ISLE MADAME: It’s poignant that what turned out to be Silver Donald Cameron’s final book is dedicated to the people of Isle Madame – his heart really was on Cape Breton Island – where the story behind his book Blood in the Water unfolded.
The true story, which Penguin Canada released on August 11 and is available at the Fleur de Lis Restaurant, was among the most challenging projects Cameron had ever tackled.
In June 2013, three upstanding citizens of a small Cape Breton town cold-bloodedly murdered their neighbour, Phillip Boudreau.
“Boudreau was a Cape Breton original—an inventive small-time criminal who had terrorized and entertained Petit-de-Grat for two decades,” his publisher summarized. “He [Boudreau] had been in prison for nearly half his adult life. He was funny and frightening, loathed, loved, and feared.”
One question hovered over Isle Madame since Boudreau’s murder – are there times when taking the law into your own hands is not only understandable but the responsible thing to do?
Cameron knew this was a story worth telling, and his wife, Marjorie Simmins, who is also an author and occasional Halifax Magazine contributor, and now helping promote the new book urged him on.
“Don thought long and hard about being the writer to tell this story. He hesitated because he loved this community with all his heart. He had no wish to cause more hurt than the event already had,” Simmins recalled. “I suggested that there was actually no other writer better suited for the task than he was, and that it could be his love letter to Isle Madame.”
She believes these ideas stirred feelings of responsibility in her late husband to tell the story accurately and fully, with deep respect for and understanding of the people he lived among – and it’s fitting his final book would be an attempt to help heal the community he so loved.
Beloved author, environmentalist, communicator, activist and filmmaker, Cameron passed away on June 1 at the age of 82, from complications arising from lung cancer.
Simmins suggested Cameron had long been fascinated by the way small Maritime communities worked out their troubles day-to-day and year-to-year and how they lived together so well.
“The fact that upstanding citizens were not able to peaceably work out their troubles this time told Don that there was far, far more than a “Murder for Lobsters” going on,” she said. “He, along with everyone else on Isle Madame, abhorred that simplistic and erroneous sound bite.”
The days in court were long and demanding, but Simmins indicated Cameron, being the exceptional writer he is, made the courtroom sections of the book fascinating and vivid, even funny at times.
“When he interviewed people for the book, Don would come home afterwards brimming with enthusiasm and delight, “Oh, the stories! All of them so good,” he’d say,” she explained. “Don was also fascinated with the “imperfect legal system” that dealt with this event.”
Simmins suggested while writing the book, whichever person her husband was writing about in a particular week was the person he was most fascinated by, however Cameron was under the spell of Boudreau.
“He found the “character” of Phillip to be a deeply tragic and yet riveting one. He didn’t get much of a fair shake in this life, that’s for sure,” she indicated. “Which doesn’t make his violent actions and numerous transgressions necessarily forgivable. But you might understand them, at least if you knew the facts of Phillip’s life, which many people did not.”
Cameron never, ever forgot that Boudreau, a member of his community, was a flesh and blood person about whose life, he, the writer, was chronicling without having met him before.
“He wanted to be as fair in his treatment of him, as any of the other, living characters about whom he also wrote. He took that responsibility very seriously,” Simmins said. “Over and over again he expressed profound respect for all the people who played a role in this sad story.”
Cameron had been a homeowner on Isle Madame since 1971 – he often told his wife that he came to the community as a man broken from tough life circumstances and stayed, to heal and thrive among people he respected and loved.
Even toward the end of the process of writing the book, Cameron was still worried about “causing pain to the people I love,” by presenting the story in print form.
“A friend he greatly admired and respected, Edgar Samson, from Isle Madame, thought carefully on the question and answered: “You should finish the book. You’ll be fair and honest, and the book will help the island to heal,”” Simmins said. “That’s all Don needed to hear. Don sincerely wanted all the people who were affected by the event—and you may as well say that was the whole island, and beyond—to heal.”
You can feel his gratitude for Isle Madame and these people on every page.
Simmins explains she feels a strong sense of responsibility, coupled with enduring love, to do for Cameron what he cannot now do for himself.
“It was a huge disappointment and sorrow for his family and friends that Don could not be here to celebrate this masterpiece of a last work. I believe I can speak for Don better than anyone else can, obviously because of our close tie of marriage and best-friendship, but also because I lived with him during the time he wrote the book, and because we talked about writing and storytelling almost every day of our 24 years together.”
On days when Simmins can’t bear his absence, she finds one of his books to read. The comfort of hearing his words in her mind is immeasurable.
“Silver Donald Cameron is one of the world’s finest stylists. Don’t miss the opportunity to read his last, some say best, book,” she said. “Trust me, it’s great to spend time with this big-hearted, brilliant man. He’ll take you to other worlds and other times, and offer you much to think on, and experience, word by word.”