Books in retrospect

Arthur Thurston: An Historian Speaks

Shunpiking Magazine December 1998 No. 23

When Yarmouth native Arthur Thurston died three months ago, at the age of seventy, he left behind a legacy of at least ten books of fascinating historical interest. Arthur was a teacher, principal, historian, and author, who spent nearly all his adult life in Yarmouth County. He had two Masters degree, was an excellent golfer, collected weapons of the American Civil War, raised pigeons, and had an incredible love for history. Many people only knew Arthur for his eccentricity in his later years, and fail to realize the contribution he has left behind in his historical writings.

At shunpiking we feel too much has been made of Arthur's so-called obession with keeping pigeons; we feel a great disservice has been done to him because of this. What should be remember about Arthur Thurston is the amount of historical research and writing he did. This article will give the reader an idea of what Arthur was really about, and hopefully inspire some to search out and read one or more of his books. Some of his books are self published and are hard to find to purchase, but they are available at local libraries. Arthur Thurston.jpg

The Tallahassee Skipper is John Taylor Wood, confederate officer, gunnery genius, seaman, husband, father of nine children and transplanted Nova Scotian. Wood was also grandson of the twelfth president of the United States, Zachary Taylor.

During the American civil war Thurston says Wood captured 35 vessels as skipper of the CSS Tallahassee and, as gunner aboard the Merrimac and other boats, "captured, destroyed or damaged about 30 others." By 1865 Wood tired of the fight, arrived in Halifax aboard the Lark, travelled to Montreal to join his wife and two children, and returned to spend the next forty years in Halifax.

According to Thurston, had Wood remained in the US, "He would have been accepted as one of the great central figures of the Civil War." Instead the man who once freed 354 slaves en route to Brazil and then became a slave owner himself in Maryland, prior to the civil war, chose to live in Halifax and work in shipping, insurance, and pilotage - leaving behind a number of descendants, many of whom rose high in the ranks of the RCMP.

In his introduction entitled, In Appreciation, Thurston writes, "I would not have believed that a story so natural could have gone so long unchronicled." Thurston claims he scrutinized over a thousand books, wrote hundreds of letters, and wore out five typewriters in writing this 434-page book. This is indeed evident from the voluminous amount of detail Thurston has painstakingly crammed into this book. The short chapter alone on Wood's inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island had to have taken considerable time to put together.

Published in 1981, Arthur Thurston's Tallahassee Skipper stands as an amazing piece of Civil War and Nova Scotian history, written with the enthusiasm and dedication of a remarkable historian and author. John Taylor Wood probably never expected this.


The only way to describe A Monument Speaks is to call it a monumental work. In this book Thurston chronicles the lives and deaths of all 173 names inscribed on the four sides of the WWI monument on Yarmouth's Main Street. The monument was unveiled in 1923 and was one of the first major Canadian projects to remember the war dead from 1914-1918. Thurston claims he read every issue of the Yarmouth Herald, Telegram, Light and Times that existed from 1914 to the 1930's, either as originals or on microfilm, to gain insight into the lives of those slain in the first world war.

Not meant exactly as a war history, Thurston hoped his book would inspire others to write "similar works in other portions of Canada, to the end that each community may reconstruct the lives and the deaths of their nobility cast away and lost in the Great War... a war fought for trivial, petty and selfish reasons of national pride."

The details of the individuals' lives and deaths, and Thurston's accompanying digressions, make for fascinating reading. In the section on the twins Jacob and Leo Vickery, Thurston tells how Leo returns home from Europe medically unfit, but alive, to a hearty welcome, whereas Jacob dies of natural causes in France in 1918. Thurston then recounts the story of how Jacob, still in Canada, deserts the militia in late 1916, only to return to service in early 1917. Thurston writes:

Jacob Vickery was very fortunate that desertion on this side of the water did not carry the death penalty as did desertion in the face of the enemy. Capital punishment was carried out with a vengeance in the Canadian Army 1915-1918, so much so that some wags said the greatest enemy was the rifle in the hands of a member of a firing squad.

Thurston goes on to say 346 Canadians were slain by their own men for anything from desertion and cowardice to falling asleep while on post. When Jacob Vickery went AWOL in 1916 he was only seventeen years old (Thurston checked birth dates on headstones to get accurate ages) - barely old enough to drive a car and not old enough to have a beer by today's standards.

As a digression of my own, Jack Hodgin's new book Broken Ground deals in a fictional way with desertion and resettlement of soldiers and their families in British Columbia following WWI. The section dealing with the decision to shoot a young boy for desertion is one of the most powerful scenes in recent Canadian fiction and works like Arthur Thurston's add truth and credibility to the horrors imagined by good writers. (Stanley Kubrick's film Paths of Glory also deals with desertion and cowardice during WWI and its absurd treatment by the French army.) Whether you read A Monument Speaks for accurate accounts of history, for genealogy, or to spur your own imagination, this monument to our history has something to tell all of us.

Bluenose Spitfires is the story of five men - either from Nova Scotia or with a connection to Nova Scotia - who scored over 100 air victories against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in WWII. In his forward Thurston quotes W.H. Auden as saying, "The closest modern equivalent to the Homeric hero is the fighter pilot."

As in his other books Thurston was able to ferret out a great deal of information about the day to day life of a Canadian fighter pilot.

Take for example the chapter on George Hill. Hill was born on October 29, 1918 in the village of St Peter's, Cape Breton. He was a leading ace in WWII with fourteen planes destroyed. Shot down over France in April 1944, taken prisoner by the Germans, and liberated by the Russians, he finally made it back to England in May of 1945. He then goes on to be the only outstanding flier to become a medical doctor, and he fathers ten children.

But that is not enough detail for Arthur Thurston. Thurston writes, "There was one strange circumstance in conjunction with the date of his birth that will be of interest to those who believe all great events, and doers of great deeds, have their fortunes written in the stars and that our destiny, or fate, is planned for us." For two days before Hill's birth Lieutenant Colonel William Barker fought a major WWI battle against sixty German airplanes, downed four of them, disabled two, crashed, recovered and was awarded the Victoria Cross. This and a number of other utterly compelling stories makes Bluenose Spitfires a very thrilling and enlightening read.
Arthur Thurston was a complex man who had a novel way of remem-bering the past. The three books discussed here illuminate this talent of his. Hopefully through his work Arthur Thurston will be remember for the man he really was - not the odd character many others thought he was.

Books Reviewed

Tallahassee Skipper, Lescarbot Press, Yarmouth NS 434 pp, 1981

A Monument Speaks, A Thurston Publications, Yarmouth NS, isbn 0-921596-00-6, 397 pp, 1989

Bluenose Spitfires, Lancelot Press, Hantsport NS, isbn 0-88999-113-8, 92 pp., 1979

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