Hangman’s Beach by Thomas H. Raddall

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA little while ago I wrote about my re-read of The Nymph and the Lamp. I went on and on about how much I loved it and what a great story-teller Thomas Raddall is, but I only had one of his books under my belt; I felt like I needed more evidence to back me up. So, I decided to jump right into my second Raddall book, Hangman’s Beach. It also serves nicely to fill the ‘R’ requirement for my A-Z CanLit Project.

Also, not very long ago I wrote about Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, about Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. I thought it was a fun bookish coincidence that both books are set during the Napoleonic wars. While Humboldt had just gotten back from his trip to Latin America and Gauss was getting used to his new role as Professor of Astronomy, there is high adventure and intrigue going on in the Atlantic Ocean and in the little port of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Hands down, what I love best about Hangman’s Beach is the detailed history of the Halifax area from the end of the French Revolution, through the Napoleonic wars, leading right up to the War of 1812. Through the characters and their interactions, we learn about the politics of the wars, some of the major players and battles, and how it all had an effect on the people living in Halifax and other parts of Nova Scotia. I soaked this up like a sponge, then relayed it all back to my husband play-by-play. (As a Haligonian, I thought he should know all about it.)

It was a little slow going at times, trying to get a grasp on all the places and people in play. For example, it was helpful to have a map in my head of all the islands mentioned and where they all are; McNab’s Island, Melville Island, Devil’s Island, and Dead Man’s Island (this one’s not really an island). Hangman’s Beach refers to the point of McNab’s Island where the British navy strung up their hung men to warn other British seamen what will happen to them if they decide to desert or commit treason of any kind.

In case I for got to mention it to you...

In case I for got to mention it to you…

I was surprised to learn that Dartmouth was already being settled so early on, mostly by merchants well-off enough to build a second home across the harbour to avoid the smell and crowds of Halifax in the summer. From Dartmouth, you could take the road out to Preston where there were farms, many of which were being farmed by German settlers. Some of the French prisoners of war were taken to Preston instead of to Melville’s Island to wait out the war, boarding with the local farmers. Another group of occupants there were the Maroons, taking me way back to high school Canadian Studies. The Maroons were exiled to Nova Scotia from Jamaica temporarily before most of them moved on again to Sierra Leone. Are you as utterly transfixed as I am yet?

“The other Frenchmen tell me it is hell turned inside out – a torture of cold instead of heat. An eternity of short days and long black nights, with snow to the hips, and an air cold enough to freeze a brass monkey’s double-shot. Why France ever owned or fought for this country I shall never know. It is not for Frenchmen, this, unless one could arrive in April and depart by November. For the rest of the year the Devil can have it -he’s an Englishman, of course.”

3137389But what about the story? The story begins with Peter McNab, the owner and occupant of MacNab’s Island, a small island in the Halifax Harbour. He has a wife and 2 sons, as well as an Aunt and a ward named Ellen Dewar. Ellen came over from Scotland to live with the McNabs when she was 10. She is now in her early 20s, and Peter and his wife Joanne feel it’s time for Ellen to marry. They start bringing young men over to the island to visit in the hopes that she will take to one of them, but of course she doesn’t. In her independent and practical way she decides she will take Rory as her husband. Rory is a friend of Peter’s and he is also in charge of all the French prisoners on Melville Island; a job he does well and takes pride in. The prisoners are treated well there, many are allowed to go into town and work, while all of them are able to make things to sell at the Market they hold on the island every week.

… it surprised him to learn that almost one in ten of the people living about Halifax harbor was a French prisoner-of-war from the West Indies or taken at sea, and that scores of them moved freely about the town itself.

One day a prisoner with a big secret arrives. Cascamond can speak English very well, and it is arranged that he go to MacNab’s Island as a French tutor for Peter’s 2 boys. You can probably guess what happens next. The main course of the story is somewhat predictable, but I still found the meanderings of it surprising and full of new details about the province and the way life was lived here so long ago. The story takes us all the way down and around the end of the province (where we learn that there are a few scattered Acadian villages on the French shore – a common destination for escaped French prisoners) and back up to Fort Anne (where re-captured prisoners are taken by foot back to Halifax). Then we arrive at Melville Island and spend some time there with the French prisoners. The end of the book brings us right up to the beginning of the War of 1812, and we learn about many of the grumblings and circumstances that spurred it on. Our story about the McNabs and Cascamond has a satisfactory ending, but now I’m itching to read about the next phase of the global battle between the French and English.

