Author Tags: Civil Rights, Essentials 2010, Fiction, War
QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:
Mark Zuehlke would agree with Leonardo da Vinci who said, “Work is the law.” A Pierre Berton without the bow tie, Zuehlke has quickly become one of Canada’s pre-eminent war historians with a spate of activity rivalled only by the pace of the late George Woodcock. In an age when creative non-fiction is chic, he does old-fashioned research.
To produce 27 titles between 1992 and 2014, Zuehlke has not busied himself with chapbooks, poetry titles or personal ramblings. He has somehow researched and written fourteen, thick military histories in that period, simultaneously producing a trilogy of detective novels, plus nine other books, including the first and only book to examine the phenomenon of remittance men in B.C., Scoundrels, Dreamers and Second Sons: British Remittance Men in the Canadian West (1994).
In the eighth volume of his Canadian Battle Series, On to Victory (2010), Zuehlke recalls the fiercely fought and bittersweet liberation of Holland, incorporating the views and words of men on the ground. Never mind hockey¬—this was the greatest Canadian victory. It cost more than four billion dollars and the lives of 1,482 Canadians, as well as 6,298 casualties, but the Dutch remain grateful.
Born in Vernon in 1955, Mark Zuehlke has received the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize for Holding Juno (2005) and the Canadian Authors Association Lela Common Award for Canadian History for For Honour’s Sake: The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace (2006). In his spare time he won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award from the Crime Writers of Canada for Hands Like Clouds (2000).
Never mind Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal. The greatest Canadian victory was the liberation of Holland. It cost more than four billion dollars—because it cost the lives of 1,482 Canadians and resulted in 6,298 casualties. The Dutch remain grateful. In the eighth volume of his Canadian Battle Series, On To Victory (D&M $37.95), Mark Zuehlke recalls the fiercely-fought and bittersweet military triumph to end his story of Canada in World War II. Berton without the bow-tie, Zuehlke is a popular historian who deserves all the credit his work can get in an era when “creative non-fiction” is de rigeur.
Canada’s liberation of western Holland and the crucial estuary was its bloodiest campaign in World War II but its blow-by-blow progress was previously under-appreciated. Previously, in 2007, Zuehlke extensively documented the 55-day, mud-soaked struggle of the First Canadian Army in 1944 to open the Antwerp coast for Allied shipping in Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign.
The Allied invasion of Sicily was the first battle experience for 20,000 troops from the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade. Zuehlke recounted their combat versus fierce German opposition for 28 days in Operation Husky (D&M $36.95), his seventh volume documenting major Canadian campaigns of World War II.
As of his sixth title pertaining to World War II, Mark Zuehlke was touted as the nation's leading writer of popular military history by his publisher, an opinion shared by Jack Granatstein. He subsequently produced The Canadian Military Atlas and a history of the War of 1812 entitled For Honour's Sake: The War of 1812 and The Brokering of an Uneasy Peace.
Mark Zuehlke was one of the marchers in Operation Husky 2013, a 300-kilometre march through Sicily in the footsteps of Canadian soldiers who were there in WW II. He used that arduous trek as a catalyst to contemplate war and the culture of remembrance in a book, Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek Across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds (Douglas & McIntyre, $36.95). Leading up to Remembrance Day of 2015, Zuehlke travelled across the country with filmmaker Max Fraser for their Operation Husky Remembrance Film and Book Tour. Fraser accompanied Zuehlke on the Sicilian trek in order to make his documentary, Bond of Strangers. The film and the book on Operation Husky—the 1943 invasion of Sicily—are derived from the 70th anniversary pilgrimage that took place in July 2013. For Through Blood and Sweat and the documentary, it was necessary for a small contingent of marchers to trek between 15 and 35 kilometres each day, usually along winding country roads, in order to reach the outskirts of a small town or village. Often they walked under a searing sun, with Mount Etna’s soaring heights always in the distance. The memorial marchers were joined by a pipe band as they were repeatedly greeted by hundreds of cheering and applauding Sicilians. Before each community’s war memorial, a service of remembrance for both the Canadian and Sicilian war dead was conducted. Each day brought the marchers closer to their final destination—Agira Canadian War Cemetery, where 490 of the 562 Canadian soldiers who fell during the course of Operation Husky in 1943 are buried.
