The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

April 28th was an important day for some men, historically-speaking. In 1770, James Cook, British captain of the Endeavour landed at Botany Bay in Australia. In 1789, the mutiny against Captain William Bligh of the Bounty erupted, led by Fletcher Christian. And in 1905, E.A. VanSickler completed this piece of calligraphy:



I stare at this piece every day. Ernest Albert VanSickler is my maternal grandfather. And, this is the only thing I have that once belonged to him. It’s a treasure. Imagine the hours he spent perfecting this calligraphy; the intensity of detail, the focus of eye, brain, and hand, the discipline to avoid a smudge and perfect each stroke. His energy and his DNA are both trapped behind the glass; though the man is something of a mystery to me. He was born November 7, 1889 in Toronto, Ontario; which means that Ernie was sixteen years old when he completed this work. I wonder: did he ever want to become an artist or a writer or a monk?

Ernie was twenty-two when he married my grandmother, and twenty-seven when he signed up to fight in the First World War on Spring Equinox 1916. He is listed as a roofer-contractor on his attestation papers.

Ernest A VanSickler (1)So much for the pen being mightier than the sword.

I don’t think it was entirely his idea. According to my aunt, Ernie and his father went off and got drunk that night and both signed up together. My grandmother was furious. In the five years they’d been married, they’d created four children: Jim, Grace (my mother), and Ernest and Arthur, a pair of delicate twin boys. His namesake Ernest Albert, actually died less than two months later on May 11, 1916. Had he shipped out already? And Arthur (who we called Tiny Tim) was forever sweet and fragile.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother, a twenty-five-year-old woman left with four children to tend while her husband went off to war. Cora was strong. I remember that. And she had her mother-in-law, tiny Annie, who kept her husband in line with an iron skillet; a trick she must have learned during her ten years of maid service (14-24) in England.

Ernest & Cora (1)

Ernie & Cora

We know that Ernie’s father was a drinker, and somewhat tricksy. On his attestation papers, James VanSickler claims his birthdate is August 20, 1871. He was actually born in 1862, but had he attested to the truth–that he was 54–he likely would have been rejected. And the thought of war abroad was too great an adventure to risk that.

James is described as being  5’11”,  dark complexion, dark brown hair, and blue eyes. His mother was Tuscarora (the sixth Iroquois nation); his father a Dutchman from a colony in New York. The family homesteaded in Michigan for several years. It was the frontier; a wild, dangerous place. When he was only ten, James’s father was killed in a bar fight. When his mother remarried his killer, James and his younger siblings ended up living with their grandmother back in Ontario.

Dupont Street house (1)

374 Dupont Street @Brunswick Avenue in Toronto

Later, the VanSicklers, father and son, ran one of the first gas stations in Toronto. They had an auto body and paint shop, and grew mushrooms in the basement. My mother refused to eat mushrooms ever after. The VanSicklers held dances for their customers.

Here they are throwing a party for the returning war heroes. It’s remarkable these two came home unscathed.

I would have loved to live in this house–sleep in that turreted tower. What stories are trapped beneath those shingles?


The pen is mightier than the sword.

These words were first spoken in Richelieu,  a historical play written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839. Richelieu says: “The pen is mightier than the sword… Take away the sword; states can be saved without it!”

I think I understand why sixteen-year-old Ernie would choose this adage. I see him as a warm, sweet, sensitive, happy-go-lucky guy–quite unlike his father. I see it in the twirling fronds, in the passionate precision he uses to highlight:


Surely, this was a man of the arts, not of the gas station. Could he have painted something other than cars? Still, country and family come first. I wish I had known him better. Wish I could remember more. I was just a kid when he passed away. But, perhaps he is with me still, whispering in my ear, breathing through his pen.

Ernie & Wendy

With Grandpa Van

What to Do with Goodreads

This is a good discussion regarding Goodreads for readers and writers. It starts with Kristen’s initial post, but the comments from other bloggers are excellent. You might learn a few things, like I did:)

Kristen Twardowski

Goodreads is the largest book review website on the internet. As of April 2017, it had 55 million members who wrote 50 million reviews and added 1.5 billion books. According to Quantcast, a website ranking and data collection site, around 400,000 unique visitors access the Goodreads each day from all around the world. Those numbers are all very impressive, but they don’t solve my problem.

