Chapter One: Titanic Blues (and Bootlegging Brawlers)
Accidents make history. Sometimes a missed connection is a vital one. Shania Twain might not exist if her great-grandfather Francis George Pearce had arrived at Southampton docks one day earlier. The twenty-four-year-old soldier had promised his wife and baby daughter that the voyage taking them to a new life in Canada would be on a brand new ship. Fortunately he arrived too late and all the third-class passages had sold out. The Titanic sailed without the Pearces. On April 14, 1912, the unsinkable ship hit an iceberg and sank with the loss of fifteen hundred lives, most of whom were traveling in steerage class.
The Pearces were a solid mixture of English and Irish stock (though they tried to deny their Irish blood for years). Frank, born in 1887, had joined the British army in his late teens and was serving in Norfolk, where he met Lottie Louise Reeves, one of eleven children. A few months younger, she was born in Weybourne, where the winds blow straight down from the Arctic over the North Sea. They were married in St. Michael's Church, Aldershot, on October 2, 1909, after which Frank was posted to keep the peace in Ireland. Their eldest daughter, Eileen, was born in Newbridge, County Kildare, on April 10, 1911. The following year they decided, along with most of her family, to try their luck in the Dominion of Canada.
Frank, Lottie Louise, and baby Eileen made the crossing safely on the next available boat and took the trains as far as Manitoba. Frank had been lured by the promise of a quarter-section farm, one hundred and sixty acres of land to call his own. Until his claim was registered, he worked on the railroads out of Winnipeg, thanks to the man his sister-in-law Mary had met on the boat over and subsequently married. Their second child, a son also named Frank, was born in Winnipeg, but when war broke out, Frank Sr., an army reservist, was immediately called up. He returned to Europe, leaving his wife, pregnant with Jack, sitting in their new homestead in the wild scrubland outside of Badger, six miles north of the US border.
Frank did not worry unduly about his wife. He knew the Reeves women had strength of character, spirit in spades. They knew how to look after themselves and their families. "Lottie and her sister Cyl didn't take a backseat," says Roger Pearce, Frank Jr.'s son. "If someone pissed them off, look out. There were three Irishmen, the Ryans, in town. They were raising hell, fighting all the time, but if they were where Lottie was she would give them a tune up and they would sit in the corner like little boys, wouldn't say 'boo.' They had respect for her because she wouldn't take no BS from anyone. When she and Cyl were older they loved to watch wrestling on TV, they'd get all wild over it."
Gunner F.G. Pearce (No. 37417) did not return home for five years. He served in the Royal Regiment of Field Artillery; his special affinity with horses proved essential for driving the guns and ammunition trailers through the mud behind the front line. Gunners did not have to live in the trenches, or go over the top into the machine guns of no man's land, though Frank regularly volunteered to carry extra ammunition supplies into the trenches. He returned home in 1919 sporting "Pip, Squeak & Wilfred," a full set of medals: the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal.
He was a quiet, well-mannered, dignified man who never spoke about his wartime experiences and just got on with providing for his family. Two more daughters, Grace and May, arrived and, in 1926, when May was two, the Pearces moved to a new farm just outside Piney. It was a family affair, for Lottie's father, Sidney Reeves, had the farm opposite. The land around Piney was all right but nowhere near as fertile as the Red River Valley where the Great Plains began thirty miles further west. It was mostly flat scrub and bush enlivened by a few hills and East Ridge, with its plunging ravines and towering red pines over one hundred feet tall. Frank ran a mixed farm supporting a few cattle, other livestock, and grain fields, enough to feed the family. The cash crops were oats and alfalfa, excellent cattle forage. Frank produced such high-quality alfalfa seed that he was contacted by the University of Manitoba, which wanted to know how he did it.
During the twenties, while life was tough and money short in rural Manitoba, the Pearces and the Reeveses survived well enough. Thanks to Mary's husband there was always work on the railroads -- every day Frank walked the two miles to the railhead in Piney -- and the farm provided all the food they needed. They entertained themselves playing cards, Frank Jr. and May loved to sing, Lottie's sister Cyl (Cecilia) had an excellent voice and was a very good piano player, and several times a year there was a let-your-hair-down hoedown. While the farm could feed a growing family, the adults had to find work outside.