Mark Zuehlke’s first Rapid Reads volume for adults is Ortona Street Fight (Orca 2011), describing one of the most memorable and difficult battles ever fought by Canadian troops. On December 20, 1943, two Canadian infantry battalions and a tank regiment were poised on the outskirts of a small Italian port town. For reasons unknown, Hitler had ordered Ortona to be held by his troops to the last man. Houses, churches and other buildings were dynamited by the Germans, clogging the streets with rubble. Machine gunners and snipers waited in ambush. It was a death trap. Hand to hand combat and Canadian ingenuity ultimately produced a Canadian victory.
Born in Vernon on August 27, 1955, Zuehlke grew up in the Okanagan Valley where he first heard stories about British remittance men, leading him to write his first book of popular history, Scoundrels, Dreamers and Second Sons: British Remittance Men in the Canadian West (1994). He has co-authored, co-produced, and served as historical consultant for a one-hour documentary entitled The Remittance Men based on Scoundrels, Dreamers and Second Sons. It first aired on CTV in 2000.
Since 1981, Zuehlke has been one of B.C.'s most versatile writers, specializing in military history while starting a second career as a mystery novelist. His 'detective' is a Tofino coroner named Elias McCann who is partnered with a beautiful Cambodian-born girlfriend Vhanna. Hands Like Clouds won the Arthur Ellis First Novel Award in 2000 and Sweep Lotus was an Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award finalist in 2005.
When he lived in Kelowna, Zuehlke served as regional director of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada. He later became national PWAC president. He subsequently became founding national president of the the Electronic Rights Licensing Agency, an organization no longer in existence.
Zuehlke now lives in Victoria. He won the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2006 for Holding Juno and the The Lela Common Award for Canadian History [see press release below] in 2007.
[For other authors who wrote about war, see abcbookworld entries for Adams, LaVerne; Allinson, Sidney; Allister, William; Alvarez, Manuel; Andrews, Allen; Barnholden, Michael; Bell, Gordon; Bjarnason, Bogi; Bourret, Annie; Bowman, Phylis; Briemberg, Mordecai; Broadfoot, Barry; Brodsky, G.W. Stephen; Brown, Atholl Sutherland; Browne, Donald Elgin; Cambon, Kenneth; Childerhose, R.J.; Clarke, Jay; Clavell, James; Cobley, Evelyn; Cohen, Stan; Cowling, Tony; Coyle, Brendan; Crawford, Scott; Crooks, Sylvia; Culhane, Claire; de Groot, Jan; Dixon, Jack; Drabek, Jan; Eagle, Raymond; Evans, Hubert; Fairclough, Gordon; Ferguson, Julie H.; Filter, Bo; Floris, Steve; Francis, Daniel; Galipeau, John; Garnett, Heidi; Gibson, John Frederic; Gleason, Mona; Godwin, George; Gough, Kathleen; Greenwood, Alexander; Greer, Rosamond; Gregory, Roxanne; Harker, Douglas Edward; Kahn, Leon; Keith, Agnes Newton; Leighton, Frank; Linn, Ruth; Lovatt, R.; Martin, Nikolaus Claude; McDowell, Jim; McInnes, Harvelyn Baird; McLeod, Gould L.; McMahon, John; McWilliams, James; Meade, Edward F.; Meyers, Edward; Mickleburgh, Rod; Mielnicki, Michel; Moszkiewiez, Helen; Mumford, Gordon; Murray, Keith; Napier, Roger; O’Kiely, Elizabeth; Oberle, Frank; Patterson, Kevin; Priebe, Eckehart; Propp, Dan; Purdy, Verity Sweeny; Ralph, Wayne; Rayment, Hugh; Reid, Charles; Rieger, Carla; Robertson, Alan; Rogow, Sally; Russell, Chester; Sager, Arthur; Sharifad, Yadi; Sheed, David J.; Sheffield, R. Scott; Slater, Ian; Smith, Blake; Spector, Norman; Steele, Samuel Benfield; Stofer, Ken; Stursberg, Peter; Sturze, Klaus G.M.; Taylor, Mary; Thomas, Elizabeth; Thorn, J.C.; Tobler, Douglas Hugen; van Oort, Boudewijn; Wade, Frank; Wagner, Gordon; Wilkes, Helen Waldstein; Williams, Jana; Wilson, John; Windsor, John; Wood, James A.; Young, Albert Charles.] @2010.
