Hands-on history

Sally Cole scole@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 11, 2016

For Canadians, the birth of Confederation is a popular subject.

In fact, approximately 50 books and 100 journal articles have been written on the topic.

So when Deirdre Kessler and Douglas Baldwin were asked by Nimbus to write a book about the road to Confederation for its "Stories of our Past" series, they wanted to create something that would be informative and visual.

"For the most part, unless we have good imaginations, we don't necessarily know all of the social, cultural, meteorological and artistic views of a place," says Kessler, who set about collecting details like the weather and the moon phases during the Charlottetown Conference in 1864.

Then there was the history that occurred before the Fathers of Confederation set foot in Charlottetown as well as everything that happened at the conference.


"We tried to write it in a lively manner that would keep the interest of the general reader who grew up in a different age than when the first Confederation books were written," says Baldwin, a Canadian historian, during an Internet interview.

"We also tried to include the conclusions of the more recent analytic works without getting bogged down in details."

Working together, the co-authors have created a historical reference for adults that blends Kessler's artistic background and Baldwin's academic background in an engaging manner.

"It worked perfectly .... We decided who would research and write the different sections of the book and then sent the different drafts back and forth," says Baldwin, who is Kessler's brother-in-law.

The result is a colourful, pocket-sized guide, "The Charlottetown Conference and the Birth of Confederation" (Nimbus), filled with bright images. Whether it's Robert Harris' oil study of The Fathers of Confederation, his watercolour of Mount Edward Road in 1871, a feature on hoop skirts worn by the Mothers of Confederation or individual portraits of the Fathers, there's something for all interests.

The book is also sprinkled with pictures of artifacts: coins, stamps, maps, postcards and other documents from the time.

"(We have also included) the words of the Fathers of Confederation — particularly quotations from George Brown's fascinating letters to his wife," says Baldwin.

This hands-on history guide comes at an important time.

With the recent anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference and the forthcoming 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, the authors felt it was time to retell P.E.I.'s role at a pivotal moment in history.

"Deirdre, of course, is a prolific writer of young people's books and fiction and poetry books for adults. And I have written several books on P.E.I. So we were both practiced in writing for the general reader."

For Kessler, the fun was setting the scene for the book so that Baldwin's careful research of the diaries of the Fathers of Confederation could be put into the context of what happened that week.

"That first week of September had the weather that we rhapsodize about. There were no mosquitoes. But it was warm so people could still swim. So when the delegates sailed into the Charlottetown Harbour, it was beautiful. And when they walked that street, no matter what time of the day, it was beautiful."



"We tried to write it in a lively manner that would keep the interest of the general reader who grew up in a different age than when the first Confederation books were written." Author and historian Douglas Baldwin


Fast facts

 Douglas Baldwin has published more than 40 books on Canadian history. They include "Prince Edward Island: An Illustrated History" and "She Answered Every Call: The Life of Public Health Nurse Mona Gordon Wilson, 1894-1981." He has also contributed articles to American, Spanish, British and Japanese historical journals. Baldwin taught history at Acadia University and UPEI and was visiting Canadian Studies scholar at Tsukuba University, Japan. Now a freelance writer, he has completed a history of mining boom town, "Cobalt: Canada's Forgotten Silver Boom Town."

 Deirdre Kessler is the author of over two dozen books, including a poetry collection ("Afternoon Horses"), a memoir, "Mother Country", and a book for young readers, "Born! A Foal, Five Kittens and Confederation". She teaches creative writing and children's literature at UPEI.