Cathy Austin

March 2022

Book Bites - What Will you be Reading this March?

I’ll be reading more of the fabulous favourites on the 2021 bestseller list:

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig and Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon, both of which I have on my shelf. Haig’s book got a lot of buzz last year, so I am anxious to get into it. Gabaldon’s is a long-awaited big novel in the ongoing and much beloved Outlander series. This is one I will be reading in the spring because, you know, bees!

Lucky by Marissa Stapley sounds quirky and is a book that I truly must get. Back on the list is Station Eleven by Emily St. John; published years ago but again immensely popular because there’s a series and it involves a virus. So, it’s of interest. I have read it and would read it again, it rocks. Both of these authors are Canadians.

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield is a book I began this year with and one that topped many lists last year. It is truly amazing, a great thriller set in space, and if an author would know the place it would be our own astronaut, Hadfield! More great Canadian reads: Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny, and All the Devils Are Here. I have read and reviewed these, but would read both again, especially Good’s book.

Two more Canadian authors round out this group: Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson and Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham, both excellent novels about bravery in World War II. I have read both and enjoyed them very much. Another book that hit number one on the original fiction list set in wartime is The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, a book I’ve read and highly recommend.

Two books I am eager to read are mysteries; The Mirror Man by Lars Keppler, an author I’ve read a lot about but is new to me, and The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, published in 1967 and recently made into a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor I love for his fluidity and intensity. I think the trailers sold me on reading the book which I have got and plan to read soon.

What about kids? Let’s not forget them! You cannot go wrong with a Dav Pilkey book. He’s a hoot! Check out Dog Man: Mothering Heights or Cat Kid Comic Club.

A book I’ll treat myself to later in the year is Debbie Travis new book, Joy, that chronicles her new life with husband and family on an estate in Tuscany. The title sold me because if there’s something we all need a little bit more of during these pandemic times is joy.

Happy reading everybody!


Well Taught the Value of a Shilling

By Cathy Austin

You can well imagine hanging about the holiday dinner table or lounging in the family room listening to the elder statesman of the family bang on about days of yore. The difference is, how well does the teller share his story, your story, or the family story? How engaged are you? Do you lean forward to learn more?

In Well Taught the Value of a Shilling–presented by the James McCowan Memorial Social History Initiative, featuring George Edward McCowan and directed by his relation, Bruce–you will be fascinated by the whole narrative of how the McCowan family arrived here in forested rural Scarborough in 1833.

Most of us know the name McCowan in these parts, certainly the road, and also connections like R.H. King Academy. You probably know that the McCowans are one of the oldest families in the area, having settled in the Bluffs, Markham, and Steeles. 

But what you might not know are the choice bits and bobs or ‘ramblings’ described in this small but juicy historical book. We begin in Ayrshire, Scotland where the family dabbled strongly in the coal business and finance–hence, the ‘well taught the value of a shilling’. Many copies of actual receipts and letters dot the pages and add a lively visual component, depicting how the ‘Mc’ got dropped by various McCowans becoming ‘Cowans’. In Ayr there were the Cowan/Mc shipbuilders, stockbrokers, public service workers and much more. Starting anew in Scarborough was a bit of a shock in 1833; a decided step back for this gentrified Scot family, yet land here was plentiful. and best of all. could be owned. A tad different from being a tenant in Scotland. Down at the Bluffs the family settled at Springbank, an ideal spot to farm. We know the part that is Fool’s Paradise! James McCowan delightedly claimed 35 acres; he could turn his hand to just about anything.

All the bits we glean from personal letters, papers, receipts and the like display divine penmanship, span decades, and bring this part of Scarborough to life circa 1841 to 1931. The banter between Bruce and George is a hoot!

Here’s some ‘wow’ moments: page 39, Uncle Willie owned 350 acres in Scarborough at the time of his death in 1902! Page 42, a fact familiar to me, the old frame house that was Uncle Willie’s is now part of the Museum in Thomson Park. Living a block from the park’s entrance and having visited a billion times or more over the years, I am always delighted to note and admire the restored McCowan and Thomson buildings (our own home was built on Thomson land, our whole neighbourhood up into Midland Park, more history).

Uncle Willie was a true canny Scot, his obit even said so and on page 46 there’s a fantastic itemized list of produce from his 1911 farm including 180 bushels of potatoes over 2.5 acres. Of course, way back in the mid 1800’s

woodlots were aplenty and Uncle Willie had a good experience in milling lumber at the lake property. On page 47, strategic woodlot management a century ago (1847) is a far cry from the clear cutting of recent decades. 

Because I am currently reading The Forest by Edward Rutherford, I totally get this comment. Dairy/milk wars in 1892, among other ‘ramblings’ along with teacher pensions in 1955, feature the iconic Aunt Bena (a 40-year teaching career under her belt and champion of pensions for retired educators). There is a stellar reveal on page 56 about Aunt Bena’s alter ego, Minna Galbraith Cowan OBE in Scotland. This is one brilliant page of family lore.

Pages 58 on touch on the value of ‘old stuff’ like chairs circa the 1900s or earlier, looking glasses, blanket boxes, that kind of delicious old stuff including letters, photographs, all the things that keep family history from fading. Page 69 wraps up this most enjoyable family history, yet another in a series of ‘booklets’ the McCowan’s have issued over the years. Further reading lists a number of fine historical books, several of which I have read and own.

Well Taught the Value of A Shilling is a well-organized selection of meanderings, told with humour, a folksy vibe and a bounty of facts. We are richer for knowing just ‘how that came to be’ and how the large McCowan family had a hand in much of our early Scarborough history.