Sweep Lotus: An Elias McCann Mystery. Dundurn Group, 2004.
Carry Tiger to Mountain: An Elias McCann Mystery, Castle Street Mysteries, Dundurn Group, 2002.
Hands Like Clouds: An Elias McCann Mystery, Castle Street Mysteries, Dundurn Group, 2000.
Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek Across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds (Douglas & McIntyre 2015) $36.95
Forgotten Victory: First Canadian Army and the Winter Campaigns of 1944-1945 (Douglas & McIntyre 2014] $37.95 9781771620413
Tragedy at Dieppe: Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942 (Douglas and McIntyre, 2012) $36.95 978-1-55365-835-1
Assault on Juno (Orca Books, 2012) Rapid Reads.
Breakout from Juno: First Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign, July 4 - August 21, 1944 (D&M 2011) 978-1-55365-325-7 $36.95
Ortona Street Fight (Orca 2011) Rapid Reads. 9781554693986
On To Victory: The Canadian Liberation of the Netherlands, March 23-May 5, 1945
(D&M 2010) $37.95) 978-1-55365-430-8
Operation Husky (D&M 2008) $36.95 978-1-55365-324-0
Brave Battalion: The Remarkable Saga of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) in the First World War (Wiley & Sons 2008)
Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign (D&M 2007). $37.95. 978-01-55365-227-4
For Honour's Sake: The War of 1812 and The Brokering of an Uneasy Peace (Knopf, 2006).
Canadian Military Atlas: Four Centuries of Conflict from New France to Kosovo (Douglas & McIntyre, 2006). Maps by C. Stuart Daniel.
Holding Juno: Canada's Heroic Defence of the D-Day Beaches, June 7-12, 1944, Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.
Juno Beach -- Canada's D-Day Victory, Douglas & McIntyre, 2004.
The Gothic Line: Canada's Month of Hell in World War II Italy, Douglas & McIntyre, 2003.
The Canadian Military Atlas: The Nation's Battlefields from the French and Indian Wars to Kosovo, Stoddart Publishing Company, 2001. Co-author C. Stuart Daniel.
The Liri Valley: Canada's World War II Breakthrough to Rome, Stoddart Publishing Company, 2001.
Ortona: Canada's Epic World War II Battle, Stoddart Publishing Company, 1999.
The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, Whitecap Books, 1996.
Scoundrels, Dreamers & Second Sons: British Remittance Men in the Canadian West, Dundurn Group, 2001, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded.
The Yukon Fact Book: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Yukon, Whitecap Books, 1998.
The Alberta Fact Book: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Alberta, Whitecap Books, 1997.
Fun B.C. Facts for Kids, Whitecap Books, 1996.
The B.C. Fact Book: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about British Columbia, Whitecap Books, 1995.
Scoundrels, Dreamers and Second Sons: British Remittance Men in the Canadian West, Whitecap Books, 1994.
The Vancouver Island South Explorer: The Outdoor Guide, Whitecap Books, 1994.
Magazine Writing from the Boonies, Carleton University Press, 1992. Co-authored with Louise Donnelly.
2000 Best First Novel Award, Arthur Ellis Crime Writers of Canada. (Hands Like Clouds).
2006 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize (Holding Juno).
2007 Canadian Authors Association Lela Common Award for Canadian History (For Honour's Sake)
Carry Tiger to Mountain (Dundurn $11.99)
A shipwreck off the coast of Tofino turns out to be a freighter smuggling immigrants from Southeast Asia. Coroner-detective Elias McCann and his Cambodian girlfriend Vhanna protect a surviving girl who is chased by kidnappers. Also among the immigrants is Vhanna’s cousin who stirs up dark memories of the Khmer Rouge. The first Elias McCann mystery was Hands Like Clouds. Zuehlke lives in Victoria. 1-55002-417-5
[Spring 2003 BCBW]
The Liri Valley (Stoddart $45)
Forget that classic American movie ‘A Walk in the Sun.’ Mark Zuehlke of Victoria recounts in detail the Canadian breakthrough on the southern gateway to Rome—the first corps-scale engagement fought by Canadians in World War II—in The Liri Valley (Stoddart $45).
