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Jean Rae Baxter presents historical book “Battle on the Ice” to HEIRS

by Greg Layson


If award-winning Canadian author Jean Rae Baxter never writes another history book, she says “that will be fine.”


That’s because she considers her latest work, which prominently features Essex County, one of her most precious.


She made the comment after the September 21 meeting of the Harrow Early Immigrant Research Society (HEIRS), at which she read excerpts from her latest period piece.


“Battle on the Ice” puts the fictional protagonist Dory Dickson in the middle of the Patriot War, which included the Battle of Pelee Island, a skirmish that took place in 1838 as men tried to “liberate” Upper Canada from the British.


“This particular book was one that meant a great deal to me,” Baxter said, now author of 11 works.


Despite having been born in Toronto and raised in Hamilton, Baxter considers Essex and Kent counties “down home” because it’s where her ancestors settled hundreds of years ago.


“If I never write another history book, that will be fine, because this is my great work that I felt I had to write,” Baxter said, who has amassed 20 literary awards during her career.


In the book, Dickson leaves home to seek work. His father advises him to avoid border towns, where Patriots meet to plan rebellion. Upper and Lower Canada are on the verge of civil war.


While many of the characters, such as Dickson, are fictional, the events, many politicians, and ranked military men are very real.


Baxter called the “Battle of Pelee Island” “without doubt, the most important event in the island’s history.”


From a broader historical view, Baxter noted “no other community in Canada has ever been invaded and occupied by an army from a foreign country.”


For five-days, invaders from Sandusky, Ohio, held prisoner all of the island residents who hadn’t fled to the mainland. Soldiers looted homes and pillaged properties. But, on March 3, 1838, an army led by Colonel John Maitland marched across the ice from Fort Malden in Amherstburg and drove the invaders from the island.


Baxter explained the art of period writing is found in the balance between fact and fiction.


“I can have a lot of leeway with the fiction as long as I can make credible people. The fiction part really shows how ordinary people’s lives were affected by these events,” she said. “But there is no leeway with historical facts whatsoever.


You have to look at it from both sides.” Baxter said Canadian history needs to be honoured and that writing about it “helps preserve our way of life and preserves democracy and freedom.”


Milo Johnson, an HEIRS board member, former elementary school teacher, and black history author in his retirement, agrees.


“If you don’t keep that history going, by local people like Jean, then it’s lost,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of history right here in Essex County, the town of Harrow, Colchester Township. It’s the same everywhere you go. There’s history there. We have to keep our local history alive.”

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