Jacqueline Halsey loves to imagine the lively stories that might live amongst the drier facts of history.
Piper, her latest fiction book for readers between the ages of eight and 12, takes place aboard the Hector, the brigantine that brought Scottish immigrants to Nova Scotia in the 18th century. It tells the story of 12-year-old Dougal Cameron and his family, who set sail on the ship from their home in Scotland.
“I’ve always liked historical fiction,” Halsey said during a recent interview at her home in Dartmouth, overlooking the harbour. “I like social history, not battles. I like the stories between the facts.”
Halsey begins the novel in 1773 and focuses the story on the difficult journey Dougal and his family make in hopes of a better life in Nova Scotia. Aboard the overcrowded ship, Dougal is drawn to the sounds of the lone piper, named Johnny. The bagpipes, which were illegal in Scotland at the time, were brought on the ship to keep spirits up. Dougal is intrigued by the forbidden instrument and longs to learn how to play.
“The bagpipes weren’t much to look at,” Halsey writes about Dougal’s first time seeing Johnny’s bagpipes. “They consisted of several long reed pipes tied together with raided hemp cords and a bag made out of leather. It was a dull grey-brown colour and had an odd musky smell. Dougal didn’t care. He was too busy wondering what battles they’d been in and who’d played them. He lightly touched the smooth skin bag. It felt
like the forbidden instrument would burn his fingers if his hand stayed too long, or else it would somehow mark him, so everyone could see he’d done something he shouldn’t.”
On board the ship, Dougal and the other passengers endure hunger, sickness, storms and sadness, leaving their homeland for a new country. One violent storm knocks the Hector two weeks off course and Dougal must help keep his three little sisters alive. Aboard the ship, learning to play the bagpipes gives Dougal hope and helps him get through the long journey until they eventually reach the wild shores of Nova Scotia.
“I think it is a book that will touch many people because so many people are related to people who came over on the Hector,” said Halsey. “I think it speaks to immigration and how much value immigrants bring to a place.”
Piper was born, in part, out of a previous book Halsey wrote, Bluenose Adventure. In that book she tells the story of Arty, a 10-year-old boy who is hired to go on the first voyage of the Bluenose in 1921. Researching that book, and following the Bluenose II’s restoration in the news, Halsey learned about the Hector, another replica of a famous ship in the province.
With an Access Copyright Foundation research grant, she went to Pictou where the replica is located to imagine the area as it was back in 1773 when Hector’s passengers came ashore. She spent time in the holds of the ship where five passengers were crammed into a bunk.
“How do you survive that?’ she asked herself, imagining how her characters would react. “People are people no matter the decade,” she added. “People have the same feelings, fears. I like imagining people in different situations.”
In the museum she spent time reading accountsof the voyage and scouring the ship’s passenger list. She was fascinated to see only those under the age of eight were listed as children.
“When I started researching, the ideas came for the story,” she said. “I could start seeing the characters.”
To bring the story of the Hector alive, Halsey found the tale of a boy’s desire to have the freedom to play something that was banned appealing.
“Playing a forbidden instrument is fascinating,” she said. “Everyone wants to do something that is forbidden.”
Born in England, Halsey immigrated to Canada about 30 years ago. The author of severalchildren’s books including Explosion Newsie, Halsey has a long history with children’s books. She spent 20 years working as a library assistant at the Alderney Gate Public Library.
“(The job) was a lot of reading to kids,” she said.
When she isn’t writing now, the mother of three grown children volunteers to teach English to three women from Bangladesh, gardens, and helps protect McNabs Island. She loves guiding school visits on the island and bringing its rich history alive for the students.
At work on a new book, Halsey has finished the first draft of a fiction novel aimed at young adults. Telling the story of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, the book’s main character is based on her granddaughter who was evacuated during the fire and an employee of the local food bank.
“It is another long, long journey,” she said.