“The road the Canadians marched in Italy was a long one. In May 1944, they were but halfway down it. When they marched out of the Liri Valley, few bothered to look back at the ruined land behind them. They marched toward an uncertain future and the Liri Valley battle slipped into obscurity, where it still remains.”
The forgotten slice of Italian history is a follow-up to Zuehlke’s account of Canada’s ‘epic World War II battle,’ Ortona (Stoddart), The Canadian Military Atlas (Stoddart) and The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War (Whitecap). That’s more than 1,000 pages of recaptured history, finding the veterans, digging out the facts. Tough slogging.
[BCBW SUMMER 2002]
A Tofino coroner has his hands full when a girl known only as Sparrow is found on a beach wrapped in barbed wire. Sweep Lotus (Dundurn $11.99) is the third Elias McCann mystery set in the Long Beach community.
Victoria Author Wins National History Prize
Press Release (2007)
Victoria author Mark Zuehlke’s For Honour’s Sake: The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace has been awarded the Canadian Authors Association Literary Awards 2007 Lela Common Award for Canadian History. The award consists of a $2500 cash prize and an engraved silver medal. Zuehlke will be presented with the award at the upcoming 86th Annual National Conference of the CAA on July 7 in Ottawa.
Regarding their decision to award the prize to Zuehlke the judges commented that the book was a “well-written popular history of the War of 1812 with a fine balance between politics, military operations, and diplomacy. Notable for being fair and balanced in its treatments of the belligerants. Zuehlke’s book is one of the best popular accounts of the War of 1812, notable for the way it relates what happened on the battlegrounds of North America and at sea to the diplomatic struggle between Britain and the United States. The wonderful irony is that word of the peace, finally hammered out in Ghent, Belgium at Christmas 1814, did not reach the United States in time to prevent the battle of New Orleans, the worst British defeat of the war.
“An approachable account of a period in Canadian history that continues to generate much interest. Dense with military strategy and details, details, details….Although many may want a definitive book on the War of 1812 that declares a clear winner, Zuehlke’s thoroughly researched book makes sense of the opposing accounts of that time and the ambiguous results of the conflict. Beyond the specifics of the battles and the Treaty of Ghent that brought an end to them, this book sheds some light on the murky area that lies between war and peace.”
Zuehlke is one of Canada’s preeminent popular historians, whose ongoing series on the battles fought by Canadians in World War II has garnered much critical praise. One of those books, Holding Juno: Canada’s Heroic Defence of the D-Day Beaches, June 7–12, 1944 won the 2006 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. He is also the author of a popular mystery series of which the premiere novel, Hands Like Clouds, won the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.
The Lela Common Award for Canadian History was established in 1997 through a bequest from the estate of Lela Florence Common, a long-time member of the Hamilton Branch of the CAA, who was active throughout her life in writing and researching historical topics. Past winners have included Will Ferguson (2001), Ken McGoogan (2002), Charlotte Gray (2005), and Jack Granatstein (2006).
Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign
Canada’s liberation of western Holland and the crucial estuary was its bloodiest campaign in World War II but its blow-by-blow progress has been hitherto under-appreciated. Now Mark Zuehlke has extensively documented the 55-day, mud-soaked struggle of the First Canadian Army in 1944 to open the Antwerp coast for Allied shipping in Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign (D&M $37.95). 78-01-55365-227-4
On To Victory (D&M $37.95)
Never mind Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal. The greatest Canadian victory was the liberation of Holland. The Olympics cost only four billion dollars; the Dutch liberation cost the lives of 1,482 Canadians and resulted in 6,298 casualties. The Dutch remain grateful. In On To Victory (D&M $37.95), the eighth and final volume of his Canadian Battle Series for World War II, Mark Zuehlke recalls Canada’s fiercely-fought and bittersweet military triumph. It’s his 23rd book. In an era when “creative non-fiction” is de rigueur, Zuehlke is a popular historian who deserves more credit for his slogging in the trenches of old-fashioned research. 978-1-55365-430-8
Ortona Street Fight by Mark Zuehlke (Orca $9.95)
from Louise Donnelly
Lieutenant John Dougan figured he’d be dead in just a few moments. Since dawn, over forty of his comrades had been killed or wounded by enemy fire in two valiant, yet foolhardy charges.