I don’t have the slightest idea what to do with Goodreads.

I have a Goodreads page, but I haven’t done much with the rest of the site. There are great forums, lists of fabulous books on every subject imaginable, quotes from novels, ways to win books, and places to ask authors questions. But there are so many ways to interact with the Goodreads community that I don’t know where to start. I’ll admit that I usually don’t even look at a book’s Goodread’s rating before…

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What Mystery in your Life could be a Plot for a Book?

Goodreads is sponsoring Mystery Thriller Week from May 1-7, 2017.


To celebrate, I’ve joined “Ask the Author” and I’m busy answering questions. Please come by and visit my page. I’d love you to send me questions. One of the questions Goodreads sent to me is this:

What mystery in your own life could be a plot for a book?

I’ve answered it on Goodreads, but I also offer it here, so I can add photographs.

Murder on the Michigan Frontier

My life reads like a mystery; unfortunately, sharing the intriguing bits could get me sued by living breathing characters. It’s too close to now.

But there is another mystery in my life; one I’m most intrigued by, and which is on my list to write. It concerns one of my grandfathers: a man named Thomas.

He is the man I imagine. The one I stalk; or who perhaps stalks me. I wonder…does Thomas want me to unravel his tale? Seek evidence in centuries old documents? Does he demand justice for his murder? For that was always what the family called it: a murder.

As all good murder mysteries do, this one begins with a body: Thomas VanSickler was murdered at age thirty-seven while at a dance on the western Michigan frontier.

He and his wife Lezze moved south from Canada three years before. They’d been involved in the Red River Rebellion in 1869; the year Louis Riel was chosen as leader of the Resistance. Lezze was Tuscarora (Iroquois) and one of her brothers had already fled; a wanted man.

In 1870, Thomas is listed as a labourer, but by 1872 he is farming. He has $500 in real estate, and $275 in personal cash.

870c855b-c93e-4d52-b210-fe770798bf26 (2)

In a letter to his brother dated September 8, 1872 (likely the last letter he ever wrote) he says he has planted cabbages, corn, and potatoes, and has seven acres of buckwheat, almost ripe. He bought a three-year-old heifer who gives “a very good mess of milk” and paid $17 for a horse. Things are looking up for Thomas in Freemont, Michigan.

You might sea the boys. i got four now. We had one cume day before yesday, friday morning half past nine o’clock. He was nine pounds and a half. He is smart and missus is smart too. Well i can’t rite much this time for it is late…



Underneath his signature he writes that they named the baby Obadiah (after his father and brother.)

870c855b-c93e-4d52-b210-fe770798bf26 (1)

Within days, Thomas is dead.

I wonder now… just how smart is the missus?

Thomas is a jealous man with a bad temper. And a man, no doubt, who likes his whiskey. That night, while the two of them are out at some social event, a neighbour named Simon Mark flirts with Lezze. When Thomas notices, a fist fight erupts, and in the end, he is dead: a battered body on a sawdust floor.

Nothing too unusual there. Men drink, fights break out, bottles crack, knives flash, and heads break…


Lezze marries his killer within eighteen months. And when she dies in childbirth (three years and three pregnancies later) Simon Mark walks that fourth son to the nearest railway station, sticks a label on his chest, and puts him on a train bound for Canada. Obadiah is just seven years old.

Version 3


It is Obadiah who told the story of his father’s murder to his grand-daughters, who told it to me.

For seven years, Obadiah lived with the man who murdered his father. How would that affect a boy? And, what happened to the other four children? At the time of his murder, Alice was thirteen, James ten, John six, and William three. Did Lezze send them back to their grandmother in Canada because she couldn’t cope? Or was it Simon Mark’s idea?

And why did they always say that Thomas was murdered: a term that implies pre-meditation and motive.


Was Lezze involved with Simon Mark? Knowing of Thomas’s temper, why would she risk any association with another man in public?

Was Thomas drunk enough to rage, but too drunk to fight? Or was it all a tragic misunderstanding? An accident? Self-defence?

Was Simon Mark in love with Lezze, or did he just do the right thing by taking in the grieving widow and a brood of boys that would surely revenge their father’s death.

