Memoirs of Selwyn Dewdney, Edited by A.K. Dewdney, Published in 1997 by Dundurn Press
Book Review by William E. McLeod
Daylight in the Swamp is one of the best written, best illustrated and most all round delightful books that I have ever read.
Selwyn Dewdney was born in 1909, the second of four sons of Alfred Daniel Alexander Dewdney and Irene Donner. His father was an Anglican Minister who subsequently became the Bishop of Keewatin. At an early age, Selwyn accompanied his father on canoe trips throughout the diocese. It was on these trips that he developed what would become a life-long love of canoes and the wilderness.
For part of his youth, Selwyn Dewdney considered following his father into the church. He was a student at Wycliffe College and spent two summers as a student minister at Lac Seul. Upon returning to Toronto for the final year of an arts degree, Dewdney transferred to the honours philosophy program at the University of Toronto. Because of his difficulty with Latin, he was asked to leave honours philosophy. We are all much the richer for this turn of events in his life. The general arts program with its multitude of course choices allowed him to study geology and other subjects that interested him.
After graduating from the University of Toronto and teaching high school for two years, Dewdney enrolled in the Ontario College of Art. Upon graduation from the Ontario College of Art, Dewdney applied for and got a position with the Geological Survey of Canada. His first assignment was on the Missinaibi River. This would not be his last visit to the area.
At various times during his life, Dewdney traveled extensively in the northern bush country. Many of those excursions are described in detail in the book. However, this review will focus on the parts of the book that feature the area around Chapleau, Nicholson and Missanabie.
In the summer of 1946, Selwyn and Irene took their two oldest sons, Donner and Keewatin, up to Northern Ontario for a wilderness vacation. They traveled by train to Nicholson which Selwyn described as 'still alive but already moribund'. The couple and their sons spent a good part of the summer camping on Lake Windermere.
In Selwyn's words, 1957 was a 'watershed' year for him. He met Kenneth Kidd, curator of the Ethnoloy Department at the Royal Ontario Museum. Their shared an interest in and passion for Indian rock paintings that would occupy a larger and larger part of the next twenty-five years of their lives. Between 1957 and 1975 Dewdney, who is definitely the Canadian expert on the subject, recorded 290 rock art sites.
In Chapter 13 Dewdney discusses in some detail the pictographs on Fairy Point on Big Missinaibi Lake. Unfortunately, he was unable to come up with any definitive answers to questions about who did the paintings, when they were done or what they mean.
In the early 1940s, Selwyn and Irene agreed that they needed a place in the bush that they could call their own. The area around Missanabie was where they started to look. In the summer of 1942 they paddled around Big Missanaibi, Crooked and Little Wawa Lakes. A prospector named Jack Ennis directed Selwyn to Fairy Point. He pitched his tent nearby, and while there he created a beautiful painting of Whitefish Falls where the Little Missanaibi River empties into the big lake.
At Missanabie the Dewdneys ran into George Sanders, an Ojibway then eighty years old. Sanders who had lived in the area since he was a boy had no idea who the Fairy Point artists had been. Like other Aboriginals in the vicinity, George Sanders did not have much time for Fairy Point. They were frightened of the place and avoided it whenever possible.
George Sanders was the brother of Rev. John Sanders and Charlie Sanders who lived for many years on Aberdeen Street in Chapleau. That home has since burned.
It wasn't until the spring of 1968 that the Dewdneys got the first real break in their search for a northern island they could buy and call their own. Albert Tremblay of Chapleau called them with information about a lot near Highway 101 and an island in Lake Windermere. They drove to Healy where they met Len Houghton, the owner and operator of Happy Day Lodge. They rented a boat from Houghton and, with Albert Tremblay running the motor, they took off down the lake. The island was just what they had been looking for and, for the sum of $6,000, the island, complete with a log cabin, was theirs.
The Dewdney family still owns the property, and Selwyn's four sons take turns vacationing there.
Both the writing and the story in this book are superb.
The artwork is stunning. It consists of 65 (mostly pencil) sketches of people, places and things and also sixteen gorgeous full color plates of Selwyn Dewdney's oil on masonite paintings. Some of the paintings are landscapes, much in the style of the Group of Seven. Others are wonderful works from Selwyn Dewdney's abstract impressionist period. I am no art expert, but I know what I like and what I don’t like. And I liked and enjoyed every sketch and painting in this book. Fortunately, the featured paintings have been kept in the Dewdney family. We are so lucky that they made the decision to share them with us in this book. Of the paintings, my favorites are Rock, Water and Tree (1949) and Windy Shore, Gull Lake (c.1950).
Some of the pencil sketches that caught my eye were Old Barn (1946) and the Church at Nicholson (1950), several trappers' cabins and Missanabie (1942). The store that my grandfather once owned is clearly identifiable in the upper left hand corner of Dewdney's 1942 pencil drawing of Missanabie.
Perhaps the most compelling paragraphs of this book appear on page 10 of the preface, written in 1997 by Selwyn Dewdney's son Keewatin. Selwyn Dewdney died before completing his memoirs. On the night following the funeral, his son Keewatin was lying in bed trying to sleep. Suddenly he felt someone standing beside his bed, a presence. He squinted into the half light but could not see anyone or anything. The presence was Selwyn, and to Keewatin, something was wrong – something he was supposed to set right. But what? "Okay" said Keewatin into the darkness. "Okay. I understand." Abruptly the feeling ceased.
The next morning Keewatin experienced something again -- not the presence but a sense of urgency. On Keewatin's first visit to the home where his parents had lived for 25 years, he went from room to room until he ended up in his father's study. The family knew Selwyn had been working on his memoirs and right there beside his typewriter was the manuscript plainly marked Daylight in the Swamp. As soon as Keewatin picked it up, the feeling of dread and urgency ceased completely.
Keewatin kept the partly completed manuscript for many years before starting to work on it. He says that his father's prose resembled the northern bush -- fine open glades of memory, swamps of badly organized prose, miles of passive voice, streams of run-on sentences, thought-bite deadfalls, sermonizing and a general lack of continuity.
With the aid of his word processor Keewatin pulled it all together. The result is simply breathtaking.
In a way this book is a posthumous autobiography. That may sound like an oxymoron. But the people of Canada are deeply in the debt of Selwyn and Keewatin Dewdney: to Selwyn for his life and work and to Keewatin for his ability to so skillfully write, edit and organize this wonderful record of his father’s life, his thoughts and his dreams.
William E. “Bill” McLeod is a retired Community College business professor.
He has published extensively in the fields of family finance and life insurance.
His latest book is about the Chapleau Residential Schools