My grandfather Johan Ferdinand (Fred) Sandberg’s immigrant journey from Sweden took him to Canada’s east and west coasts and from southern Manitoba to Great Bear Lake in the far north.
Fred’s early work included delivering mail by dogsled. His construction skills contributed to Canada’s wartime activities, including at secret uranium projects to supply the Manhattan Project during WWII and during the Cold War. You can read about his journey here.
Fred’s story is like that of most immigrants, a decision by a man or woman to leave their home and family in search of a new and better life. It takes courage to make such a decision. It requires luck, resolve and the support of others to succeed. My grandfather had all of these qualities and received such support. Along the way, he participated by chance in significant developments in the early 20th century.
Extracted with permission from The Swedish Press. “My grandparents were passionate Canadians. They chose to fully contribute and assimilate into Canadian society while maintaining their core attachment to Sweden. Fred was only able to visit his family once, which must have been very difficult for all. Although I heard Swedish on records that Fred and Freda played on their turntable, I heard never heard them speak it. None of their children spoke Swedish. My grandparents showcased their heritage in their love of entertaining, the lavish Christmas table weighted down with pickled herring and pigs’ feet, and my grandmother’s famous meatballs.”
The Swedish Press is a very fine magazine about – you guessed it – all things Swedish. Their exquisite judgement is shown in their very positive review of Sun Dogs and Yellowcake which you can see here and which I wrote about here.
It is one hundred and one years from the end of World War I, the war that was supposed to end all wars, yet didn’t. Throughout history, men and women have sacrificed their lives in war for family and country. November 11th is their day.
This post honours two members of my family .
Major Cleve Jacob
My gentle grandfather Major Cleve Jacob immigrated to Saskatchewan from England and wanted to sign up the moment that World War I was declared. He was persuaded to first bring in the harvest.
He joined the 5th Field Artillery Brigade with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on October 9, 1914, his role being to look after the horses and pull guns into position. He also repaired communication lines – a solo operation, which he was doing when he was wounded the first time. Medics at a First Aid Station patched him up and sent him on for further treatment. One half hour later, an artillery shell destroyed the First Aid Station.
Cleve served at the Somme, Paschendale, Vimy Ridge, and the Battle of Amien where he was again wounded. On the eleventh day of the twelfth month, 1918, King George V pinned the Military Medal on his chest.
Cleve re-enlisted at the start of World War II and was temporarily tasked with recruiting soldiers for an active battalion. When told he was too old to go overseas, he continued in his recruitment role for the war’s duration. Like most of those who served, he was reluctant to share his memories and died long before it occurred to me to ask.
Sergeant John Larkin
My great grandfather Sergeant John Larkin (my grandmother’s father) was born in 1862 and was a 20-year member of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, including during a conflict between the British and French over the Suez Canal. He was awarded the British Egypt Medal and the Khedive’s Star. He had just immigrated to Canada when WWI was declared. John immediately signed up (putting his age as 49 when he was actually 51) with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was in the first group to go to England.
From April 22 – 24, 1915, the Germans employed gas against troops at Ypres Salient. John was deployed on the front line and was killed on April 23rd. He is buried at Menin Gate where every night at 8 p.m. the Last Post is played.
Menin Gate Memorial
The Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, Belgium has a Hall of Memory. Carved in stone above the arch: “To the Armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918 and to those of their dead who have no known grave.” Over the two staircases leading from the Main Hall is the inscription “Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”
The memorial bears the names of 55,000 men who were lost without a trace. Sergeant John Larkin’s grave reference is PANEL 24-28-30
The best day in a writer’s life is any day an editor says they’ve accepted your piece for publication!
So thrilled that the wonderful online literary magazine The Cabinet of Heed has published my very first short story “The Colour of Us” in its online magazine, mid-June edition. And you can read it for free by following the link. Even better, you can comment, also for free below, where it says “Love to hear your thoughts.” That would be amazing.
The inspiration for my story was the above photo of pots of pigment that I took in a Peruvian market many years ago.
One Human Swimming
Almostas good as winning a competition is getting on the short list. My short story “One Human Swimming” made the shortlist for Pulp Literature‘s Hummingbird 2019 Flash Fiction contest. A different story made the long list for this competition in 2018, and this latest story making the short list (2019) means I’m at least going in the right direction. Happy face.
The inspiration for this story was a running shoe. When the story finds its publisher, I’ll tell you. Then you can read it and I hope you will agree it is wonderful.