Did Lezze want to marry her husband’s killer? Was she forced? Or did the two of them conspire to rid the world of Thomas and gain Lezze her freedom?

What do you think? Does the Tale of Thomas have the makings of a historical mystery? Would you like to know what happened that September night out on the Michigan frontier?


The Child is Father of the Man

     My heart leaps up when I behold
              A rainbow in the sky:
          So was it when my life began;
          So is it now I am a man;
          So be it when I shall grow old,
              Or let me die!
          The Child is father of the Man;
              I could wish my days to be
          Bound each to each by natural piety.
William Wordsworth, 1802


Do we change as we mature or does our essence remain true?

William Wordsworth answered that question in 1802 with his famous paradox, and Realm of History explores it today in this remarkable post.

World Leaders in Their Youth

To Honour the Sacred Birds

bird-nest-560384_1920Yesterday, a low-flying great blue heron crossed my path with a blossoming branch in his beak. He was on route from the tidal flat to a small colony of eight nesting pairs in the tall bare trees beside the trail. Then this afternoon, my friend thrilled at the hummingbird courtship antics happening outside her window. Tonight, I watched a pair of mallards try and lead me away from their nest in the muddy creekbed. So, in honour of all the birds that are working so hard right now, courting, building nests, laying and incubating their precious eggs, I want to share this beautiful piece.

When I first heard it, a few weeks ago, on this wonderful Sacred Nature album by Philip Carr-Gomme, it captured my heart. It’s on the track called “Healing Sleep”.  He says it is a lullaby from the Scottish Highlands. I’d love to credit the poet, but I don’t know who that is. If you know, please comment. You can read more about the album on Philip Carr-Gomme’s blog.

This piece gives me comfort I cannot explain, which is really the best kind, isn’t it? It wraps around my ragged spirit like a nest of feathers and brings me peace. Listen if you can. The recitation by Glasgow actor, Scott Reid, is accompanied by beautiful vocals and healing harp strains. Here are the words:


The nest of the Raven is in the hawthorn rock

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Seagull is in the rock of droppings

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Ptarmigan is in the rough mountain

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Mavis is in the bonny copse

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Blackbird is in the withered bow

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Skylark is in the track of a cow

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Pigeon is in the red crags

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Wild Duck is in the bank of the lakelet

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Cuckoo is in the hedge sparrow’s nest

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Sea Lark is in the level shingle beach

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Teal Duck is in the breast of the tree

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Lapwing is in the hummocked marsh

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Kite is in the high of the mountain slope

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Wren is in the rock thicket

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Plover is in the wooden copse

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Red Hen is in the green red-tipped heather

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Starling is under the wing of the thatch

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Heath Hen is in the marshland knot

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Curlew is in the bubbling peat moss

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Oystercatcher is among the smooth shingles

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Heron is in the pointed trees

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Bullfinch is in the wood of the dell

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Stonechat is in the garden dyke

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird


The nest of the Rook is in the tree’s top

My Little One Will Sleep and He Shall Have the Bird





A Brilliance of Birds


Dare I say it? A halo of hummingbirds?

Doing research this afternoon, I discovered this wonderful compilation by Terry Ross ( and thought it fascinating enough to share. It’s posted through the Baltimore Bird Club but I offer it here.

Just a quick scan, creates favourites. Some are melancholy: a murmuration of starlings; a pitying of turtle doves. Others lavish: an ostentation of peacocks; a parliament of owls.

Meanwhile, a siege of herons is nesting in the tall trees beside the nearby sea, and I often  succomb to a charm of finches. Thank you, Terry Ross, for this.

