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ON THE BOOKSHELF – The William Cormack Story


Ingeborg Marshall’s meticulous research shines through in The William Cormack Story. He cites every source, and it’s clear the book must have been somewhat of a passion project for the author. Cormack, along with an Indigenous guide he called Joseph Sylvester (Sylvester Joe), walked across the unexplored interior of the province in 58 days in 1822. It was a gruelling trip, well documented in his meticulous diary entries that relate his fascination with the journey and the wonders and hardships the pair faced along the route, and the Indigenous people they encountered who helped them. For those fascinated with the history of the West and Southwest Coast, mentions of the Codroy Valley, down to Port aux Basques and Burgeo are fun to read. There weren’t many settlers in the region in 1822, but Cormack’s account of the area while it was still raw and untamed is fun and interesting for those of us who live here now. After Cormack left Newfoundland, he went to Australia and New Zealand, and even San Francisco, before returning to British Columbia. The circuitous route in and of itself offers a tantalizing glimpse into the man’s psyche. He was largely disillusioned with the government leaders of the day, particularly when it came to the appallling treatment of their native populations who they outright murdered to conquer lands. And while Cormack had plenty of opportunity to make his fortune as he encountered places with untapped potential, he lacked the shrewd business skills that were necessary to do it. My biggest problem with this book is that I wanted more of who Cormack was, not what he did, especially when it came to his encounters with Shanawdithit and his advocacy for the Beothuk. It seemed to me he did little more than try to turn it to his own benefit rather than genuinely help them survive, as evidenced by the plan to capture any that still remained and force them into the city. It’s this behaviour, plus his conduct post-Newfoundland, that led to me actively dislike Cormack as a person. There’s no question he played an important role in the province’s history and recorded a lot of important observations about the terrain, flora and fauna. But that’s about all I can say on behalf of the man himself, and I do not share the author’s fascination for Cormack, nor did Marshall’s efforts through this book alter that. Even as a devoted history buff, I found the book a very dry read. Marshall’s narrative is factual and correct, as it should be, but what conclusions he drew were few and far between, and there wasn’t much that was compelling. The book failed to capture me from the start, because the first few chapters revolved around Cormack’s family, his parents’ successes and failures, and his siblings and their fates. My eyes glazed over and I kept skipping ahead, which is never really a good start. Cormack’s diary entries and his journey through the interior are the real gold, but there’s a hard slog to get to that point. One thing that did stick with me was part of his eulogy, where someone mentioned he was happy and affable. It was a nice eulogy, to be sure, but I saw no evidence of it within the book itself, not even from his diary entries. If Cormack was ever happy, it failed to register, and I found little glimpse into the man himself. If you’re more interested in facts, timelines, and dry history, this book is up your alley. If you require insight into a historical figure or want to understand the people rather than the time period, this book is not going to give you that. It’s a shame, because history is one of my favourite genres and I wanted to love this book more.

Rosalyn’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Rosalyn Roy is an award-winning national journalist and multigenre author. In addition to a historical western romance, she has also written two non-fiction books. Her latest release, Hurricane Fiona: After the Storm, is available on Amazon and Wreckhouse Press. During hockey season, you can find her cheering for the Habs on Bluesky and Twitter.

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