Book Reviews

Ottawa Rewind

unearths fascinating quirks of Ottawa

Ottawa Rewind: A Book of Curios and Mysteries, by Andrew King. (Ottawa Press and Publishing, Canada, 2019)

Reviewed by Eleanor Thomas

Sometimes you pick up a book and think “This is going to be fun.” Ottawa Rewind, by local author Andrew King, is such a book. It is a compendium of fine little research adventures, lived and recorded by the author. Reading the table of contents is like walking through the door of a country flea market with antiques and collectibles displayed for your enjoyment. The book includes treasures like lost motels in the Greenbelt, solstice pyramids, Ottawa River shipwrecks, Ottawa’s first pub and scores more.

Andrew King lives near Manotick, but he grew up in Prince Edward County. He was intrigued from an early age by the history of the St. Lawrence River and the people living on its shores.

King studied industrial design and animation in Ottawa and he earns his living painting and illustrating. Local history is a hobby he pursues as a break from art. King describes himself as a fan of Ottawa and he has been exploring mysteries in and around the city for years. He has documented many of these in a blog, also called Ottawa Rewind. The first report to be posted there, “The Orenda Ring,” appeared in December 2013 and a new tale has been posted monthly since then. There are more than 60 stories on the blog to date, and 38 of them appear in the book.

Most of the tales take place in or near Ottawa. Some deal with fairly recent history, like story of the cool tiki bar (The Beachcomber Room) at the Talisman Hotel on Carling Avenue which closed in 1991. Others date from the Second World War, such as the mystery of the lost B-17 from the Rockcliffe Air Base which simply disappeared over the Atlantic in 1944 on a return trip from delivering mail and supplies to Canadian troops in Morocco.

The book goes back even farther, to a lost Iroquois village, Toniata, on the St. Lawrence River near Prescott. King noticed the village on a 300-year-old map he bought at a flea market. “This mysterious village has vanished from all records, its whereabouts unknown,” writes King. Intrigued, he set off to search through centuries-old records to learn more. He found a reference to the village in a 1654 account and other reports of native Indians living at a settlement of that name around the same time. He followed clues from later records and with the help of Google maps, he believes he has found the exact spot where the village was located. “Perhaps we should let this centuries-old village remain quietly hidden, its secrets buried for eternity,” he writes. “Or maybe Canadian archaeologists would like to explore and unearth its remains, revealing more about early St. Lawrence Iroquois history, a chapter in time that has eluded much study.”

There are many tales from the 1800s. For example, he discovered that the sundials on an old convent building on Sussex Drive were completed in 1851 and are the second oldest on the continent. He also tells of an enormous serpent-like creature that lived in the Ottawa River near Arnprior in the late 1800s. It had been spotted by several terrified observers over the years and was finally captured in 1882 by the crew of a steamship, the Levi Young. The Arnprior Chronicle reported that it was 11 feet long, more than a foot thick and had huge jaws. Snake, catfish or eel? No one knows, and no further records have been found.

In another story, “The Witch of Plum Hollow,” King reports on a widow named Mother Barnes who turned to fortune-telling to earn a living after her second husband deserted her in the 1850s. She became famous for the accuracy of her prophecies which she dispensed from her home in a log cabin that is still standing near Perth.

One delightful aspect of King’s blog is the feedback from readers. He has included some of these comments in the book. Several readers had heard of the witch and one had a direct connection. “I remember a story my grandfather told me of his father going to see her to get help on solving a mystery at the family farm in the Chesterville area,” the reader wrote. “Let’s just say, the trip was worth it.”

These are just a few of the dozens of gems to be found in King’s collection of stories. The writing style is engaging, the topics are fascinating and the illustrations are quirky and entertaining. This is a book that everyone will enjoy.

Ottawa Rewind is available in the Glebe at Octopus Books, in other independent bookstores and at Chapters, Indigo and Coles chain stores in Ottawa. The Ottawa Rewind blog may be accessed at: Andrew King’s art work may be viewed on his website:

Eleanor Thomas has lived in the Glebe for 45 years. She is a fan of the Glebe, the city of Ottawa and the Rideau Waterway.

