A fine example of Canadian historical fiction, Ann Shortell’s Celtic Knot: A Clara Swift Tale (2018, Friesen Press) is constructed around the actual assassination of D’Arcy McGee, one of the fathers of confederation, on April 7th, 1868 as he was returning from Parliament to Mrs. Trotter’s boarding house. The assailant was never seen, but Patrick J. Whelan (“Jimmy”) was later arrested, convicted and hanged as the culprit. Young housemaid Clara Swift was there at the time and is the closest thing to an eye-witness. D’Arcy McGee was her employer in Montreal, but due to Mrs. McGee’s remonstrances (Clara is clever, literate and can decode McGee’s shorthand into longhand), D’Arcy arranged to have her moved to Ottawa where she is employed by Mrs. Trotter, who owns the boarding house where McGee and other Parliamentarians live while in Ottawa.
Thus begins the type of historical novel where the author is free to invent new characters to go with the actual ones and throw in some side stories to create a sweeping novel of intrigue and mystery. There are Protestants and Catholics, Orangemen and Fenians, French and Native too, who all figure into the story in one way or another. Then there is young Clara Swift a strong, assertive Irish girl who is beloved by D’Arcy and, eventually Sir John A. Macdonald himself (who is painted in a kinder, gentler light here by Ms. Shortell). Due to her position, Clara is used as a type of spy for Major Pierce Doyle, the PM’s aide and investigator.
In the following passage, a slightly intimidated Clara is interviewed by Sir John A. privately:
“Is there aught else you have to tell me?” he said. “What other—special knowledge—might you have, Miss Swift?”
Well, here’s for it. I might be red as a rutabaga and leaking my own well water, but I’d have my say.
“There was planning behind Mr. McGee’s murder….. I understand that, Sir. Some of the answers may be in the Apologia. That Mr. McGee sent to High Commissioner Tupper.”
That showed I knew something.
“And he said too — he may publish it with another name. ‘Nom de plume’, he said. Has High Commissioner Tupper arranged for publication?”
“The book will have its day,” Mr. Macdonald said. “Of course, publishers their own ideas. But I believe you can help us, Miss Clara.”
“You’re right, of course, Miss. Until we find everyone — everyone — behind this damned conspiracy of evil, we can’t be complacent.”
“Yes, that’s why——” I said.
“I understand you enjoy writing? And you’re skilled at it,” The Prime Minister stood as he said this.
I knew my manners well enough to stand too.
The reader follows Clara as she attends sessions of parliament and inquiries, testifies in court, and eventually witnesses the hanging of Jimmy Whelan. But was Jimmy the actual assassin? Clara is not so sure as to Jimmy’s ability to actually kill someone, but the government of the day wants to send a strong message to the Fenians. What follows is a well-written “history with a mystery” instilled with dialogue from a past time, peppered with Gaelic terms and expressions to add to the realism. Indeed, Celtic Knot has a distinctly “aged” feel to it like it could have been written in the time period shortly after the events of that fateful night in 1868. One hopes Ms. Shortell continues with more Clara Swift novels!
(Interestingly, it turns out that Ms. Shortell and I are both born and raised in Kingston, Ontario and lived there at the same time, although we went to different schools. Here’s an article that was written by Ann for the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper about her Limestone City roots creeping into Celtic Knot: bit.ly/kingstonrootsincelticknot .To learn more about Celtic Knot and Ann Shortell, visit her website: https://www.annshortell.com/)
Celtic Knot is available in all three book formats (hardcover, paperback and Kindle) from Amazon.ca.
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