It's hard to imagine anyone asking a 14 year old to strike out on their own now, but in 1837, when Dory Dickson leaves his Niagara home, he's asked to shoulder all of his family's most desperate hopes. After the harvest failed and the family horse died, it's up to Dory to earn enough before spring planting to buy a new horse and save the entire Dickson clan.
The protagonist of Jean Rae Baxter's new novel Battle on the Ice (Crossfield Publishing), Dory's struggles give him a front row seat to some of Canada's most tumultuous history. Soon after he comes across Duncan Fraser, a Patriot recruiter determined to overthrow the Government of Upper Canada and establish a new republic, he gets his big break: a contract to deliver an heirloom spinning wheel and loom via sled to Lake Erie's north shore.
As Dory navigates his mission, he meets an eclectic cast of characters who capture the experiences of the era. Dory is determined to stay out of politics and potential wars, to focus on his task and get home to his family. But a shocking discovery derails his plans when he finds out that the 'heirlooms' he's been tasked with delivery as in fact weapons meant for Patriot rebels.
Meticulously researched and filled with vibrant characters who bring Canadian history to life on the page, Battle on the Ice is a joy for historical fiction fans. We're speaking with Jean about the book today for our Long Story interview series for novelists. We hear about Jean's personal family connection to the wild events of the novel, about the importance of imbuing even minor characters with life and interest, and about the character with whom not only Dory but Baxter herself fell in love.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
Jean Rae Baxter:
My purpose always is to tell Canada’s story from a Canadian point of view. But in the case of Battle on the Ice, I had a personal interest as well. because my own ancestors were involved in the historical events that are at the centre of this work of historical fiction. At the time of the Patriot Rebellion, my great-great-great-grandfather, George Fox, lived on Pelee Island. So did his brothers John Fox and Henry Fox. None of them supported the rebellion. All three suffered substantial loss at the hands of the American invaders.
There was yet another brother, Jacob Fox, who lived on the mainland, in Gosfield Township, near the small hamlet of Albertville, on the north shore of Lake Erie, near present-day Kingsville. Thereby hangs another part of my tale, because Jacob Fox was on the other side. Thus, it became a conflict of loyalties when Jacob tried to reconcile his active support for the invasion of Pelee Island with his genuine concern for his brothers and their families living there.
This was a story I wanted to tell. I started my research for Battle on the Ice back in 2015. It took a long time to gather all the pieces together and resolve this issue in my own mind as well as in the pages of my book.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
I chose Pelee Island as the setting for two reasons. The first and more important was the fact that the Battle of Pelee Island is a significant event in Canada’s history. The second and more personal reason is that my ancestors were among the first settlers on Pelee Island and were living there during the occupation by an American armed force in 1838.
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My great-great-great-grandfather’s log cabin, which he built about 1830, is the oldest house on Pelee Island. It is beautifully cared for as a summer home by the present owner. When I began writing Battle on the Ice, I was looking for a way to put this very special place into the story. Thus George Fox’s cabin became the place where my protagonist Dory Dickson and his horse Labelle find warmth and safety after their sled broke through the ice. I used it also to show the unruly mob of invaders taking over and looting a Pelee Islander’s home.
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts?
The ending did not change through my drafts. I had a clear concept for this novel, with the characters and their situation vivid in my mind from the beginning. It is a coming-of-age story. As is “classic” within that genre, the young protagonist Dory Dickson has a challenge to meet and overcome. It is up to him to save the family farm. To achieve this, he sets out to obtain a horse to pull the plough in time for spring planting. He succeeds in his quest. His experiences along the way teach him about life and love, politics and human nature. I bring him home not only successful but also enriched. He and his beloved horse will continue to be a team. He has gained the friendship of a lively, intelligent girl with whom he is already slightly in love. He has attained the stature of a man in his father’s eyes. That was my plan for the novel; I wrote it as planned.
The historical facts were, of course, unalterable. An illegal American army from Sandusky invaded Pelee Island in late February, 1838. A British/Canadian army, commanded by Colonel John Maitland, marched across the fifteen-inch-thick ice from Fort Malden (Amhersburg) swept through the island, liberating it from the invaders, and then on March 3rd, defeated them in a pitched battle fought on the ice just off the southern tip of Pelee Island.
What I did through the successive drafts of this novel was develop physical setting and add details to make the characters vivid and interesting. Even a minor character must have something distinctive, a life of her (or his) own. As an example, take Mrs. Hoover in Chapter Ten. The details describing her table setting and her appearance were added in the course of the second and third drafts:
"She [the maid] led me to the dining room, where an old lady sat at the table, looking as though she were about to start eating. By the light of two tall candles in silver candlesticks, I saw that the table was laid for one person, with a teapot, a cup of tea already poured, a small platter of sandwiches, and several cupcakes on a china plate. The old lady’s dress was black, and she wore a black lace widow’s cap over her white hair. She regarded me through steel-rimmed spectacles of such thickness that her eyes appeared huge."
