I always wanted to tell the story of at least part of my dad’s life. His was the Great War, 1914-18. Speaking for himself and his comrades in the Canadian cavalry, he joked, “We went to war like gentlemen, on horseback.” And they died like soldiers, in droves. Tom Mackay was one of the lucky ones. If his war was “interesting,” his reasons and circumstances under which he joined up were unusual. Articled to a prominent Winnipeg lawyer, a King’s Counsel, the machinations of the KC’s rogue lawyer son make for an irresistible fact pattern.
Telling the story of an immediate family member has problems and issues that have been a source of discomfort for many a biographer. I wasn’t prepared to write a biography, preferring to do the story as a novel. This of course allowed me to fill in the blanks of my knowledge, as Dad had passed on long before I put pen to paper.
One of the issues I wanted to deal with was his relationship to his first wife, Florence, who sadly died when her children, my half-siblings, were very young. And they too have passed away.
I was crafting a scene between Tom and Ellen, as I called her, when I had the distinct feeling that Tom Mackay, my father, was peering over my shoulder. He was obviously disapproving of whatever I was trying to say.
“That’s not what I’d do,” or some such remark, I imagined.
That was one of many instances where I felt constrained by my own image of my dad. I came up with what I thought was a practical solution. I changed Tom, my protagonist’s, name to “Macrae,” my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. From then on protagonist Tom was much less constrained by the unknowable details of my father’s life.
That being said most of the events and many of the characters in Soldier of the Horse were real and in fact toned down so as not to be unbelievable in a novel. The truth, as so often, being stranger than fiction.