This week on our Ask an Author series, Mary Thomas, author of Canadians with Custer, was able to sit down with us and answer some questions about her new book.
Caitlyn: How did you come up with the idea for this work?
Mary: I knew someone who went to a conference in Alberta one summer. One of the participants mentioned the intention to travel to Montana afterward to visit the grave of an ancestor, an ancestor who had fought at the battle of the Little Bighorn. I was intrigued. I’d written three non-fiction books relating to Canadian history, but I was not aware of Canadians at LBH. Then I learned that one was from a prominent Brantford area family in Ontario, and one was a journalist from Brighton, Ontario. I was hooked.
Caitlyn: Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.
Mary: This book began as a story of the Canadians with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the battle of Little Bighorn in June, 1876. The story actually stretches over nine years, from the first Canadian signing up with The Seventh Cavalry to the battle. I bring the reader close to the camps and forts on the western plains, showing the life of the troops, officers and wives, and the culture that Custer and his wife Libbie created. As I researched more and more, it also became the story of the destruction of the Native peoples’ way of life as well.
Caitlyn: Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?
Mary: I wasn’t aiming for a specific readership when I wrote this book. As a journalist I always like to tell an interesting story, interesting enough to hold anyone’s attention. This story is researched to meet the scrutiny of a military-minded reader or Custer-reader, but searches out the intriguing details to catch any reader’s attention. I have traced the personal life of each of the Canadians. This book also includes the back story of the great Native leaders of the western plains whose various run-ins with the U.S government and Army lead up to LBH.
Caitlyn: Describe your ideal writing environment.
Mary: As a journalist I have written in various newsrooms and while on assignment over the years, so I can write under most noisy and busy conditions. But when I am researching and writing a book I don’t even listen to music. Our cat Lola sitting in the study window is fine, as long as she doesn’t talk!
Caitlyn: In your own work, which character are you most attached to and why?
Mary: You would think I’d say the journalist, Mark Kellogg, from Brighton, but I think among the Canadians I felt the most empathy with Donald McIntosh. McIntosh, or Tosh as he was called by his friends, was the grandson of a Scottish partner in the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was part Indian himself, which makes you think about his role. He seemed a charming person who married well in Washington DC. He and his wife were part of Custer’s “circle.” There’s a photo in the book of his dog, Shep, who travelled with McIntosh in the Seventh Cavalry from fort to fort across the west. I also felt a great deal of empathy with Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle who tried to do the best for his family and his people, in the face of a U.S. government and Army that reneged on treaty after treaty and were intent on exterminating the Native people.
Mary Thomas is a journalist and broadcaster. Her broadcasting career has taken her to Bosnia, Honduras, South Korea, and Canada’s High Arctic. She has taught part-time at Loyalist College and has written for newspapers, including Toronto’s Telegram. Mary Thomas is the author of three previous non-fiction books. She lives in Belleville, Ontario.