Eileen started working in the kitchens and behind the bar of the Piney Hotel when she was eighteen. There she met Walter Fraser, a lad from a local town. They married in 1932 and decided to chance their luck in the mines of northern Ontario. He found work as a shaft sinker in the Hallnor mine in Timmins, where their son Don was born on August 7, 1933. The marriage foundered soon after, and Fraser left town, severing all contact with his family.
Eileen struggled to make ends meet. Money was so tight that when Don was ten, he was sent to live with his grandparents on the farm in Piney for the winter. Eileen scrimped and saved her waitressing tips to buy him a pair of ice skates for Christmas. Things looked up after she fell in love with George Morrison (born 1908), a professional saw filer who sharpened and hammered into shape the huge blades in a sawmill. "George," May recalls, "was very nice-looking. He was a big man, tall and very kind." He, too, was of mixed ancestry. His father, Bert, was Scottish and his mother, Mary, (née Brisbois) was, despite her French name, predominantly Irish with a little dash of Spanish. Their only child, Sharon, was born in Vita, Manitoba, on June 4, 1945, because Eileen wanted to be back with her parents. She returned to Timmins soon after the birth, to the family house on Poplar Street. Later they moved to a small three-bedroomed, wooden bungalow with white walls and a red roof out on Highway 101 between Matheson and Moose Creeks, fifteen miles east of South Porcupine. When Eileen's kids came out to visit on Sundays, the main entertainment was the short walk to the gas station in Hoyle where two brown bears, Yogi and Booboo, were kept in cages.
George made a good wage and the family was well provided for, but like most fathers of his generation he left the child rearing to his wife. Eileen was a gentle woman, happiest milking the cow and tending to her large garden. Her daughter, virtually an only child (Don married and left home when he was nineteen), was headstrong and willful. "As a child, Sharon was a real handful," says May Thompson, Eileen Morrison's youngest sister. "She wanted her way with everything. My brother Jack, who lived in Timmins too, couldn't get over how disciplined our kids were in comparison. Sharon had a nervous complaint of some kind and my sister always worried about her. She would raise heck every morning about going to school on the bus, there was an argument every day about something."
"She was a bright young girl, very enthused with life," remembers Don. "She went to school in Hoyle and then to Roland Michener High School in South Porcupine. She was very headstrong, but she was also high-strung, very high-strung, so she would go into depression fairly easily. She was always on the go, a very busy girl."
In the early 1960s, the Morrisons moved to Field, just outside Sudbury. In a few short years, everything went horribly wrong. George suffered a severe stroke that left him 90 percent paralyzed and unable to speak. Under the added pressure Eileen, who had a congenital heart condition, suffered the first of several minor heart attacks. That did nothing to help Sharon's mood swings, and without any male influence she started to look for a substitute. Sharon had always been interested in boys -- even at thirteen when she went to help out her mother's pregnant cousin Evelyn Struthers, who was staying up at Nellie Lake. "She was young, happy-go-lucky, a cute girl," recalls Evelyn. "She was very outgoing and there was a few younger guys in the island and she was certainly interested in them."
At seventeen, she was a pretty girl, tall, five foot seven and very slender -- perhaps too thin for some -- with blond hair turning to auburn. When she was happy she was wonderful company who loved to talk and talk and talk. When the moods were upon her she could be difficult company as she withdrew into herself. She got engaged to Gilles, a young Frenchman from Sturgeon Falls, whom both her mother and brother liked. Just before the wedding he was killed in a car crash. Sharon was already pregnant. Her daughter, called Jill after her father, was born on April 19, 1963.
Sharon, a once indulged child, found herself flooded by a fistful of adult responsibilities, a baby, an invalid father, a poorly mother, no money. She was not yet eighteen and she should have been out having fun. She found it hard to cope, she could not earn enough to support herself. In 1964, that was a man's job. She needed help. Jill was still a toddler when Sharon met a man who seemed to be the answer to all her problems: Clarence Edwards.
"Those times really hit us all hard, Sharon especially, as she had a little girl," says Don. "When she met Clarence she was still very upset. At that time I thought he was a real nice person."
Clarence Edwards was the eighth of Harold and Regina Edwards's nine children. The Edwardses are a sprawling, brawling clan who emigrated from Ireland in the nineteenth century and fetched up farming in the Ottawa Valley outside Renfrew on the Quebec border. Fed up with life in "Cowshit Valley," Harold's father moved to Chapleau to work on the railroads in the early 1900s.
