best effort and Dr. Vance double-checked all the words I had trouble with, there are unfortunately still some illegible words.
One of the last things I did was chose a title for the book. I wanted it to be interesting and relevant to the subject-matter but naming things has never been my forte, ask any professor who has read the titles on my papers. At the closing of one of the letters, one of the men expressed his sincere wish to return to “God’s Country” and this expression stuck with me. Canada must have appeared to truly be God’s country in comparison to the carnage and destruction happening all around these men day in and day out.
Overall, the experience of editing this collection of letters has been incredible. I learned about creating annotations for historical documents, the layout and design process for a book and most of all, about the dedicated souls from Alhambra Ave. Presbyterian Church, who were willing to lay down their lives for “God’s Country.”