Things to Come
Swedish Press published a very complimentary review of my 2016 award-winning book Sun Dogs and Yellowcake in their October 2018 issue. In the spring of 2020, it will be publishing a nonfiction piece that I have written. The piece just might have something to do with Swedes in Canada.
“Sundogs & Yellow
Cake: Gunnar Mine – a Canadian Story” by Patricia Sandberg
“In February 2017, back when we met at the Artful Dodger, our luncheon speaker was Patricia Sandberg, author of SunDogs and Yellowcake: Gunnar Mines- A Canadian Story. Patricia spoke about her experiences growing up in Gunnar and related a few of the stories in her book. I purchased a copy of the book, which Patricia graciously signed.
The book sat on the shelf in
our living room until I was packing for a beach vacation in February of this
year. It turned out to be a perfect vacation read, with relatively short,
self-contained chapters that weave the author’s coming-of-age story with
touching accounts of the families who made a life under trying and primitive
circumstances, all against the backdrop of the Cold War nuclear arms race. The
author corresponded with more than 100 former residents of Gunnar and their
absorbing personal accounts capture the building of healthy, vibrant community
despite isolation and a harsh environment. The book is lavishly illustrated
with photographs and sketches by A. Y. Jackson and other well-known Canadian
The author’s coming of age in an isolated northern mining town resonated with my own experience as a young man who found himself in an isolated northern mining town that shaped me professionally and personally and blessed me with many enduring friendships. I enjoyed Sun Dogs and Yellowcake as much as anything I’ve read in recent memory, and, with summer just around the corner, I would highly recommend it as a vacation (or bush camp) read.”
Published in The Rock Record 2001-9 by Saskatchewan Geological Society (SGS)
Thanks: Many thanks to Lynn Kelley for surprising me with this book review and to SGS for including it in The Rock Record.
Footnote: The Gunnar Headframe stood from 1954 (approx) to 2011 as a beacon to all those who ventured to explore the ghost mining town of Gunnar. In 2011, the headframe was demolished.
YouTube videos: The headframe’s sad demise and plans for cleanup of the Gunnar site. Louie Mercredi and his crew building the ice road over Lake Athabasca to Gunnar. Mr. Mercredi is much braver than I!
Purchase information: To read harrowing tales of survival and loss on Lake Athabasca, get a copy of Sun Dogs and Yellowcake here or through Amazon (hardcopy or e-book)
Book reviews are best when they come as surprises and are full of praise.
Review by Elizabeth McLean, author of the exquisite book “The Swallows Uncaged – A Narrative in Eight Panels.”
Elizabeth McLean: “I have now finished reading “Sun Dogs and Yellowcake.” It’s a lovely book. What impressed me the most is how well you combined the ‘serious’ account of radium-uranium and its industrial development in Canada with the human stories of the families who lived the mining life in Gunnar.
Their daily active lives, traumas and celebrations warmed my heart. They built a truly intimate and loving community in such an isolated and harsh environment. The workers of Gunnar and their families make the book precious. You were right to give them a voice.
The structure of the book is a marvel: the narrative interspaced with pertinent epigraphs, quotations, digressions, personal testimonies and
reminiscences, and excellent maps and photos.
It is such an interesting book, and I mean interesting in
the best sense of the word – absorbing to read, as well as satisfying to peruse visually. I thought a book
about a uranium mine would be dry and tedious? Ha!
The ending is traumatic. I had tears in my eyes seeing the hospital float on the waves of Lake Athabasca.”
I encountered Leroy and Karen Garry a couple weeks ago when I spoke at the Canadian Authors – Metro Vancouver meeting. My topic was the use of ‘voice’ in writing and I shared some of my experience with marketing. Karen had been asking me many questions, and at the end of the meeting, we exchanged books: her book Leroy for my Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. Two more opposite books you couldn’t imagine.
Leroy – the message
When Karen told me her book was an adult book, I thought I had misheard her. I was looking at a book that looked more like a children’s book. She was right of course.
Leroy is a commentary on our changing earth, changing because of our actions and inaction. Karen peppers the pages with colourful, detailed and whimsical drawings, felted creatures, block text that is as compelling as the drawings, and a heartfelt message that even a child could understand.
I confess. This is not a ghost story, but another story from the ghost uranium mine – Gunnar Mines, Saskatchewan.
The residents left Gunnar over fifty years ago. The mine is long gone. The buildings have disappeared – sold and shipped on the lake to Fort McMurray or Uranium City when the mine closed, or demolished as part of the cleanup in 2011. Even Uranium City people, itinerant fishermen, and hopeful geologists can no longer access the site.
