Titanic 100th anniversary: Canadian author says young people need to know about Canadian history

by Cortney Cook

Cortney Cook, Becky Robertson, Hugh Brewster, Shaun Thompson after interview by the three Centennial College journalism students

The past century in Canada has a multitude of historic moments that changed society forever, and it is a rare and privileged opportunity to speak one on one with someone who witnessed a moment first hand.

Author Hugh Brewster has had some of those opportunities, and has spent his entire career researching and writing novels about some of Canada’s most iconic, and heart-wrenching moments in history. He has devoted over 25-years of research to the Titanic, and just as many for the Great Wars. With over a dozen compilations ranging from Russia’s Anastasia, to the “Black Mozart”, Dieppe, Vimy, and especially the Titanic, Brewster may be what you call a jack-of-all-trades for Canadian history.

In his Edwardian style Toronto saloon, Brewster eagerly discusses his fiction novels and how segments of them reflect his own personal experiences, and those of veterans he interviewed. His publication of 2011, Deadly Voyage, emanated a walk down memory lane that Brewster still “vividly remembers to this day”.

“Exploring the ship (in the book) was something I experienced,” Brewster said. “We went crazy on that ship because we were so excited […] I remember when we left Scotland my mother was crying and I was thinking, ‘Why is she crying?’This is so exciting!” he said.

Like the book’s character, Jaime, Brewster also remembers being quite seasick for some time.

Brewster’s speciality in history is the Titanic, and he has written several fiction and non-fiction books on it, while also working with the famous Robert Ballard who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, and Ken Marschall, who created the illustrations of the ship and its final North Atlantic gravesite.

“As we were browsing through Marschall’s footing we came across an image of these boots perfectly lain at the bottom of the ocean floor, it was obvious a person had inhabited those shoes,” said Brewster as he held open a copy of his book Inside the Titanic. “It was fascinating to see.”

This April marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s loss, and Brewster has a new book prepared for such a commemorative moment in history. RMS Titanic: Gilded Lives on a Fatal Voyage is the first time Brewster has ever written a 100,000 word book for adults. It brings together 25-years of research and delves into the various lives that existed in another world on that ship.

“The famous Lady Duff Gordon described the Titanic as a small world bent on pleasure,” Brewster said. “So I decided to write about this small world as a microcosm of the gilded age, and the Edwardian age, and you have this very interesting pre-modern world.”

Brewster’s new book is set to release March 24, before the 100th anniversary in April.

He also incorporated some of his childhood memories into Prisoner of Dieppe, a historical fiction novel with true experiences hidden within the story.  The main character, Allister Morrison, was created using two names of Brewster’s cousins from Scotland. The beginning of the book opens up with Allister taking his sister to the park, to play on the swings where they “get attacked by bullies”.

“They made fun of my accent and called me a Limey; that was also in the story,” Brewster said.

It was when the name of a veteran came up that Brewster’s cheery persona became sullen. Allister’s friend “Mackie” was inspired by veteran Ron Reynold, with whom over time Brewster developed a friendship as Prisoner of Dieppe was written.

Nearing the ending of the book, Reynold died. In memory of the veteran Brewster commemorated the book to him. As he picked up Prisoner of Dieppe, Brewster eagerly showed a picture of Reynold as a teenager before he went to war.

“They were just boys then, just boys and they were sent off to war,” he said.

With this, Brewster stresses the importance of Canadian history. Until recently, he felt that Canadian military history was overshadowed by the U.S. and its “John Wayne movies”.

“Most of us our age grew up not knowing about Canadian history,” Brewster said. “It’s our stories, it’s our families, and it happens all the time.”