In the dedication to The Gallows Gem of Prallyn, I wrote:

for Josée, who is the centre of my life,

and in memory of the lost McKinley women, Hilary (1984) and Margaret (1988)

Those who have read this blog know that Josée is indeed the central presence in my life and you will know a little about her … like she enjoys camping and travelling. You might be wondering about Hilary and Margaret. Well, Margaret was my mother, who died after a long struggle against cancer. Hilary, well, she was my older sister.

My life changed thirty years ago tomorrow when my high school law class was interrupted by a the principal, who asked me to his office. There I saw Dr. Plaxton, a regional school superintendent and father of my sister’s best friend, who sat me down and told me that Hilary had been killed in a plane crash. She was a flight instructor, achieving the dream of flight as a living by the age of 20. She was practicing spins with a student, who also died in the crash. The instant I saw Dr. Plaxton, I knew: I was taking flying lessons myself and had already heard the opinion of my instructor that the Piper Tomahawk had bad spin dynamics. Perhaps he was right. Regardless, on May 29, 1984, my life, and the lives of my family members changed forever.

Hilary, I am thinking of you. I miss you. I wish you would somehow just walk back into my life and tell me it was a bad joke. I wouldn’t even be angry at you having abandoned our lives for so long.


SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU EVER INTEND ON READING HEMMINGWAY’s THE GARDEN OF EDEN!


I thought of my first foray into literary critique yesterday and thought I should set it down on (virtual) paper.

It occurred in, I think, 2002 or thereabouts. I remember standing in my kitchen of the home we had in Ottawa. I had just finished the year-long process of editing The Gallows Gem of Prallyn. I had also just returned from a trip to the Philippines, during which I read my first two Hemmingway novels, The Garden of Eden, and, The Sun Also Rises. I was with my friend Paul, who asked me what I thought of my first two Hemmingway novels.

I said that, not knowing any better, I had read the works in reverse order, starting with The Garden of Eden, published posthumously, and then reading The Sun Also Rises, one of Hemmingway’s earlier novels. I spoke of my surprise at what I had read. Hemmingway’s reputation had certainly shaped my expectations. I had heard he was the master of focussing down on the specific, those crucial elements of a story, cutting away all the unnecessary chaff. And here, in both works, I had found a lot of chaff. 

Frankly, I hated The Sun Also Rises. Here, I found self-absorbed characters frolicking in post-war Paris, none of them doing anything useful, and all they could do was get wasted on absinthe to the point they didn’t know who they were sleeping with. Into all this bleak pointlessness, into these empty lives, someone brings the idea of going to Pamplona to see the bullfights. I thought to myself, “Excellent! Now Hemmingway will show us something dramatic to break the tedium of the bleakness.” I could only imagine what the master would do … imagine … the stadium, the crowd filled with its bloodlust, the noise of them as they roared approval for the majestic young bullfighter of which we had heard a principal character rave, the colours, from the dazzling spectacle of the matador, red cape, black hat, the blazing azure sky, the fiery, burning sun overhead, the heat, the bull, gigantic, menacing, angry, the stamp of its hoof on the sand, the explosions of sand bursting into the air in response to the stamps. Meh … Hemmingway had other ideas. We never once got to see a bullfight, only the characters back in their hotels gushing over the bullfighter’s excellence in a haze of absinthe-fuelled drunkenness. What a pity! What a missed opportunity! All of that drama replaced by tedious, self-centred crap.

I contrasted that banality and pointlessness to the banality and pointlessness of The Garden of Eden. Perhaps “contrast” isn’t the right word. The three characters in this later novel are also locked into lives lacking much purpose. They drink themselves into stupors and lose track of who’s sleeping with whom, only to awake the next morning to a wave of acrimony as the person left out of the previous night’s sex causes trouble for the other two. Now, one of the characters is a writer. Towards the end of the book, as it had nearly careened off the edge of my tolerance for such banality, the writer sits down to write. He writes of his youth in Africa, hunting elephants with his father, but always on the look-out for the one, the legendary tusker with ivories so huge that the lower curve of them drags on the earth as he passes. One night, the young writer goes out from the camp into the dark to look up at the stars. As he is lying on the ground looking up, a giant shape obscures the stars … it’s him! The giant! He holds his breath, waiting to see if he’ll be crushed. The shape passes and carries off. So the boy runs back to his father, panting and gasping that he had seen the beast! They break camp and follow the elephant over hills, across a sun-blasted plain, over more hills, for three days. And finally they catch him up, because he has stopped, stopped to pay his respects to a dead herd mate, a long departed friend, whose skull he strokes with his trunk. Father and son creep up on the elephant, the father with his rifle at the ready. They look on the huge beats with his enormous tusks, looking down on his dead friend, still stroking the skull. The father silently lifts the rifle and aims. The son looks at the father. The elephant stirs and BANG!