But more than fifty years of stories still knock at my door. The latest is from Kelly Nelson who spent eleven weeks at the vacated town in the summer of 1978. He was a draftsman for a technology company.
Kelly Nelson’s first thoughts
My first thoughts of the site when I arrived was, what a dump; not that there was much trash lying around, but it wasn’t the well-kept small town I grew up in (Unity, SK). By the time I left, I had completely flipped that around and was sad to leave as I found the place so interesting, between the mine-site and the geography with the huge rock outcroppings, trees growing out cracks in the rocks and so on.
The fishing was great. I think we pioneered barbless fishing as we knew what was going to happen, so we’d just catch and release. For three weeks in the middle of summer we stopped fishing because it was boring! Also, the cook would do a fish dish for us only once every 10 days due to the natural mercury in the water. Eventually we ran out of hooks. I was the only one in the crew who didn’t catch an Arctic Grayling, as much as I tried.
I got lost while fishing. One evening I walked west of the west townsite on a trail that paralleled the lake shore. I fished for about three hours and when I started walking back I headed to the trail. After a really long time I came to the lake shore again and was completely dumbfounded. By then I could make out the mine site from the shore, so I just followed it back home. I realized I had walked in a large arc and learned how easy it was to get lost. I wrote my brother that night and asked him to send me a navigation compass.
Reading outside at midnight on June 21 – that seemed so bizarre to me, but so neat as well. I still remember the book – Helter Skelter by Truman Capote .
I agree with the people in the book who suggested Gunnar imparted a sort of mystical sense of peace. We had no TVs and no music radio, only five cassettes (the Grease soundtrack, an ABBA tape, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, Linda Ronstad, and one other I no longer remember), so the forest provided most of the sound we heard. I must say to this day I feel completely at ease in any forest, and I think my time at Gunnar played a role in that.
Thank you for writing the book; even though my time in Gunnar came half a generation after it was abandoned as a mine and settlement, it remains a most memorable part of my life.
Kelly’s review of Sun Dogs & Yellowcake
I quite enjoyed the book; I think you did a very good job of writing it – explaining the background for how the company and townsite came to be, life there, and the follow-up. For a subject that could have been dry, to me it was very interesting. You appear to be an accomplished and experienced writer.
To learn more about /my book Sun Dogs & Yellowcake about the ghost uranium mine, Gunnar Mines, click here. To follow me on Facebook, clickheree.
A writer’s choice of voice for a story or novel is one of the most important decisions he or she will make. Voice can be equally important in nonfiction. I will be speaking about voice at the upcoming meeting of The Canadian Authors Association – Metro Vancouver (including Victoria) on January 9, 2018.
I saw the documentary filmThey Shall Not Grow Old just after Christmas. Director Peter Jackson produced this powerful film about the Great War based on 100 hours of historical film footage and 600 hours of audio recordings from the British War Museum.
His team enhanced hundreds of hours of film by sharpening images and adding colour. The motion is less jerky and more natural than in the original clips.
The original footage also predated movie sound but Jackson could see the soldiers’ lips moving, so he tasked expert lip readers with interpreting their words. The experts determined the correct dialogue – with appropriate accents – and this was incorporated into the film.
Jackson also wrestled with how to do justice to the men who had served and lost lives in the war. He decided the story could only be told by using the men’s own words from the audio tapes and then superimposing these over the footage. The result is an authentic and heart wrenching trip into the trenches and battle zones of WWI.
I reached a similar conclusion about voice four years prior when writingmy nonfiction book Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. I determined that former residents of the uranium town where I grew up, must tell their stories in their own words. In this way, life in a mining town in the 1950s and ’60s and the personalities of its residents would be more authentically portrayed.
To hear more about voice and my choice in Sun Dogs, you are welcome to attend the upcoming meeting of Canadian Authors Association – Metro Vancouver (including Victoria) on January 9, 2018. For information about the presentation, please click here.
I recommend that everyone see They Shall Not Grow Old. To watch the trailer click here.
To see more information about Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, click here.
We happened to eat in the same restaurant which had opened only the day before. Only one other couple was in the restaurant. As I recall, it was not a very good meal.
Our two tables finished around the same time. While the two husbands were paying the bills, the other woman and I walked outside and started to talk. They lived in Courtney BC part-time, the woman told me, and the rest of the time in England. Then she mentioned her husband was Swedish.