Timmins, 125 miles to the east, had a reason to exist: the mines. Without the railroad, Chapleau had none. For over a century, it has been the biggest railway terminal between Montreal and Winnipeg and for many years had its own shop and was home to crane drivers, engineers, and drivers. If the railway ever leaves, the town, which is slowly wasting away, will disappear back into the forests. There is logging in abundance, for trucks can go anywhere there is wood and bush road, but little else.
In Chapleau, Harold, who was born in 1906, fell madly in love with fourteen-year-old Regina Benson. Her father was Swedish, while her mother was from an old French family, born and raised in Quebec. Along the way the Quebecois had incorporated some Native genes. "My mother told me one time when I was young that her mother's mother was part Indian," says Gordon Edwards. "Clarence and Ernie, they don't look Indian, but my brother Walter, you put him beside one of these fellas here in the reserve and they are like twins." The Bensons decided to move two hundred miles due north, to Kapuskasing, where the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Plant was promising to build a model town in which the needs of the forestry industry could coexist happily with the community. There is nothing but four hundred miles of river, forest, and lake between Kapuskasing and James Bay, so its location was ideal for an internment camp. During the Great War, thousands of Eastern Europeans, perceived as a threat to national security, were confined there, treated as prisoners of war. After the war, the camp was filled with "dangerous" left-wing radicals, including the leaders of the 1919 Winnipeg general strike.
The smitten Harold followed Regina to Kap and married her in 1927. They set up home on a small farm four miles outside of town. He worked the midnight shift at Spruce Falls Paper, commuting in by dogsled in winter and bicycle in summer, and worked the farm as soon as he got back. As the Great Depression bit, Harold helped support different families, including his in-laws, sending them out into the bush to cut stove wood. "I saw other little kids with nothing to eat, but we lived like millionaires, albeit with no hydro [electricity] and we had to fetch in our own water," recalls Gordon, the second child and the oldest boy, born in 1931.
The secret to Harold's success was simple. He was a bootlegger, distilling moonshine, brewing beer, and selling it to locals, bushwhackers, and Natives. The family was engaged in a perpetual battle to outwit the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police). Despite having no phone, Harold somehow always knew when the cops were coming to search for his still.
"One day, when I was about six, he says, 'Come out for a ride in the sleigh with me,' " says Gordon. "We went out in the bush half a mile or so where he had his still, he picked up all the copper tubing and threw them up into the thick snow in the spruce trees. Then he lights a fire and we sit down. All of a sudden I hear these dogs coming and he says, 'Don't say a word about anything.' The OPPs really scared me, big, big men in fur jackets, fur hats, and fur mitts. The first time I saw them I thought they were bears, I was so scared I couldn't say a word. They asked my father, 'Where's your still? Where's all the paraphernalia for the booze you're making?' They searched all over the place, then they took off again cursing. All they had to do was look above their heads."
One time, when her husband was at work, Regina got word the OPP were on their way. A tiny woman of five foot two, she somehow found the strength to pick up a forty-five-gallon barrel of home brew, stagger out to the porch, and flip it over. Then she washed out the barrel and was sitting comfortably on it when the cops arrived.
Bootlegging was a labor of love for Harold. Drinking to insensible excess was more than blue-collar culture to him, for alcoholism was bred into his bones, a poisoned flagon passed down through the generations. "My father and his two brothers, they could have drunk the lake. Everybody they knew was the same. My father's brother was the only one who went in the army during the war," recalls Gordon, "and when he came home on leave he'd take whatever he could get to drink and go in the bush and lay there for days until the MPs came to find him."
The start of the Second World War was good news for Regina's carpenter brothers. They headed south to work for the car manufacturers in Detroit and Windsor. Harold intended to join up or follow them south, but after the army rejected him for having too many kids to support, he stopped off in Chapleau to see his father, who told him the railroad was desperate for firemen and engineers. He never went back to Kap, just sent word home for them to come and join him. Regina and the kids packed the wagon with furniture, hitched the horse to it, and headed for the station. The train journey was close to 260 miles.