Beyond the hundred yards of abandoned vegetable gardens and olive trees, “so torn by shellfire that they looked like twisted fence posts,” a row of two-and three-storey buildings concealed German snipers.
The snipers hid behind broken windows and on rooftops. More were dug in at the base of the buildings. And still more paratroopers crouched behind machine guns, waiting for yet another futile rush from the Canadians.
Dougan and the company commander agreed a third charge across open ground was madness but the battalion commander at the other end of the radio handset ordered them “to get on with it.” Even if they blinded the enemy with smoke bombs, Dougan knew he and the six men going with him would be cut down in seconds.
Then he noticed the ditch. Across from a much deeper ditch where he and his men were huddled, there was a shallower ditch, barely three feet deep. It ran straight through the deadly hundred yards to an apartment building.
The Germans expected a logical assault from the Allied troops. A rifle company should predictably advance across open ground “in sections spread out over a wide front” creating too many individual targets for the defender to effectively eliminate. Some men were bound to survive and continue onwards to storm the defensive positions.
That predictable tactic had devastated the company already, slicing them down to a mere 17 men. And so Dougan gambled. He decided his Canadians would attack by scuttling through a narrow ditch like field mice.
“Hell, we’re all going to die anyway,” he said to himself. “Might as well give it a go.”
Minute by minute, yard by yard. This is how Ortona Street Fight by military historian Mark Zuehlke chronicles the bloody week of December 21 to December 28, 1943 when the 1st Canadian Infantry Division wrested the port town of Ortona, Italy, defeating crack German paratroopers who had been ordered to hold the “pearl of the Adriatic” at all costs.
Ortona’s location, on the eastern coast of Italy, directly parallel to Rome, and protected by cliffs on the north and east, and by a deep ravine on the west, had forced the Canadians to attack from the south.
Under heavy and constant shelling, infantrymen from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders, with tank support from the Three Rivers Regiment, fought their way across gullies, mud-choked vineyards, decimated olive groves and, finally, into the narrow, medieval streets.
Ortona was nicknamed “Little Stalingrad.”
Gleaned from hundreds of interview hours with an ever-dwindling number of surviving WW II veterans, Zuehlke uses his trademark soldier’s-eye view to bring men like the daring and resourceful Dougan back to life.
Many of the soldiers could have been mistaken for boys, such as 26-year-old Private Gordon Currie-Smith, whose small stature (he was under five feet tall and barely weighed a hundred pounds) saved him when a booby-trapped Ortona school exploded and buried him up to his neck in rubble.
Sergeant Harry Rankin was a “tough little guy from the wrong side of the Vancouver tracks.” His forte was “destruction on demand.” Armed with a recovered stash of German Teller mines, devices shaped like a covered frying pan, and packed with enough explosives to disable a tank, Rankin devised an effective strategy for mouse-holing, the practice of blasting a route through the interior walls of closely packed houses and buildings to avoid movement through the even more dangerous and exposed streets.
Jabbing the wall with a bayonet, with a Teller mine dangling from it, Rankin would slip a short fuse to the built-in detonator, light it, and run “like hell.” It’s the same Harry Rankin (1920-2002) who notoriously gave hell to right-wing Vancouver city councillors and mayors for more than 25 years as an alderman and councillor who fre-quently topped the polls.
Ortona Street Fight differs from Zuehlke’s more extensive Ortona (D&M) because it is the latest in the Raven Books Rapid Reads series for adult readers. Building on Orca Books’ Soundings and Currents series of high interest/low reading skill books for reluctant young readers, the new Rapid Reads series features both compelling non-fiction and contemporary fiction with a straight-forward narrative. These titles, such as Ortona Street Fight, target adult literacy as well as offering a condensed one-sitting read of lengthier tomes.