As things often do, the one thing led to another. Being a fellow Swede (blood slightly watered by it having been a generation or two back), I gave Peter a copy of Sun Dogs, saying, “there are a few Swedes in this book. You might enjoy it.”
That second thing led to the third thing. Peter was not only Swedish but the editor of Swedish Press magazine. The link above is to Peter Berlin’s generous article/review of Sun Dogs in Swedish Press. The fourth thing will be an article by me in Swedish Press next year.
The October 2018 edition of Swedish press includes articles about climate change, Swedish space exploration, clean tech and the feature: How Happy Are the Swedes? If you want to know more about Swedish Press, click here
If you want to read a couple funny stories about life up north – including the Gunnar Cadaver, click here. The photo below shows just how different working conditions were in the Gunnar mine, in Canada’s North, in the 1950s.
A Uranium City kid – now an adult – contacted me yesterday, on the second year anniversary of publishing Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. He recounted some tales of his time around Lake Athabasca, including an adventure involving a plane and a cadaver, but first some background.
Brian Hemingson arrived in Uranium City, Saskatchewan – 25 air miles distance from Gunnar Mines, and a few short miles from the border with the Northwest Territories. It was 1956 and he was eleven years old. Uranium City was the ‘big smoke’ for Gunnar people until they wanted real action and flew to Edmonton.
The Saskatchewan government intended Uranium City, which would eventually reach about 5000 people, to serve northern mines indefinitely. No one realized that its survival depended on the continued operation of federally-owned Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited. When that corporation announced it was closing its uranium mines in 1982, Uranium City effectively shut down. Brian describes how, mere days before the announcement, mine personnel were touring new employees around Uranium City and pointing out the foundations of their future homes.
Gunnar became a ghost town in 1964 and Uranium City limps along with perhaps seventy residents on a good day. The stories, however, live on. Like every teenaged boy in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Brian had his share of adventures in Uranium City and some of those involved Gunnar Mines.
A short camping trip
One summer, Brian and a friend decided to walk from Uranium City to Gunnar. That involved some detouring and a fair bit of bushwhacking as there was no road linking the two communities. By the time they reached the mine, they were hungry and stopped in the cafeteria in the community centre. They had just ordered hamburger and chips and apple pie when the mine’s security guard walked in. Gunnar was a company town, closed to outsiders unless invited and apparently that applied also to kids. He asked questions:
“What are you doing here, where are you staying?”
“Came for a visit, going to camp by the airport,” they answered.
“Your parents know you are here?”
The guard left and the boys felt any concerns had been addressed. When they finished their food, however, the security guy returned. He wanted to know if they wanted a ride back to the campsite. From his tone of voice, they knew it wasn’t optional. When they were dropped off at their proposed campsite, the guard said, “You boys have a nice safe trip back to Uranium City in the morning.” And that was the end of their Gunnar visit.
When Brian was fifteen, he had a part-time job working at McMurray Air Service Limited. One day, he was asked to put gas in the Norseman for a flight to Gunnar. The pilot asked if Brian would like to go along on the trip and he said yes.
Then he watched as not one but two RCMP officers arrived with a large tin shipping container and boarded the plane. The plane landed on floats in St. Mary’s Channel and a boat approached and waved them in closer to the shore.
“What are we doing here?” Brian asked as the two police officers donned hip waders and jumped into the water.
“Got a floater,” was the answer. And then Brian saw a body on the beach. The men were having trouble getting the body into a body bag.
The pilot said, “Get out there and give them a hand – I want to get home for supper.”
Brian jumped out of the plane and waded through waist-deep water to the shore. The drowned man had been in the water for a while and various aquatic creatures had partaken of his bloated flesh. Brian describes the experience as ‘like handling a slimy jackfish’. The group eventually managed to wrestle the body into the bag then struggled again to get the bagged corpse on board. Then Brian realized the purpose of the tin container: it was the coffin.
He had the dry heaves and the young cop was sick.
“Enjoy this trip, did you?” the pilot asked with a grin.
Brian told me yesterday, after reading Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, that the book “really brought out the spirit of the people up there.” That was the best praise possible as I knew from the outset that the story could only be told through the words of the people who lived there.
Brian spent his working life flying aircraft all over North America. He even flew a Twin Otter to Burma. He took the long route from Anchorage to Yellowknife, then Frobisher Bay, then through Europe. After many stops, he finally reached Burma. My thanks to Brian for sharing his stories.