Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


An Interview with “Maggie’s Choice” author, Susan Taylor Meehan

Maggie’s Choice explores aspects of the socialist and labour movements during and after WW1, through the eyes of a nurse who serves in the Canadian army. I am pleased to welcome author Susan Taylor Meehan to Great War 100 Reads today, to share some thoughts about her work.

Why did you write Maggie’s Choice?

Susan Taylor Meehan: Originally, I wanted to write a non-fiction book about the women who served as nurses at the front during World War I, in part because my great-aunt was one of them. However, I discovered that someone else had beaten me to it! Her book was excellent, and the world didn’t need another one. But there was still a story to tell, so I decided that since we can often convey more truth through fiction than non-fiction, I would write my great-aunt’s personal story as a fictional memoir. Every one of her reminiscences is in Maggie’s Choice, along with material both adapted and imagined from numerous other sources. For more info, check out my website.  Continue reading

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Maggie’s Choice

Finally, I understood, understood it all: Mrs. Orlofsky, taking in laundry, struggling to make ends meet, paying too much for even the most basic necessities; Mrs. MacLaren, entertaining in her palatial hone, living off the deposits of war profiteers, price gougers, and speculators who wouldn’t charge a fair price or pay their employees a living wage if it killed them.

That afternoon, I saw how the economic system worked. And no, it wasn’t right, how these people had to live. (p 78)

Susan Taylor Meehan is of an age to know ‘the personal is political.’ She conveys the concept in her short novel, Maggie’s Choice, following a young nurse to the Western front in WW1 and back to Canada and the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Continue reading

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Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear

A surprize package arrived on my desk from Winnipeg this week. In it, an autographed copy of Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

Many people who read about Winnie the Pooh are unaware that he is based on a real-life Canadian black bear. Lindsay Mattick tells the tale.

In 1914, Mattick’s great-grandfather, Harry Colebourn, was a veterinarian heading to war. His troop train stopped in White River, ON, where he bought a bear cub from a trapper. He named the bear Winnipeg after his home town (Winnie for short), so his regiment would never feel far from home.

Winnie was a remarkable bear. As mascot for the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade, she learned “to stand up straight and hold her head high and turn this way and that, just so!” But when the order came to leave the training grounds on Salisbury Plain and head to France, Harry knew he could not take Winnie.

The London Zoo became Winnie’s home. There she met Christopher Robin and his father, A.A. Milne. Christopher Robin named his own teddy bear Winnie. A.A. Milne brought his son’s stuffed menagerie to life in Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

In Finding Winnie, Mattick tells the story of the real Winnie to her own son, Cole. It’s a lovely read-to picture book for ages 3-7, with a family album of photos and ephemera at the end.

Statues of Harry Colebourn and Winnie can be found in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg and at the London Zoo.

Winnie was not the only Canadian to land in the London Zoo during the war. About a dozen bears in all were brought to England and then left at the zoo when the troops were sent to the front.

A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977 tells of Teddy, a black bear cub presented to the 160th Bruce Battalion.

When the 160th Bruce Battalion left to go overseas they took with them a denizen of the woods of Bruce. In time, he grew to be a full-sized, well developed bear with a fine coat of glossy black hair.

One day in Bramshott, he got out, and being of a roving disposition, took a stroll around the camp. The first place he visited was the staff office, and the employees, never having had the pleasure (or terror) of a visit from a Bruce County bear, immediately vacated the premises and left Teddy master of all he surveyed. He found nothing to his liking there; he ambled out and strolled down the road. Seeing a hut door open, he walked in and caused a greater panic than a German would have done. Seeing that he was not a welcome visitor, he went out, and not finding a suitable tree to climb went up a telegraph pole, where he was captured a little later.

Teddy at the latest report was in the Zoo in London, England, with a number of other bears, having been turned down on account of flat feet. He lived for another three years at the London Zoo. Sgt. David William (Bull) Stephens of Wiarton was the soldier responsible for looking after Teddy.

Gordon Reid, editor, A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977. Published by the Elderslie Historical Society, Chesley, Ontario, 1977, p 213

Thanks to Nick for adding to my library of most important books about the world.

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Aleta Dey

I am sorry that to-day our causes seem to stand in opposition; but perhaps it is only seeming. It may be that history with its wider perspective will discover them to be two branches of the same tree of freedom, yours contending with the winds of tyranny abroad and mine with the winds of tyranny at home. (Aleta Day, ch XXXIX)

Why isn’t Francis Marion Beynon’s semi-autobiographical novel Aleta Dey counted amongst the war classics? On every high school curriculum? Easy to find in print?

Beynon was a journalist and feminist. She grew up in a staunch Methodist family on a Manitoba farm. In 1912, at age 28, she became the first full-time women’s editor of the Grain Growers’ Guide, an influential newspaper circulated throughout the Canadian prairies. Her columns were a platform to argue for women’s issues like suffrage, education and property rights. She was a leader in the Manitoba suffrage movement. In 1917, she was forced to leave her job due to her pacifist views and opposition to the war. Aleta Dey, her only novel, was published in 1919.

Aleta Dey’s life parallels that of Beynon’s in many ways. The early chapters of the novel show family, church and school as institutions bent on silencing girls and women. Those who question authority are beaten or humiliated into submission. Aleta resents her ultimate state of weakness: “I am a coward. I think I was born to be free, but my parents, with God as one of their chief instruments of terror, frightened me into servility.” (ch I)

Aleta moves to Winnipeg and becomes a journalist. She rejects Ned, her childhood protector and kindred spirit. She falls in love with McNair, a man with – shall we say – more conventional views of women’s place in the world. (No, Aleta! Don’t do it! I want to talk some sense into her and lead her away. OK, I’m emotionally invested in this book.)

Our suffrage organisation had decided to have a parade to awaken a slothful public to the importance of our propaganda. …

“I should certainly not permit my wife, if I had one, to carry on that way,” he declared threateningly.

“I should certainly not permit my husband, if I had one, to substitute his conscience for mine,” I snapped back. (ch XVII)

Phew! Aleta will hold her own.

Beynon is at her best with snippets that reveal the tensions, condescensions and contradictions of war.

Germany had broken the peace of the world and plunged us into night. Very well, we would collect a few Canadians and send them over and they would settle the matter in a few months and come home, and we would give them a banquet, and allow them to die in the poor-house, as had been done to the heroes of other wars. (ch XXIV)

She pokes pins into the sentiments that only enemy messages are propaganda … that poor working men should be conscripted, but not the capital of wealthy men … that the spending of soldiers’ wives should be monitored, as if their earnings were public charity … that socialism might be any less of a tyranny than capitalism. She rallies for peace, and especially for freedom of speech to prevail in war.

Aleta Dey speaks of its time. It also holds timeless lessons for today.


Hard to find a copy of Aleta Dey in print. The text is now in the public domain, so it is easy to find a free copy online.