The family settled a mile and a half out of town on Bucciarelli Road. Backwoods kids who had never seen power lines before, they had no idea what the hydro cables that stretched over the peak of the roof did. One day, after Gordon and his mother had walked into town to buy groceries, nine-year-old Ernie went to play on the roof. He was running down the gable, gathering speed as he went, so he thought he'd grab the wires to break his fall, swing on them like Tarzan. The electricity fried his arms so badly he lost them both, and he wore steel hooks from the time he got out of the hospital. The house was cursed, so they moved into town. The hooks never stopped Ernie having fun: When the boys got into fights, he could lay opponents out with one blow.
Music was always there -- "Irish people have to have music," says Gordon -- part of the furniture. Harold scarcely needed an excuse for a party. He had an old wind-up gramophone and every 78 Hank Snow ever cut, from back when the Nova Scotian could yodel like Jimmie Rodgers, long before "I'm Moving On" made him a Nashville star. Regina's brothers were accomplished musicians, always ready to break out fiddles and guitars. The Edwards boys didn't play anything, but they could all sing. Clarence had a beautiful voice, but he was too shy to use it. Sometimes, when he was a kid and lost in play, he'd start singing. "Christ," says Gordon, "I'm telling you, he had a voice that would drive you up the wall. So good you didn't want him to quit."
The Edwardses were a good-looking clan, especially Clarence -- though he had so much body hair that he was too embarrassed to strip off when he was swimming with his brothers. Their sister Irene was a renowned local beauty. "Clarence was so handsome when he was younger," says Shania. "I saw pictures of them and they were a really handsome family. Those young men were so beautiful."
In addition to his looks, Clarence was a good athlete, quick and tough on the basketball court and the ice hockey rink. His cousin Dan Boucher reckons he was the best broomball player (shooting around on ice using a broom and ball instead of a stick and a puck) in Chapleau. He had a temper, though; one night a spectator gave him so much grief that eventually Clarence dropped his broom, vaulted the rail, and repaid the heckler in kind.
There was always a rebellious, screw-authority streak in Clarence. When he was a kid and did not get his own way, he threw himself onto the ground and held his breath until he turned blue. The only person who could talk air back into his lungs was his father. After high school, he joined the army. He looked smart in his uniform, but he constantly clashed with the stripes and the brass. When he didn't fancy his latest posting, he went AWOL until the MPs dragged him back. Eventually the military tired of his antics, banged him up in the glasshouse for six months, and sent him packing with a discharge. For a while he roamed Ontario working odd jobs.
In the fall of 1964, Clarence met Sharon Morrison in a Sudbury bar. They were physical opposites, which might have accounted for some of the attraction. Clarence was dark, with a heavy build, five foot nine (tall for an Edwards), arms like hams. Sharon was skinny, so thin that she seemed taller than she actually was, a twitchy girl forever lighting another cigarette while its predecessor still smoldered, hoping it might calm her jangling nerves, giving her hands something with which to occupy themselves. Even in a culture where everybody smoked all the time, people remember Sharon as a chain-smoker.
Clarence was a handsome guy, black haired and olive skinned, a party boy, full of Irish blarney and bravado. Sharon came from a normal family with traditional values, and here was a gorgeous man with laughing green eyes who didn't seem to care about the mess her life was in. Small wonder that she grabbed on to him, a life raft in her stormy seas. Needy, lonely, and insecure, once she had him she was not going to let go.
Gordon Edwards was working underground at the Levack mine and was living in Chelmsford, just outside Sudbury, when Clarence and Sharon turned up looking for a place to stay, to be alone for a couple of days. Although he has been sober for the past fifteen years, Gordon still retains one family trait. He is quick to judge and slow to forgive. Sharon's arrival in the house was akin to throwing gasoline on a bonfire.
"Three days later I've had it up to here with this girl, but Clarence, he wants to marry her," says Gordon. So he called his younger brothers Walter and Desi together, told them there was an important family meeting that night, and ordered Clarence to send his girl out somewhere, anywhere. The boys got together after work and started downing a few, until Gordon stepped into his elder-brother role and told Clarence, "You can't marry this girl, it's impossible, you marry her and you'll be in the fucking nuthouse in a year."
