Celtic Knot: A Clara Swift Tale by Ann Shortell

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.

“My favourite author as a young girl was L.M. Montgomery, and so many of her heroines were isolated girls—Emily Starr, Anne Shirley, the Story Girl, Jane Of Lantern Hill, et al.”

Ann Shortell
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?”

See also  Patterson House by Jane Cawthorne

“The book will have its day,” Mr. Macdonald said. “Of course, publishers their own ideas. But I believe you can help us, Miss Clara.”

“I can?”

“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.

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/2XR6kMB Thanks!

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Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis
April 28, 2019 17:09

Over the past 45 years, I have seldom been without a cat. Some of them were named Tupper, McGee, and Fenian, after this period in Canadian history. (Others included McNab, Laura Secord & Isaac Brock but that’s off this topic.)

You can bet that Celtic Knot is going near the top of my TBR list!

Ann Shortell
April 29, 2019 13:59

James, thank you for the lovely review of CELTIC KNOT A Clara Swift Tale.
Writing and publishing my debut novel has been a renaissance for me, and I’m thrilled that it is being brought to an audience in the Atlantic provinces.
Cheers, Ann Shortell

allan hudson
November 24, 2020 05:34

I’m reading this terrific story at present. Thank you, James, for bringing it to my attention with this great review..

May 10, 2021 09:05

[…] The first time I heard of Ann Shortell was when The Miramichi Reader (TMR) reviewed her dynamic novel, Celtic Knot. Read it HERE. […]

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