The notion of such folk planning a war to take Canada made no sense whatever. What the deuce was Canada? He scraped his memory for things he had heard. A jabber of Frenchmen between Quebec and Montreal; a few stump farmers grumbling in English by the shore of Lake Ontario; west of that nothing but a wilderness haunted by wild Indians and a scatter of frost-bitten ragamuffins in the fur trade! Remote as China, most of it. Not worth a pinch of anybody’s powder.

Who knew Auntie McNab had it in her?

Who knew Auntie McNab had it in her?

On a deeper level, Raddall’s characters show a trend of acceptance and moving forward. Maybe because these people are living in the ‘new world’ they are not as likely to get hung up on differences in religion and background. It’s nice to see that Peter (who is Protestant) and Joanne (who is Catholic) have a happy marriage; surprising to some, but others are now used to it, paving the way for future generations. The new love, as well, between Ellen and Cascamond; the British and the French. In the new world, these are the kinds of pairings that will happen when everyone is thrust together in the same place, free from the strict traditions of the ‘old country’.

Character development with Cascamond and Ellen is admittedly predictable; he was obnoxiously full of himself, she was a dreamy mousy sort destined for a ‘safe’ marriage to a much older man. They are transformed by their love, etc., and the power of love will overcome everything, blah blah. But, trust me, it’s worth it.


Now for a little bit of fun: When I read old books, especially old books written by men, I always find it interesting and amusing to note the way women are portrayed or thought of. And, unlike reading about stereotypes or sexism in contemporary literature (like here and here), it doesn’t rankle nearly as much.

“Then what’s to be done?” demanded McNab impatiently. His mind was turned to male affairs, in which everything went on plain lines. Women were like the sea out there, smiling, murmuring, gliding in pleasant undulations on the surface, but moved by deep tides at the pull of mysterious moons. [Peter McNab sounds like a blustery grouch, but is really just a big softie.]

“…This has been entirely a venture of my own. In a way I’m playing a little game for my own ends. It’s part of the pleasure of being a wife. And mother, of course. We women are all schemers, Lieutenant Cascamond, and our best effort is to make men do what we wish without suspecting it for a moment.”

She was of no allurement. And a woman sans attraits did not count as a woman at all, except in that faceless multitude of the old, the decrepit, or deformed. [Oof. These are Cascamond’s thoughts when he first meets Ellen. In his defence, he is basically an orphan brought up by the French government and the navy. But still.]

“Women! Ye never know what notion they’ll take intae their heads in a moment and demand it must be done the next. [Actually, this is what my children are like.] Miss Ellie wouldna come to town at-all at-all the past several years – ye couldna drag her off the island. Nae more would Auntie come away except in summer noo and then. But here ’tis the cauldest part o’ winter, wi’ the Bonnie Jo hauled up till spring and myself content to bide at home, and all on a sudden they’re hotching tae visit the Rosses in toon, and plan tae stay a twelvemonth by the look o’ the baggage.” [This is where Auntie McNab’s cunning plan comes into play.]

So, tell me, is it just me or do you also love to read about the history of places you know? What writers do a good job of it in your neck of the woods? Does reading about the roles of women in history interest you or infuriate you?


41 thoughts on “Hangman’s Beach by Thomas H. Raddall

  1. Sarah Emsley says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one, Naomi. I agree, reading about the history of Halifax is the best part. Have you been to any of the islands he mentions? I can’t remember if we’ve talked about this before.

    • Naomi says:

      My husband and I went out to McNab’s Island a couple of times before kids (and even before we were married I think). We made sure there was very little wind (no one wants to be dunked in the harbour!) and launched our canoe from Point Pleasant Park. The first time we spent a lot of time on the island itself, and the second time we canoed around the island. I didn’t know a lot of the history, though, because we just went on our own. Are there tours there now?

      • Sarah Emsley says:

        Oh, now I remember. We did talk about this, last summer, I think. I remember you telling me about the canoe. I went to McNabs once when I was 11 and once last summer, for the Friends of McNabs picnic. I bought the guidebook published by the society and I’d like to go back and explore again. There were guided tours offered that day. I don’t know how often they do that, but I know there are more plaques there now than there used to be. I went to Dead Man’s Island a couple of years ago to see the plaque honouring the American prisoners of war who were buried there.

      • Naomi says:

        I would love to go again! Especially now that they’ve made it more of a ‘tour’. When we were there, I’m pretty sure there were no plaques. We wondered around and picked berries. πŸ™‚

  2. Elle says:

    I have a harder time reading historical dismissals of women. I love Trollope to death and actually think he’s not that bad on women, but so many of the courtships and marriages in his books make my teeth itch for their blatant inequity.

