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Writers find the River…

Editor’s Note:  Congratulations to the TI Writers Festival…  It is a very good lineup. It includes a Giller winner, Canada Reads runner-up, four 2012 top ten Canadian bestsellers, a CBC Bookie winner, a People's Choice Giller winner and two British Mystery writers Silver Dagger nominees. Not bad, Eh!

Two years ago I wrote a piece for the Thousand Islands Life Magazine announcing the 2010 Thousand Islands Writers Festival. It is not often that the best and brightest assemble in the Thousand Islands – but each year the Festival brings highly respected writers back to the river.  This year is no exception.   The Festival is held annually in downtown Brockville, Ontario “to celebrate the power of the written word”. Quite simply it brings readers and authors together to share great writing. 

The 2012 Festival is expanding to four days beginning on October 10.  As a member of the Board of the Festival I have the unique opportunity to participate and at the same time the Festival is a prime venue for meeting writers and festival goers who are visiting the area for the first time.

You see there are any number of distinct advantages to living in the Thousand Islands region, as attested to by the number of articles in this magazine called Thousand Islands Life, espousing what writers like best about the area. Landscapes, riverscapes, history, culture, architecture and just plain “the River” top the list. All of these make it on to my list as well, but I have a different favourite.

People, specifically people visiting the Thousand Islands, top my list. Though it is an overused expression I am a people person. I love talking to people. My great grandmother, when commenting on the loquaciousness of the entire clan, used to say the family was inoculated with a gramophone needle. Guilty as charged. Conversations necessitate other people, hence the people person tag.

You couldn't ask for a better vocation and avocation than I have for meeting people. I am a writer, which necessitates interviews, profiles and research that brings you into contact with a wide variety of people. Saturdays I can be found behind the counter in Leeds County Books, situated in downtown Brockville.  The book store is a prime location for meeting tourists visiting the area who love to read.

I like to hear where visitors are from, stories of their towns and regions and their impressions of “the River”. As somewhat of a historian I enjoy relating stories of the area, little known facts, historical figures from the area and places to see. There's no greater pleasure for me than seeing faces light up followed by, “I didn't know that. That's fascinating!” Given the region's rich history and culture I seldom want for material.

Another peripheral benefit of this continuing interaction with visitors is that I am constantly seeing it through their eyes, as if for the first time. It is hard to get complacent when you are continually reminded of how lucky you are to live in such a unique landscape.

The story of how visitors came to arrive in the area can also be informative and almost always entertaining. The very first event the Thousand Islands Writers Festival held was a reading in September 2009 by Mary Lou Finlay, of CBC Radio fame, from the deck of the tall ship the Fair Jeanne. She was obviously here because we invited her. What we didn't know was that she had grown up in Ottawa and her family spent many a weekend on the River in Brockville. She was delighted to be able to relive that part of her life and it might be an understatement to say that she was agog at the beauty of the River and the city.

In the years since we have had a number of authors who have a personal connection to the region or are seeing it for the first time. This year provides a head-scratching story of one author's circuitous route to the festival and the area. Brockville historian Doug Grant contacted the festival with news of a new book on Benjamin Forsythe, the American officer who led the raid on Gananoque in 1812 and the attack on Brockville (then Elizabethtown) in 1813. The author's name is Dr. David Butters and Doug provided us with contact information. This is where the story becomes somewhat strange.

We began correspondence with Dr. Butters expecting that he lived somewhere in the immediate area. Also, since the book was about an American historical figure we expected that he was an American author. We couldn't have been more wrong. Dr. Butters is Canadian and at the moment lives in Missouri! What's the expression about never assuming?

It turns out that Dr. Butters is a Canadian physician who immigrated to the United States to practice. In 2011 he lived in Clayton, N.Y. and, having an interest in the history of the War of 1812, was drawn to the story of America's first hero of the War, Benjamin Chaffey. Then an opportunity in Missouri arose and he moved there.

The book is The Insolent Enemy Captain Benjamin Forsythe 1st U.S. Regiment of Rifles and is an important addition to the area's history. Dr. Butters wrote it as a work of historical fiction, which allowed him a certain leeway in fleshing out the story. Captain Forsythe was involved in many of the major battles of the War. In addition to the aforementioned raids he also fought at the attack on York (present day Toronto), the battle at Fort George in the Niagara region, Hoople Creek, Chrysler Farm and on Lake Champlain. Those with interest in the War of 1812 will find it full of little known facts and incredible detail.

However, it is some of the interludes that are the most fascinating. There are descriptions of Forsythe's time spent at Sackett's Harbour and Clayton. My favourite section is about a fishing trip with Pirate Bill Johnston in the Thousand Islands. Butters describes Johnston's newly acquired state of the art metal reel and Forsythe's astonishment at this latest technology. The piece ends up providing a discussion of what fishing was like in the Thousand Islands in 1813, the equipment used and how anglers made their own lines and reels. As the skiff drifts between the islands we are granted a view of the everyday life of the times.

Dr. Butters' journey to Brockville and the Festival began in the area and then took a detour through Missouri!   I suspect that other visitors to the Festival will have other interesting stories tell.  I in turn, will take advantage of the four days by meeting as many participants as possible. 

By Russ Disotell

Russ Disotell is a freelance writer and the author of Brockville The River City. One of the founding members of the Thousand Islands Writers Festival, he continues to serve on its Board of Directors. He enjoyed a twelve-year career with the LCBO, at one time serving as Product Advisor for Vintages Purchasing where he was lucky enough to taste products on a regular basis for purchase by the LCBO. His articles and columns have appeared in various newspapers and magazines for over eighteen years and he presently pens “Wine with Russ” and “Brockville Ink” for Living In Brockville magazine. He is also researching a book on Ontario's Premiers.


For more information on this and other events at the Thousand Islands Writers Festival please go to

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