On February 4th, Breton Books will launch its 100th book: The Woman From Away: The Collected Writing of Cape Breton’s Tessie Gillis. As it happens, February 4th would be the 100th birthday of author Tessie Gillis, so the book launch will also celebrate Tessie’s birthday.
In honour of the 100th birthday of Tessie Gillis, the Godmother of Cape Breton Fiction, this complete collected works includes two novels (John R. and Son and Stories from the Woman from Away), four short stories and a Family Memoir. Tessie Gillis was a woman determined to write, who found the time only after she was confined to her bed by heart disease. Having married into a remote Cape Breton farm, Tessie’s sharp, compassionate eye transmuted characters shaped by hard work, alcohol, and intense community bonds into “a captivating, real, vibrant portrait… the very heart of Cape Breton.” Her daring stories remain stark, bold and compassionate. She recorded what she saw with caring and affection, and without flinching. Reviewers celebrated her world a hardscrabble paradise and a captivating, real, vibrant portrait. Gillis evoked the very heart of Cape Breton. No one has ever written about Cape Breton quite like this.
“Actually, that first book was Pittsburgh Memoranda by Haniel Long. It harkened back to where I grew up–Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I published it in honour of the birth of my daughter, Breton Anna–and named the press Breton Books after her. Of course her name came from Cape Breton.”
But Caplan had a book publishing venture in mind soon after coming to Cape Breton in 1971. As he describes it, he was trying to “read his way in” to island life.
“As soon as I came here I was reading books like The Cape Breton Giant by James D. Gillis and Highland Settler by Charles Dunn and The Highland Heart in Nova Scotia by Neil MacNeil. These were lovely books–all part of the essential portrait of Cape Breton Island–and all out of print. And I felt they were just the kind of books we should all have an opportunity to read.”
With the success of Cape Breton’s Magazine, Caplan saw a way of publishing books. An early Breton Book was G. G. Campbell’s Castaway on Cape Breton. Originally it was just one shipwreck story–Ensign Prenties’ 1780 narrative of shipwreck and the survivors’ trek in northern Cape Breton in winter,walking from Margaree Harbour to St. Ann’s Bay. They ended up weak and bloated from eating candle tallow, and they were rescued by Mi’kmaq Indians.
“I loved Castaway for more than just the terrific shipwreck story. Editor G. G. Campbell was a magnificent, dedicated teacher and researcher. For that book he wrote an essay and notes that just make that story spring to life. He was determined that we should get not only the thrill of the shipwreck narrative but also the satisfaction of knowing, step by step, exactly where Ensign Prenties stood, the views he would have seen, little histories behind each place. Campbell did the tough work and all we had to do was read and enjoy.”
And we can still read Castaway–because Ronald Caplan published that book as a Breton Book. To the original he added another rare and exceptional shipwreck–Sam Burrows’ harrowing tale of a wreck on the Cheticamp Coast. Castaway proved a local best seller in 1991 and, years later, that book sells and Breton Books continues to keep it in print.
Besides bringing out what he calls “Cape Breton Classics,” Caplan began to receive new manuscripts. Year after year, fiction, poetry and drama flowed from Breton Books, including Archie Neil, Mary Ann Ducharme’s biography of beloved Archie Neil Chisholm, a 1992 publication that continues to sell well today. Breton Books published poetry by Stewart Donovan, Aaron Schneider, Denise Aucoin and others. Caplan issued fiction by Teresa O’Brien, Susan Zettell, Lynn Coady, Sherry Ramsey and many others. Beatrice MacNeil’s first book was a Breton Book–The Moonlight Skater, a collection of stories and a play that won Beatrice’s first Dartmouth Book Award. And Sheldon Currie’s novel The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum is a longterm bestseller that became the movie Margaret’s Museum.
Breton Books has proved itself a solid, reliable press with readers who found the books because they are interested in Cape Breton–readers who live worldwide. The books are distributed off-island by Nimbus Publishing and on island by Caplan and his co-worker Bonnie Thompson. And a lively business promoting all Cape Breton writers and publishers is kept alive online at www.capebretonbooks.com.
And the future?
“I look forward to book 101. We are usually at work on several books at once so I can’t tell you today what it will be.”
But we do know the 100th Breton Book. It is The Woman From Away: The Collected Writing of Cape Breton’s Tessie Gillis. Along with a big display of Breton Books, The Woman From Away will be launched on February 4 at the McConnell Library. As would also be Tessie Gillis’ 100th birthday, birthday cake will be part of the festivities. There will be readings from Tessie Gillis’ work by Sheldon Currie, Paul MacDougall, Teresa O’Brien, Frank Macdonald and Tessie’s daughter, Helena Gillis MacLeod. And Wendy Bergfeldt will broadcast CBC’s Mainstreet. There will also be light refreshments.