Another detail requiring attention was Dory’s long, red, knitted scarf. Because I was going to use it in the rescue of Peter Dash, I could not let the reader forget its existence and potential. That is one of the reasons why I include the scene where Mrs. Hoover’s flirtatious maid wraps it around Dory’s neck.
Typically, I spend about one year working out where I want a novel to go, and another year getting it there. I never write the first chapter until I know what is going to happen at the end.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
Dory Dickson is the novel’s main character, which gives him the undoubted rank of “favourite”. But amongst the other characters that people this book, I must name Anna Fox, Jacob Fox’s younger daughter. We first meet her in Chapter 18:
"Then came Anna, who was close to my age. She had light brown hair, parted in the middle and braided smoothly, and large brown eyes. She was seated at a small table, upon which a book lay open. Anna’s face was too solemn and serious to call pretty, but I liked the look of her."
To all appearances, Anna is a typical 19th-century young woman. She helps her mother cook. She practices needlework. There is nothing in her behaviour or demeanour to suggest that she is a student of politics. Her own father would never suspect it, and Dory is surprised to learn that she has read her father’s copy of William Lyon Mackenzie’s radical newspaper, The Constitution. Anna has become “book learned” all on her own. She loves the poetry of Shelley and Lord Byron, but blushes—as a Victorian maiden should—at the thought of their “scandalous lives.” I would like to know more about her. What is Anna likely to do with her life? By the end of the story, Dory is starting to fall in love with her, and so am I.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
The Battle on the Ice, like any work of historical fiction, required a tremendous amount of research. First, I needed to understand the political situation in the 1830s that brought Upper Canada to the verge of civil war. This meant studying the career of William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the rebellion. Because my protagonist Dory Dickson spends a day reading William Lyon Mackenzie’s newspaper The Constitution and its conservative rival the Upper Canada Gazette, I had to read them too. Using the Internet, I found a copy of the first page of the September 16, 1837, issue of The Constitution and the April 20 first page of the Gazette.
At one point in the novel, a young woman, Miranda, announces that she is going into the village of Morpeth to post a letter. Did Morpeth have a post office in 1838? This is the kind of detail that requires the writer to check the facts. To learn whether Toronto had a post office that early would not be difficult. The Ontario Archives has that information---but none for a little village like Morpeth. It took me half a day to locate the website of the Morpeth Heritage Club, with all the old stories there recorded in The Farmhouse Chronicles. Yes, there was indeed a Morpeth Post Office, established by Postmaster Jacob Wheatley in 1831. And so it is safe for me to let Miranda walk to Morpeth in 1838 to mail her letter.
Although enormously valuable, the Internet does not give access to everything. There is nothing that can replace a visit to the place where historical events took place or where the local museum, library or town archives keeps dusty documents. An hour’s discussion with a curator sometimes leads to unexpected discoveries that add wonderful details bringing a time and place vividly to life.
By the time Covid struck, I had already followed Dory Dickson’s route from his home on Queenston Heights through all the towns and villages along the Talbot Trail, with three research visits to Pelee Island to use the resources of the Pelee Island Heritage Centre. But I still had not been to Fort Erie, another place where part of the plot in Battle on the Ice unfolds. I needed to know where the Justice of the Peace performed marriages, and whether Fort Erie had a Courthouse in 1838. Because travel was impossible in 2020 and I could not find answers through the usual search engines, I emailed individuals who might be able to help. The response was amazing. The Systems Administrator of the Fort Erie Public Library passed on my enquiry to the Adult Services Librarian, who put me in touch with the Manager, Fort Erie Museum and Cultural Services. Everyone wanted to help. Unfortunately, no record exists as to where the Justice of the Peace held court. But I did learn that he wore a green sash while performing his Magisterial duties and that Fort Erie had jail cells in the Town Hall.
I spent five years on my research for Battle on the Ice. The pages of notes in my binder are two inches thick. There is much more that I could relate about this research. It would take a book of its own.
Jean Rae Baxter holds a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Toronto and a B.Ed. from Queen’s. She has been nominated for the 2022 Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media: the Pierre Berton Award. Although she grew up in Hamilton, “down home” was Essex County, where her ancestors had settled, some as Loyalists in the 1780’s following the American Revolution and some a century earlier, in the days of New France.
Jean has written six historical novels, the “Forging a Nation Series,” covering the period from 1777 to 1793. With The Battle on the Ice, she moves ahead to the Patriot Wars of 1837-1838. Jean’s historical novels have won awards in Canada and the United States, including all three Moonbeam medals–Gold, Silver, Bronze—for Young Adult Historical Fiction. She has also authored a murder mystery, Looking for Cardenio, and two short story collections, Twist of Malice and Scattered Light. As a teacher of creative writing Jean holds workshops on using the tools of fiction to bring family history to life.