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Telling her grandfather’s story

Author Helen Webster used 19th century documents to craft her second historical novel

When Helen Webster was in university she was given a cardboard box full of her grandfather’s stories, medical case notes, journals and letters that he and his wife had written to one another.

The Nanaimo author never had time to dig through that container of historical family paraphernalia, so she carted it around with her for the proceeding decades. When Webster retired she finally had the chance to look through her grandfather’s things and started connecting the stories she heard as a child to the related historical documentation.

“I thought, ‘Wow, what a life. What a life for this man that I knew as a doctor in a small town in Alberta and my grandfather. What a life he had led before that,’” she said.

“He just told the most marvellous stories and I think as a teenager I thought maybe they were made up. But they were true.”

Using her newfound historical resource, Webster wrote 2016’s Medical Man, an account of her grandfather’s life practising “pioneer medicine” in Alberta at the turn of the century.

On Saturday (Oct. 21) Webster is launching her follow-up, Trader’s Son at the Nanaimo North Library. The prequel tells the story of her grandfather’s life from 1883 to 1900 when he worked as a trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in Northern Ontario.

“Putting it together became fascinating. This man I knew and this man I was learning about,” she said of the research and writing process.

The work draws from her grandfather’s papers as well as HBC archives. Fictionalized conversations have been added to give the historical accounts a narrative flow.

She said another book is already on the way and will trace her family’s history dating back to late 18th century Quebec.

“I didn’t know I was writing a Canadian historical trilogy until my publisher said, ‘This is the second book in a trilogy, what’s the third book going to be?’” Webster said.

She added that she’s very fortunate to have access to such a comprehensive archive of material dating back to Canada’s earliest decades.

“Some of these are irreplaceable historical documents. I have a letter from 1897 written on Hudson’s Bay stationery and he’s talking about his life as a Hudson’s Bay trader,” she said of her grandfather’s correspondences.

“I know several museum directors and historians who just salivate when they look at the material that I have.”

WHAT’S ON…Helen Webster book launch for Trader’s Son at Nanaimo North Library on Oct. 21 at 2 p.m.