From that point on, the son knew he would always hate his father.

Then the story returns to the three principal characters living their pointless, alcohol-filled lives.

I said to my friend that I detested the banality of both books, but that I thought that Hemmingway had used the banality in The Garden of Eden, to make that one small bit about the hunt spring to life. There, finally, was the Hemmingway I had expected. The mini-story of the elephant stroking his dead friend’s skull, the heat and the dust of the trek across the sun-blasted plain, the total eclipse of the night stars. It was a sliver of brilliance within a mass, within a mess, of lost, pointless lives being lived by people with too much money for their own good, and that sliver stood out all the more for its setting. I opined that I liked neither book, but I could see more merit, an evolution over time, of Hemmingway’s work in The Garden of Eden.

My friend allowed a pause to fill the kitchen and then finally he observed, “He’s written one book that he can’t even get published and he’s criticizing Hemmingway, perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th Century.”

I laughed and laughed and laughed, and I haven’t engaged in literary critique ever since!

For the record: I kept reading Hemmingway and very much liked both The Old Man and the Sea, as well as For Whom the Bell Tolls. Farewell to Arms was good, as was The Snows of Kilimanjaro.


Those of you who have been following my Twitter feed know that we spent part of the Victoria Day long weekend camping. We went up northwest of Bogotá to a reservoir called Neusa. It was nice to see Sanja (below) running around enthusiastically despite being alone. It was bittersweet being there for the first time without our Prince Pinot, her brother. Pinot wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad, though, and Sanja certainly wasn’t. We arrived at 1:00 pm and she didn’t stop running after the ball until near 7:00 pm, well after darkness fell.

I brought along the iPad and managed a bit of writing. I started a section looking at a woman who joins the Fjordlanders at least in part to reject the constraints placed upon her by her family. Given that I’m hardly the authoritative voice of women, we’ll see if it passes the Josée test! It was nice to write in such a nice setting during a positive part of the book.

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Well, tonight I finally finished the first draft of Chapter One in Part Three. It represents the end to a bit of a hiatus … a combination of travel, grief over Pinot, work, fascination about getting a new map done up for Gallows Gem, and wanting to dedicate a bit of extra time to Josée all prevented me from getting much work done on The Winter Wars. Tonight, however, words flowed and I’m happy enough with them. The excerpt below gives a glimpse into what I managed to scrawl down on the virtual pages of my draft manuscript:

“Then there is another matter before us. We are to embark on a long and perilous journey. To my mind if we are to reach our destination, we cannot suffer division and acrimony. We must have a leader who has the right to decide whenever we cannot reach agreement among ourselves. 

“Nigh on three years ago the good folk of Krannogberg brought forth four young people to pass them into another clan, a clan conceived by our forebears for the defence of our people and sworn to uphold the conceit that the wealth of all other peoples was but the riches of Fjordlanders sitting in foreign pockets waiting to be liberated by its rightful owners.

“Both the folk of that settlement and that other clan lived by the laws handed down to them over the long march of years, laws propagated in the belief that the clan stood before the nation, that the nation served but as a vessel for robbing foreign silver, and that the clan required domination and servitude for success. That the strength and quality of one’s ideas cannot stand before the claymore wielded by a man - always a man - filled with the lust for rule is the curse plaguing the soul of our people and it is the seed that will grow into our ruin.

“Those four young people are now three, and they are among you this very day having seen the nations of our rivals through their very eyes. Now we stand here with you in a hall the likes of which our nation, evolved thus into what it is today, cannot even imagine. That our rivals with our riches sitting in their pockets can reach such heights while we burn down the cottages of our neighbours is a beacon signalling us, not from some shrouded shore, but from the future, for a nation dedicated to the destruction of its component clans and to the enmity of its rivals cannot long survive.

“We heredo congregate in a great hall that cost more than all the riches in Fjordland to dedicate ourselves to a new journey, one that shall take us home. But it is all the more meet for we embark this day on a voyage the likes of which no Fjordlander has conceived, for from this day henceforth, rule shall be determined by worth of our ideas as judged by the folk themselves and reflecting the strength of their ideals, and the claymore shall never bludgeon the common good, but rather serve in its defence.

“Any person who should wish to lead us, man or woman, can stand up here and convince the rest of us why they should lead us home. Anyone can be our chieftain for our return. All one needs is the support of the rest of us. But be warned, if you stand up here beside me, expect to have to defend your ideas.”

Albig promptly stood and his voice rumbled through the hall. “What stupidity is this, boy? Are you raving from all those new ideas what thumped your noggin?” Cairn had trouble doing a whispered translation of “noggin” and stopped trying. Paulte could figure out what was happening anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever inserted the word “noggin” into any of my work before. There’s a first for everything!

ian at ianmckinley dot com (written this way to guard against spam … you know how to interpret it) © Ian McKinley 2016