Ralph Smith:
transfixed by Dickens

Concession Street Secrets,
by Ralph Smith, 2019.

Reviewed by Ian McKercher

Ralph Smith, Glebe resident and author of Concession Street Secrets, a novel set in the streets of historic Ottawa

Ralph Smith was born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan in 1948. A Glebe resident since 2007, he also owns a house near Pau in south west France where he vacations every year.

Smith is a writer with a consuming passion for the work of Charles Dickens. This fascination was engendered by Smith’s Grade 7 teacher Mrs. Fisher, who read David Copperfield out loud to her class. “Many of my classmates were clearly bored by Mrs. Fisher’s story time,” Smith admits, “but I sat there transfixed by the powerful narrative.”

By the time he finished Grade 12, Smith had read the complete works of Dickens. Following an undergraduate degree at the University of Saskatchewan, he went on to do a Master’s degree at the University of Regina on Charles Dickens and the Victorian underworld – a world Dickens portrayed in graphic detail in many of his novels. In 1972, Smith received a travel scholarship to do research in London, England. He completed his thesis in 1974.

From 1973 to 1987, Smith did policy work for the government of Saskatchewan in a variety of fields, including energy and social services. In 1987, he moved to Ottawa to take a position with what was then the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (currently Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations). He worked on the social services side, travelling the nation to negotiate the development of childcare organizations on reserves. He also worked in Human Resources Development Canada on policies including homelessness for which he received a Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee medal in 2002.

Smith turned 58 in 2006, took early retirement and immediately began work on a Ph.D. at the University of Ottawa. He completed his thesis on Dickens and fever in 2012. “I explored the way Dickens represented the spread of epidemics and the way he used fever figuratively in his writings,” says Smith. “Epidemics were a major health issue in all of England and especially in inner-city London in the 1840s. Health authorities of the day blamed the epidemics on the poor. Dickens, however, championed the poor population as morally superior to the wealthy of the day and constantly portrayed working-class heroes in his writings.”

Smith took a correspondence course in short story writing from Stanford University in 2014, followed by a two-year on-line Stanford course in novel writing, which he felt was a turning point in his own writing.

Although Smith names Wilkie Collins and James Joyce as favoured authors, Charles Dickens clearly has influenced his own fiction writing. The anthropomorphic references such as “houses conspiring” and “angry trees frothing” – those connections between the organic and inorganic – are one recognizable trait. Smith, like Dickens, also portrays the trials of the underdogs in life. Oliver Twist, Pip and David Copperfield could be models for Smith’s Eliza Malkins and Alex O’Shea.

Smith’s first mystery novel, Concession Street Secrets, was published this spring. The book is a genre blend on the border between mystery and gothic fiction. It’s set in Ottawa and Kingston in 1868, the year after Confederation. The heights at the north end of Concession Street (currently Bronson Avenue) sprouted the homes of affluent owners of the lumber mills down below and beside the Chaudière Falls. The fractured Baker family lives there in a “sombre stone house” behind “a heavy oak door with black iron studs” where “the door knocker sounded like bones rattling together.” That sets the mood for the multiple layers of mystery that unfold within.

The novel weaves together the offspring of several dysfunctional families who all harbour secret pasts. The protagonist, Alex O’Shea, is a 27-year-old journalist from the Kingston Whig who writes murder mystery stories on the side. He is haunted by the death of his mother when he was a child and by his subsequent abuse at the Christian Brothers’ Boarding School in Kingston.

O’Shea’s colleague at the Kingston Whig is an interesting and sympathetic “intersex” character in the novel who functions as both Eliza Malkins and Timothy Fairlight. Secretly in love with Alex, she cares for her delusional mother, a widow who refuses to believe that her son, a sailor, has been lost at sea.

Parliament Hill is part of O’Shea’s journalism beat. In Ottawa, he stumbles upon the child-like Mary Baker, youngest daughter in the mysterious Baker family of Concession Street. Here we are introduced to the ever-so-innocent Mary (or is she?), her protective older sister Maddie (or is she?), predatory Uncle George (or is he?) and the devious butler Benson (or is he?). A veritable cauldron of deception and deceit.

Concession Street Secrets is available on Amazon in both electronic format and P.O.D. (print on demand) and from Barnes & Noble.

