Guest blog post: Sandra Martin, author of Working the Dead Beat January 09 2013

Please join us in welcoming Sandra Martin to the blog! Sandra’s new book, Working the Dead Beat, was recently longlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize.
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Sandra MartinAs an obituary writer, I’m accustomed to people taking a step back when they meet me, as though I have something contagious. The averted gaze is usually followed by an arched eyebrow, a nervous laugh, and even bad jokes about “Who’s on your slab today?”

That’s one of the reasons I’m glad I wrote Working the Dead Beat: 50 lives that Changed Canada.  Talking about my book is a chance to get beyond the smirks and have a real conversation with readers about my 50 people, both famous and unknown, who in large and small ways, have created contemporary Canada.

They range from Pierre Trudeau, to Maurice, The Rocket, Richard, Mordecai Richler, Celia Franca, June Callwood, Ted Rogers, Arthur Erickson and literally dozens of others — some known only to a coterie of family, friends and admirers.

Now that my book is out in the world of readers, critics and book buyers, I am struck over and over again by a seeming dichotomy:  we live in a vast country, but everybody is related either by kinship or experience.  We are a nation of cousins twice removed and it doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface to discover our common roots.

My subjects all died between 2000 and 2010, the first decade of this century. Of course, they lived throughout the last one, a time of stunning medical and technological achievements, artistic breakthroughs, bloody wars, genocides, and the emergence of human rights legislation protecting the rights and dignity of individuals.

The oldest, Ralph Kung Lee, was born in China in 1900 and arrived here 12 years later with an identifying tag around his neck. He lived long enough to receive redress and to hear Prime Minister Steven Harper apologize in the House of Commons for the infamous head tax and the exclusion act that caused so much hardship to industrious and loyal people who came here seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

The two youngest are Donald Working the Dead BeatMarshall, the proud Mig’wa from Nova Scotia who was wrongly accused, convicted and imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, and Linda Lee Tracey, the award-winning writer and film maker who first made headlines as the young stripper in the NFB film, Not a Love Story. In between I have politicians, patriots, spies, thieves, visual artists, writers, entrepreneurs, inventors and academics. All exist in life, so they belong in a book that is trying to use peoples’ lives in all their variety to talk about the modern history of this country.

I have had many chats with readers who want to share their stories about the people in book.  For example, a conversation about Lyle Creelman, the first public health nurse to enter Bergen-Belsen after Canadian and British troops liberated the infamous German concentration camp in April, 1945, leads to reminiscences about her extended family; a comment about The Rocket’s prowess on the ice launches a dialogue about the way politicians of all persuasions tried to co-opt his fame and his iconic status in Quebec and how his family resisted that pressure even when Richard was given a state funeral.  Premier Bouchard wanted to drape The Rocket’s coffin in the fleur-de-lys while Prime Minister Chretien pushed for the Maple Leaf.  Wisely, Richard’s family insisted on a huge bouquet of yellow roses instead, so the man they loved as a father, brother and grandfather could be remembered in death as he had lived—an apolitical man who loved his family, his game and his country.

What binds us are the details — not the grand achievements, but the nuances that distinguish us as individuals and as a country.  That ongoing conversation transforms the solitary late nights I spent staring into a blank computer screen from despair into the solace of a never-ending and rich narrative about the country that we all call home.

As a literary convention, obituaries go back long before Canada existed as a country or even a notion. Elsewhere, they have spawned grand historical, social and literary works.  The ancient Egyptians used Hieroglyphics to record the lives of the Pharaohs on tablets and sarcophagi. Homer’s account of the great warrior Achilles in The Iliad—his heroics, his rage, his vulnerability—was spoken not read, but otherwise that epic poem has all the components of a modern obituary.

Sadly, we don’t have a strong or lengthy tradition of writing or compiling obituaries and using them as an archival resource in researching the past. Our record, with the exception of the monolithic Dictionary of Canadian Biography, is rudimentary at best. I’m hoping to make my own tiny mark on behalf of obituaries as the building blocks of a country’s social and cultural history with Working the Dead Beat: 50 lives that Changed Canada.

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Our thanks to Sandra Martin! Working the Dead Beat is available now in fine bookstores and online, in print and as an eBook.