Group Names for Birds: A Partial List

A bevy of quail
A bouquet of pheasants [when flushed]
A brood of hens
A building of rooks
A cast of hawks [or falcons]
A charm of finches
A colony of penguins
A company of parrots
A congregation of plovers
A cover of coots
A covey of partridges [or grouse or ptarmigans]
A deceit of lapwings
A descent of woodpeckers
A dissimulation of birds
A dole of doves
An exaltation of larks
A fall of woodcocks
A flight of swallows [or doves, goshawks, or cormorants]
A gaggle of geese [wild or domesticated]
A host of sparrows
A kettle of hawks [riding a thermal]
A murmuration of starlings
A murder of crows
A muster of storks
A nye of pheasants [on the ground]
An ostentation of peacocks
A paddling of ducks [on the water]
A parliament of owls
A party of jays
A peep of chickens
A pitying of turtledoves
A raft of ducks
A rafter of turkeys
A siege of herons
A skein of geese [in flight]
A sord of mallards
A spring of teal
A tidings of magpies
A trip of dotterel
An unkindness of ravens
A watch of nightingales
A wedge of swans [or geese, flying in a “V”]
A wisp of snipe

Any of these group names may properly be used by birders who wish to display their erudition, although it is probably linguistically inaccurate (and it certainly is bad manners) to upbraid someone who refers to “a bunch of ravens” by saying, “Surely you mean `an unkindness of ravens,’ my good fellow.” Most of these terms date back at least 500 years. Some of them have been in continuous use since then; others have gone out of fashion and been resurrected in the last century or two; still others only exist on lists.

Most of these terms are listed in James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks. Lipton’s list is substantially based on very old sources. There were manuscript lists of group names in the 15th century, and these lists appeared in some of the first books printed in England. Many of them make their first appearance in John Lydgate’s Debate between the Horse, Goose, and Sheep (1440); and Lydgate’s terms along with others appear in The Book of Hawking and Hunting (also known as The Book of St. Albans) by Dame Juliana Barnes (1486). Whether Lydgate and Barnes coined any of these terms, or whether they were setting down the terms that were considered proper in their day is not known. Many of the terms did catch on, and the lists they appeared on were frequently reprinted.

The best source I know for investigating the histories of English words is the Oxford English Dictionary. Unfortunately, on the question whether these terms ever were or still are appropriate, the OED is not entirely helpful. To make sense of the matter, I have placed the group names into groups–

GROUP A–The following group names are standard:
A bevy of quail
A bouquet of pheasants
A brood of hens
A cast of hawks
A charm of finches
A covey of partridges
A flight of swallows
A gaggle of geese
A nye of pheasants
A siege of herons
A skein of geese
A trip of dotterel
A wisp of snipe

GROUP B–These terms are not group names for a particular type of bird, but have been commonly used for many different types:

GROUP C–These terms are archaic; they were once obsolete, but they have been revived somewhat in the 19th or 20th centuries:
A building of rooks
A murmuration of starlings
A muster of peacocks
A peep of chickens
A sord of mallards
A spring of teal
A watch of nightingales

GROUP D–These terms are obsolete; they appeared on the old lists, but almost nobody has used them in centuries:
A congregation of plovers
A dissimulation of birds
A dole of doves
A fall of woodcock
A host of sparrows
A paddling of ducks
An unkindness of ravens

GROUP E–These terms are not in the OED at all as group names for birds:
A cover of coots
A kettle of hawks
A murder of crows
An ostentation of peacocks
A pitying of turtledoves
A rafter of turkeys
A tidings of magpies

My categories are imprecise, but they provide some guidance about usage. Have no qualms about using any of the terms in group A; use the terms in group B for any group of birds that seems apt; use the terms in groups C and D only if you don’t mind being thought pedantic or literary; avoid the terms in group E unless you know something the OED doesn’t.

Alas, the OED itself is not totally reliable: the word “kettle” (as both a noun and a verb) has been used by hawk watchers for many years, and it has often appeared in print; the OED editors obviously are not birders. It may well be that the other terms in group E appear on the 15th-century lists and were simply missed.

Reading from To Sleep with Stones

Launching a new book is thrilling. One of the things I enjoy most is reading from my books. It’s one thing to read aloud in front of the computer; it’s quite another to feel the energy of a live audience. Thanks everyone who came and made this moment so special.

At the Gallery Bistro last week, I read one of the scenes where the witches of Hollystone Coven engage in a Summer Solstice ritual at Buntzen Lake in BC. This is the first scene in To Sleep with Stones where we meet Estrada.

Sexy and flawed, Estrada is a free-spirited magician by trade, and high priest of Hollystone Coven by vocation. In this story, he travels to Scotland to solve a mystery and free his friend, Dylan, who’s been imprisoned for murder.

Summer Solstice at Buntzen Lake