At Face Value: The Life and Times of Eliza McCormack/John White, Second Edition By Don Akenson

Historian Don Akenson found a comment in the 1894 obituary for John White, a former Member of Parliament for East Hastings, noting the MP’s oft-stated sympathy for women. Akenson was intrigued, because that was a very early stance of solidarity for women, well before such a thing would have been in vogue. And while White was a backbencher during his political career, not a juggernaut by any means, Akenson kept tracking the facts of White’s life. Originally an immigrant from Donegal, in Ireland, White is traceable until the 1840s and 50s, at which point he would have been in Canada. It is here which Akenson found another point of interest: a trans woman named Eliza McCormack was also in the area during those decades, with a trail of misadventures and connections with prominent Orangemen. In Donegal, the McCormacks and Whites intermarried. And the final piece which led Akenson to the writing of this book: hospital records from Donegal state a John White died from typhus, at fifteen or sixteen years of age, the very age MP John White would have been at the time.

“Akenson takes the facts of both White’s life and McCormack’s life, and writes a version of history in which they are the same person.”

The context for At Face Value: The Life and Times of Eliza McCormack/John White is incredibly interesting: Akenson takes the facts of both White’s life and McCormack’s life, and writes a version of history in which they are the same person. The original John White grew up alongside his sister Eliza, as close in age and features enough to be mistaken for one another all the time. Akenson tells the story of their shared childhood in a detached, third person narrative, laying out the case for how Eliza would have been able to step into John’s shoes after his death, and a series of plausible events which would lead to Eliza making the decision to live a life as John: the restrictive lives women would have led, the death of her brother, and the family’s immigration to Canada, which would have been made easier with a strong eldest son to oversee the younger boys, and the grief-stricken father.

At Face Value is meticulously researched, as one would expect, and Akenson offers reams of original documents and secondary resources to support his interpretation of events and sketch out the details of life as it would have been in the nineteenth century. Eliza/John leads a life remarkably free of danger, in terms of being exposed, and is lucky enough to find a wife who loves her and is willing to build a hidden, unconventional life. The writing is interesting: the book is written as a straightforward, political memoir, for the most part. The second section, written in the first person as Eliza’s reflections on her life, reminded me of a number of political memoirs I’ve read. It would fit in perfectly in that genre, and I think that’s the strength of this reimagining. Akenson’s experiment is completely plausible, and written in this style, it becomes seamless. John White, MP was remarkably forward thinking for his era, and Akenson’s experiment in trying to puzzle out the reasoning for that is an interesting read.

Don Akenson, A.C. Hamilton Distinguished University Professor and Douglas Professor of Canadian and Colonial History at Queen’s University, is the author of An Irish History of Civilization, volumes 1 and 2.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ McGill-Queen’s University Press; Second edition (Feb. 15 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 232 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0228011795
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0228011798

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Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.