Other Rapid Reads include Generation Us: The Challenge of Global Warming by University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver and mysteries such as The Spider Bites by Medora Sale and Love You to Death by Gail Bowen.
from David R. Conn
25 BC couples who both write books
Roderick & Jean Barman (Vancouver)
Audrey & Paul Grescoe (Bowen Island)
Terence & Patricia Young (Victoria)
Pat & Ron Smith (Lantzville)
David & Andrea Spalding (Pender Island)
Stephen Reid & Susan Musgrave (Haida Gwaii)
Brad Cran & Gillian Jerome (Vancouver)
Sharon Brown & Andreas Schroeder (Roberts Creek)
Dede Crane & Bill Gaston (Victoria)
Mark Zuehlke & Frances Backhouse (Victoria)
Alicia Priest & Ben Parfitt (Victoria)
Patrick Friesen & Eve Joseph (Brentwood Bay)
Susan Mayse & Stephen Hume (Victoria)
Gary Geddes & Ann Eriksson (Thetis Island)
J.B. MacKinnon & Alisa Smith (Vancouver)
Michael Kluckner & Christine Allan (Vancouver)
Teresa Kishkan & John Pass (Pender Harbour)
Robert Bringhurst & Jan Zwicky (Quadra Island)
Lorna Crozier & Patrick Lane (Victoria)
Frank White & Edith Iglauer (Pender Harbour)
Ernest Hekkanen & Margrith Schraner (Nelson)
Robert Hilles & Pearl Luke (Saltspring Island)
Celine Rich & Julian Darley (Vancouver)
Michael Elcock & Marilyn Bowering (Sooke)
Ajmer Rode and Surjeet Kalsey (Vancouver)
Battles & beavers
A diligent duo digs deep into thoroughly Canadian subjects—working independently of one another
Lots of B.C. writers are married to B.C. writers — there are at least twenty such couples — but the majority, like Mark Zuehlke and Frances Backhouse, retain different surnames.
Backhouse and Zuehlke became life partners after they met twenty years ago, through the Periodical Writers of Canada local chapter. Disciplined and productive, they now approach writing as a challenging daytime job, keeping most weekends free for outdoor recreation.
“Mark and Frances are dream clients,” says their agent, Carolyn Swayze. “They are true professionals in the very best way—ethical, diligent and dedicated.”
Neither writer seeks the limelight. Few would recognize them as a power couple, even though they have written 33 books. Their travel is usually related to book research or promotion and their lives follow publishing seasons and schedules.
The couple shares a renovated heritage home and flourishing garden in the Fernwood district of Victoria. Having just completed another World War II battle history, Zuehlke is preparing for a national reading tour while planning his next book about a trek though Sicily; Backhouse is well into a manuscript about Canadians’ long relationship with the beaver.
Zuehlke, from the Okanagan, had trained and worked as a journalist and also taught writing. Then he moved east to earn a history degree; Backhouse, from Ontario, had trained and worked as a biologist, then taught high school in Malawi with the World University Service of Canada.
Each resettled in Victoria, freelancing for magazines while writing historical books. They bonded over manuscript drafts, plus hiking, biking and kayaking around Vancouver Island.
In the 1990s, Mark Zuehlke mostly wrote regional reference volumes, but he also began to write history, completing popular studies of western Canadian remittance men and Canadians who fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Zuehlke’s uncle had been in combat with the Canadian army, operating tanks in Italy, and told stories about his experiences. Later Zuehlke was listening to a veteran describing the battle of Ortona. He thought, “Why don’t I know anything about this?” He searched for a history, found none, and resolved to tell it himself. He plunged in, traveling to Italy to research. As he asserts, “You can’t write about battles without walking the battlefields.”
With his best-selling Canadian Battle series, now boasting a dozen titles, Zuehlke is now widely regarded as one of Canada’s pre-eminent World War II historians.
