Behind the Book with Robert Mennel

Robert Mennel is the author of Testimonies and Secrets: The Story of a Nova Scotia Family, 1844-1977, released today, September 17th, 2013, from University of Toronto Press.

9781442614789Using the family papers, other unpublished documents and oral history, Robert M. Mennel connects the experiences of the Crouse-Eikle family and their community to larger themes of social and cultural change in North America. A story of vivid personalities and episodes, by turns sad, conflicted, joyful, bitter, funny and reflective, Testimonies and Secrets will be read with pleasure by scholars and general readers alike.

What inspired you to write this book?

My discovery of the John Will Crouse diary and the letters of his grandson Harold Eikle in an old Nova Scotia house. The circumstances are described on page 8 of the Introduction. Perhaps most notable was the fact that I had visited the house since the early 1970s; we had shared ownership of it since 1990, and yet not until 1998 did I discover the diary and other family papers—called by one historian “truly one of those finds of which every historian dreams.”

How did you become interested in the subject?

A growing awareness of the ways in which John Will Crouse and his family and community come alive through the candid quality of their testimonies, “by turns humorous, angry, reflective, and courageous, but always imbued with an awareness of and obligation towards their friends and neighbors who left no record of their own.” (p. 9)

How long did it take you to write this book?

Eight years

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

Most surprising was the unfolding power of the story, driven by the candor and courage of the principal subjects across the generations. Most gratifying was the kindness and care with which my contemporary sources reflected upon the Crouse/Eikle family and their shared community.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

I was startled to find myself becoming part of the story. Contemporary historians treasure the analytic walls that they erect as they write of people who are generally not of their time and place. By finding less and less space to hide as the narrative moved toward the present, I had to admit that I, like my subjects, had statements (testimonies) that I wished to make and had come upon secrets that I determined were better left alone.

I also hope that I have shown that I leaned something about Canadian history in the process.

What are your current or future projects?

I would like to learn more about my own family.