  3. Read Diverse Books says:

    “Haligonian” – is that really what people from Halifax are called? :}

    This book seems to be filled with the rich history of Canada. I can see why you love it so much. πŸ™‚

  4. Cecilia says:

    Oh yes, I love it! I haven’t finished yet but Nathaniel Philbrik’s Mayflower is a terrific read so far (I know that you had read his other book?). I’m from New England so I think there are a lot of good historical books about the area…I just need to look them up. I don’t know anything about Halifax!

    • Naomi says:

      Good to hear you’re liking Mayflower! I will have to make a note of borrowing that from my mother next time I’m there – I know she has that one.
      New England and Nova Scotia are so close – they probably have a lot of similar history (time of settlement, whaling, fishing, etc.). In fact, many of the towns in Southwest Nova were originally settled by New Englanders!

  5. Bina says:

    Oh I need to read more Canadian lit! So great you showed us your notes πŸ™‚ I remember the Kehlmann, I actually read that one, heh. It’s also been adapted to film, have you seen it?

    • Naomi says:

      No, I haven’t seen the film. I have a hard time getting around to watching movies, even though I love them! But, I will keep my eye out for it!

  6. Carolyn O says:

    Oh, how I feel about older portrayals of women could fill an essay, so I won’t go into it here. But as for portrayals of where you live . . . Boston is almost over-written, I think (not as much as New York) especially in historical fiction, but I dearly love it when I come across Cleveland!

  7. Grab the Lapels says:

    I love to read about places I’ve been! Bonnie Jo Campbell writes Michigan fiction, light in her novel Once Upon a River, and another author, Darren Doyle who wrote The Girl Who Are Kalamazoo, which is a city in Michigan. I really love books set in Detroit.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s not just me, then! Sometimes I wonder, though, if I like a book disproportionally because of its setting. That’s allowed though, right?
      Funny that the author’s name is Bonnie Jo, like the name of Peter McNab’s boat in the book. πŸ™‚

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I think we want to know how someone else thought of it seeing creatively, because in my experience, prior from the Midwest in the U.S. think it’s boring and not special. Hire might someone bring it to lift, we wonder. And when they do, we totally disproportionally love the book πŸ™‚

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks! Ha! I didn’t want anyone to think that those parts of the book were what I love so much. Had to make that clear. But, I’m just loving his story-telling and history lessons so much that I really don’t care about the predictable romance story-line. πŸ™‚
      Thanks for reading this giant, never-ending post!

  8. The Cue Card says:

    Yeah I’m sure the roles of women or sexism in old books sort of drives nuts & infuriates me, but I still like reading history too. I’ve read a lot about the War of 1812 since its bicentennial has recently passed but I haven’t read anything on the British & French wars in Canada so I’m a bit clueless there. Perhaps this book gives an interesting picture of that? thx

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t read enough about it either. What I liked reading about in this book was the attitude the British and French had toward each other. In this day and age it seems so silly to me that they would be so prejudiced against each other, but there wasn’t a lot of mixing with each other back then.

  9. DoingDewey says:

    I do love reading about the history of places I know or even of places I don’t. The detailed history in this book sounds fascinating, although it does seem like it would have benefitted from a map and a list of characters!

    • Naomi says:

      A map would have been nice, but google helped me out there. I didn’t find the characters too hard to keep track of. It’s a long-ish book, and he introduces everyone pretty gradually.

  10. Peter Macnab says:

    Hi. My name is Peter Macnab and I live in Halifax and have a rather convaluted historical relationship to my namesake. Unfortunately my copy of Hangmans Beach went missing many years ago. Would anyone be interested in selling a copy?

    • Naomi says:

      Have you tried looking in the second-hand book shops? That’s where I found my copy.
      I would love to hear about your connections!

  11. Margaret Forsyth Wanyeki says:

    I originally am from Dartmouth but now live in Kenya. My father gifted me this book in ’73… Finally during this period of Covid 19 isolation, I got around to reading it…and found I loved it…historical and geographocal details so familiar…and the story… A pleasure to read.
    Had been to the MacNab’s Island in late summer ’99…I remember the raspberries and blackberries be overflowing …and the magnificent ancient old trees.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for sharing your story about this book! It’s funny how we wait so long just to find out we love something and wonder why we’ve waited so long. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

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