Mark Zuehlke grew up in the Okanagan, hearing tales of Remittance Men – those eccentric British immigrants sent here in the late 19th century by their families who didn’t know what else to do with them. They were called Remittance Men because of the funds they received from their families to support them. The funds – and their families – encouraged them not to go back to Britain, where they were not welcome for variety of reasons, often having to do with their behavior.
The local legend that inspired Zuehlke’s interest had to do with the sudden disappearance of most of these men around the beginning of World War I.
They had little cabins scattered across the countryside and when word reached them that Britain had declared war on Germany, they made a pact that they would all go off to war. So one guy rode to another’s cabin, and he burned it down, and the owner of that cabin rode to the next cabin and did likewise, and so on, until all the cabins were burned.
And they all went off to war, which seems to be the part of the legend that has some basis in reality.
Zuehlke had no idea how much of this legend was true, but it inspired him to begin to find out as much as he could about the Remittance Men. This led him to write the book Scoundrels, Dreamers And Second Sons, which has recently been re-released and which Zuehlke had a book signing for at Mac’s Fireweed during the North in the First World War conference in early May, at which he was one of the guest speakers.
Writing this book also set him off on two different tracks as a writer. Scoundrels was his first work of popular history. As part of his research he read numerous accounts of life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as recorded by these Remittance Men, and quoted liberally from their writings in composing his book.
Zuehlke would move on to write the critically acclaimed Canadian Battle Series, featuring lots of oral interviews with participants of events in northern Europe and Italy. There are a dozen books in the series and in 2014 Zuehlke was presented with the Governor General’s Award for Popular History, which is called The Pierre Berton Award. This is most appropriate, since Zuehlke was one of the Berton House Writers in Residence in 2003.
The other literary track that this research prompted him to explore was the creation of a series of mystery novels, featuring his fictional coroner detective Elias McCann. McCann is a modern-day Remittance Man who lives in Tofino on Vancouver Island.
So far there have been three of these novels, the first of which, called Hands Like Clouds, won the 2000 Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel. Two more followed, the third being completed during his stay at Berton House in 2003.
Then World War II took over his life, and he’s been churning a new Canadian Battle Series book nearly every year. This includes the memoir Through Blood And Sweat, his account of the 2013 memorial march across Sicily that he participated in, along with veterans, veteran’s children, and a film crew led by Yukon filmmaker Max Fraser, whose documentary Bond of Strangers recorded the event.