Ian McKercher is a long-time Glebe resident, a former Glebe Collegiate teacher, a part-time historian and a current novelist, whose latest work, Carbon Copy, has just been published.

Celebrate the season with picture books

By Kelly Sirett

As the weather gets colder and days become shorter, a special excitement sets in for book lovers – it’s the perfect time of year to stay home and cuddle up with a good book. December is also a time for traditions. Years ago, I met a family at the library who told me about their tradition of creating an advent calendar with library books. Each day, they discover a new story or revisit an old favourite. Children’s picture books are written to be read aloud and shared with others, so what better way to celebrate the season than by reading one with someone you love? Here are some of my favourite holiday-season picture books that I would like to share as my gift to you.

One of my favourite books to read this time of year (and one that I always recommend) is A Coyote Solstice Tale, written by acclaimed author Thomas King with illustrations by Gary Clement. King brings his renowned storytelling ability, sharp wit and insightful observations to this delightful tale. Told in rhyming verse, the story centres on a winter solstice celebration in the woods, but it also offers a critique of the consumerism and excessive consumption all too frequent at this time of year. Celebrate the winter solstice with this playful story, which is sure to incite discussion and make you laugh.

Meerkat Christmas is a heart-warming story from one of my favourite creators of children’s books – award-winning author and illustrator Emily Gravett. Fans of her work will recognize meerkat Sunny from Meerkat Mail, published in 2016. This time, Sunny embarks on a trip around the world to find the perfect Christmas which, of course, must include well-boiled Brussels sprouts. Sunny keeps in touch with his family back home in the Kalahari desert by sending cards from each place he visits. This is a beautiful and engaging picture book with a sweet message that readers of all ages will enjoy.

La fabuleuse nuit de Noël by Marilyn Faucher tells the story of Marie, a young girl who loves Christmas. It’s Christmas Eve when Marie’s mother realizes that they do not have enough flour to make cookies for Santa. Faced with the possibility that this could ruin Christmas, Marie offers to help. She convinces her reluctant brother Benoit to set off on an evening adventure through the dark woods. What Marie and Benoit find on their quest is nothing less than a Christmas miracle. A lovely story with beautiful illustrations.

Canadian author and photographer Nancy Rose, who captured our hearts with The Secret Life of Squirrels, features some holiday cheer (and her squirrels) in Merry Christmas, Squirrels! Through photographs and words, this book tells the charming tale of Mr. Peanuts, a most unusual squirrel celebrating his favourite season. What is truly remarkable about Nancy Rose’s books is that she stages the photographs in her backyard in Nova Scotia and does not digitally manipulate them to position the squirrels; instead, she hides nuts to entice them.

Did you know that children in the U.K. leave Santa a meat pie rather than milk and cookies? Or that there are more than 600 varieties of Christmas tree? Learn these and so many more unusual facts about the holidays in National Geographic Kids’ Bizarre mais vrai! Noël (a translation of the popular Weird but True! series). This book will engage young readers, help entertain the whole family on long drives and could even be a helpful distraction from unwelcome dinner conversation topics.

Beloved author Lemony Snicket takes on the holidays with this laugh-out-loud funny and extremely clever book, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. With beautiful illustrations by Lisa Brown, this is the story of a frightened and misunderstood latke living in a Christmas-obsessed world. Mistaken for hash browns, told to write a Christmas carol and nearly offered as a present, this poor latke cannot seem to make anyone understand that “Christmas and Hanukkah are completely different things.” But don’t worry, this story has a happy – or at least tasty – ending!

A spin on the classic Little Red Riding Hood, Little Red Ruthie: A Hanukkah Tale, written by Gloria Koster with illustrations by Sue Eastland, introduces readers to Hanukkah traditions in a clever and humorous way. Little Red Ruthie is off to visit her Bubbe Bashe to make latkes when, of course, she encounters a wolf. Ruthie’s quick wit (and the tasty latkes she makes) help her save the day. And, like all good books about latkes, there’s a recipe at the back of the book.

Kelly Sirett is a librarian and the Coordinator at the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. She has many interests and loves many things – but especially sunny days, first and last lines and doing the hokey pokey.

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