Beginning in 2000, Zuehlke also ventured into fiction with a trio of mystery novels set in Tofino. Mild-mannered coroner Elias McCann enjoys a relationship with Cambodian businesswoman Vhanna Chan. He sets out to solve murders committed in his windswept beach bailiwick. Zuehlke writes without plot lines. As he puts it, “I’ve got a character, and suddenly there’s a situation, and away we go!” He hints there may be more McCann episodes to come.
Zuehlke’s new Forgotten Victory: First Canadian Army and the Cruel Winter of 1944-45 (D&M $37.95) details several bitter operations that pushed German forces east out of the Rhineland. With limited aerial and armoured support, the Canadians mostly slogged through muddy fields and forests to assault entrenched enemy paratroopers, taking heavy casualties.
Zuehlke’s narrative follows Allied and German preparations, then the grinding action on the ground. His epilogue claims that while tactically flawed, those offensives shortened the war in Europe.
During his fall book tour, Zuehlke will visit Ottawa to receive the Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media, also known as The Pierre Berton Award. Given that Zuehlke counts Berton’s classic Vimy (1985) as a strong influence on his own approach to history, the Berton Award marks an important milestone in his career.
His next book, Through Blood and Sweat, will recount his hiking around Sicily. It will be both a World War II travelogue and “a meditation on remembrance.”
Lately Zuehlke has also contributed to graphic novels, adding text to The Loxleys and the War of 1812 (Renegade Arts Entertainment $19.99) and writing the script for an upcoming title about confederation.
Frances Backhouse has continued to freelance for magazines while producing five history and nature books. She now teaches in the writing department at the University of Victoria alongside one of the province’s more widely-known literary couples, Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier. Backhouse has written books about the Klondike gold rush and nature titles about woodpeckers and owls of North America.
Her most recent book, Children of the Klondike (Firefly $19.95), reconstructs the experiences of the youngsters raised in placer camps and boomtowns of the Yukon, more that a century ago. It’s a spin-off from her bestselling Women of the Klondike. Coincidentally, while researching, she was writer-in-residence at Berton House Writers’ Retreat, in Dawson City.
Backhouse’s new natural history work in progress, Once They were Hats, combines her interests in human and natural history. “It’s my most personal book to date,” she says.
Research has included observing beavers in the wild, working with a trapper, attending a fur auction and touring a hat factory. She started with “open-ended curiosity” and now hopes her book will encourage Canadians to revise their impression of the humble beaver, now considered a keystone species.
While Zuehlke and Backhouse have written about each other, they have never collaborated. They say their methods are too different. Both practice creative non-fiction, but Zuehlke pushes ahead in a “free fall technique,” then edits later, while Backhouse prefers to compose from outlines and edit as she writes.
While they no longer scan each other’s drafts, Backhouse muses, “We talk about work a lot—at lunchtime or when we take a break to go for a walk. We’re probably the first person we each tell about a new idea. It’s great to have that trusted person under the same roof to help make that first foray.”
Forgotten Victory 97817716204136
Children of the Klondike 9781552859506
David R. Conn is a Vancouver-based freelance researcher, writer and editor. He guest edited Raincoast Chronicles 22 (Harbour 2013).
Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek Across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds
As the author of 18 previous military books, historian Mark Zuehlke was one of a small contingent of marchers in a 300-kilometre trek in 2013 through Sicily in the footsteps of Canadian soldiers who were there in WW II.
They walked between 15 and 35 kilometres each day, usually along winding country roads, in order to reach the outskirts of a small town or village. Often they walked under a searing sun, with Mount Etna in the distance.
That adventure with his wife Frances Backhouse sparked Zuehlke’s contemplation of war and remembrance for Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek Across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds (D&M $36.95).
Filmmaker Max Fraser also undertook the Sicilian trek to mark the 70th anniversary of Sicily’s liberation in order to make his documentary, Bond of Strangers.
The marchers were repeatedly greeted by hundreds of cheering and applauding Sicilians.
In front of each community’s war memorial, a service of remembrance for both the Canadian and Sicilian war dead was conducted.
Each day brought the marchers closer to their final destination—the Agira Canadian War Cemetery, where 490 of the 562 Canadian soldiers who fell during the course of Operation Husky in 1943 are buried.
Operation Husky was the code name for the successful 1943 invasion of Sicily.