Prince Albert Daily Herald Review - Saskatchewan Heroes and Rogues

Saskatchewan's heroes, rogues get immortalized in book
Reviewed by: Bill Glisky

When Ruth Millar talks about the characters in her book Saskatchewan Heroes and Rogues, she sounds less like an author and more like a proud parents recounting the exploits of her exceptional children.

And well she should.

Millar's work - which recounts the stories of 12 remarkable people who have at some point resided in Saskatchewan - is the culmination of an idea that germinated some 30 years ago.

Absent from this collection are such prominent names as John Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas, Gordie Howe and Catriona Le May Doan, Joni Mitchell and Buffy Sainte-Marie. 

Instead these are the stories of people of lesser renown, but not necessarily less impressive: war heroes such as Gladys Arnold and Father John Claffey; missionaries such as Jean Ewen and Richard St. Barbe Baker; and rogues and racals such as Two-Gun Cohen and Charlier Palmer. 

Millar can recount their accomplishments off the top of her head, as easily as most people can recount what they had for lunch. But Millar's recollections are filled with a contagious passion and enthusiasm for these now largely forgotten legends who share one principal trait.

"It's all about audacity," Millar enthuses about the people whose stories she tells. "It's about people who were intrepid and daring and fearless.

"Even some of those who were rascals were fearless in their own way. And people like to read about rascals. They are always interesting.

I know I could never have the courage that these people had."

However, Millar's tale in developing her first book is almost as imressive as many of the stories in it. 

Originally a reporter with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Millar became a libarian after starting a family. She became historian at the Saskatoon Public library, eventually becoming head of the department.

In the early 1970s in the course of her work, she began to clip out magazine and newspaper articles on outstanding Canadians. She developed quite a collection of articles and pictures, at one point appearing on local television station CFQC to display some of her historic pictures.

"That was the seed from which everything sprouted," she recalled.

In 1998, she put together a photo exhibit called Rogues, Heroes, Adventurers and Trailblazers.

"People loved it. They were swarmed in to see it," she said. From there it seemed a short step toward putting her love of words and her love of history together.

In practice, the task proved monumental. Eventually Millar retired from the library to devote her time to her book, which despite her years of gathering information still took about three years to complete.

"There was no way I could have done this without retiring," she said. "I literally went across the country -- from Ottawa to Victoria -- doing research.

And if you include the Internet, I went all over the world. I certainly could not have gotten this done in three years without the Internet."

While some of her subjects, such as Two-Gun Cohen and Gladys Arnold, were well-documented and archived, others such as Big Tom Hourie, were not.

"For some of the matieral, I had to follow the trail and piece things together like patchwork," she said. "For Tom Hourie, I went through book after book after book on the Riel Rebellion and his name just kept popping up everywhere.

"Some times it would just be bits and pieces. But I have that detective streak in me. I wouldn't give up. The harder something was to find, the more fun it was for me." 

She scoured countless books, delving deeply into topics such as the First and Second world wars, the Riel Rebellion, the Yukon Gold Rush, the Sino-Japanese War and China, particularly during the 1930s. 

"I learned a lot about the 1930s," she noted. "That was a particularly interesting time, especially in China and two of the people in this book spent time in China."

She also received help from a myriad of sources. She talked to archivists, librarians and historians from all over, some of whom she contacted, others who contacted her after hearing about her interest in a particular person.

Other bits of information came from more unusual sources.

"At one point, I heard from a man in Kazakhstan -- I have no idea how he found out that I was interested -- who told me he had been to visit Norman Bethune's grave and right nearby was Jean Ewen's grave," she recalled.

On another occasion she was contacted by the nephew of Norman Falkner, a one-legged figure skater.

"I would send out feelers and people would send things back to me," she said. "Some days it wouldn't amount to much, and others would be 'eureka' days when I'd find that missing piece or something would just fall into place." 

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