Clarence took the point, but all he said was: "I have to marry her because we are having a baby." Gordon tried to reason with him, told him he wasn't the first guy to have a baby by accident and anyway she'd already been down that route once and why hadn't the last guy married her? Clarence, who knew about Jill's father, refused to budge; he was going to stand by Sharon and that was it. Gordon told him he was going to be sorry, washed his hands of the affair, and they all got hammered.
Eileen Morrison was too ill to attend the wedding in Garson, so Don Fraser gave Sharon away. Soon after, Clarence and Sharon moved down to Windsor, just across the border from Detroit, where the pay in the Chrysler plant was better than the mines. They rented a house and their daughter was born on August 28, 1965. They christened her Eilleen after her maternal grandmother and Regina after Clarence's mother. Little Eilleen was a true child of the New World, more Irish (coming from all sides) than anything else, with healthy dashes of English, Swedish, and Scottish blood, leavened with exotic touches of French, Native, and Spanish.
The baby girl might have calmed things for a while, but in truth the relationship was doomed before it began. It was a marriage forged in mistake, transferred onto a never-ending battlefield on which there could be no victors, only damaged offspring. Sharon needed someone preternaturally calm who could still the demons in her head. She craved security. Instead, she had a man from a family that considered her to be a nutcase. The Edwards clan still rails about Sharon. To them she has become the monster who destroyed any vestige of a relationship Clarence might have had with his daughters. But they admit "he is no saint." He never was.
"I had a very stressful job, being a railroad engineer," Clarence said in his only interview. "On top of that, Shania's mom was a very jealous, possessive person. She didn't like me to do normal things like go out for a beer with my friends. I had to be home all the time. There was a lot of stress. I had a nervous breakdown and wound up in the hospital for a time. Shortly after I got out, I just decided enough was enough. One day, I just left."
There were times when Sharon's behavior became erratic. She needed stability and there was none, which magnified her mood swings. There are signs of an obsessive compulsive disorder in the way she tackled problems all her life, though her daughter insists that Sharon's problems with Clarence were caused by her circumstances, not a mental condition. Back in the 1960s, the only medication for a working-class mother was tranquilizers. "She was on nerve pills steady, she was always taking pills," says Gordon. "I've seen her with the pills because one time I went into the blues. She was the one who helped me out, gave me these frigging nerve pills and actually talked me out of it. I took a couple of pills, went to sleep, and when I woke up I was okay."
When she was on an up, there was a hyper intensity to Sharon; her energy was phenomenal, her emotions allowed no half measures. The Edwardses say she was jealous and possessive, that she had to know where Clarence was at all times. If his friends phoned, he'd sneak out to join them for a beer. He might neck a couple before Sharon found him. If he stopped by for a drink after a broomball game and came back with a book of matches from an unknown bar, she accused him of having an affair. According to Gordon, Sharon's mental and physical demands on her husband were constant and exhausting.
"They were living in South Porcupine. Me and three other fellas went to go to the winter carnival," says Gordon. "I was hanging around until Clarence came in from work and when he did come in, he said, 'I have to go to the bank to cash my check so we can go to this thing.' Sharon told him, 'You have got fifteen minutes -- don't forget it.' He goes and he comes back and it was sixteen minutes and she says to him, 'You were fucking the teller!' It was a fight from then until we went to the carnival and all the time we were there."
Such problems were hardly surprising, for by this point in their disintegrating marriage Sharon knew only too well what Clarence was like. His charm and looks had seduced her, and when the drink was talking it could certainly do the same to others. Shania is adamant that her mother is the wronged party. "How she responded to that situation and dealt with it was not the result of any illness," she says. "If he was a womanizer and he was drinking, of course it would have driven my mother nuts. She had all these insecurities already, having a daughter coming into the marriage, feeling maybe he was doing her a favor.
"She was such a straight woman. She came from a family who are so straight and nice, genuine to the core. She was a good person who got caught up with the wrong people. My mother must have gone through such hell. It was the nightmare of her life. The Edwardses are all pretty wild, so I am glad my mother kept me away from them. If she hadn't I think my future would have been very different."
Clarence moved from one job to another, though he always put food on the table. From Windsor they moved to Toronto, where he worked for CNR (Canadian National Railways) in the car department, and then back to Timmins. They stayed with Sharon's mother in Hoyle while Don, who was a superintendent at Texas Gulf's Kidd Creek mine, fixed Clarence a job.
Eventually it was Clarence who could not cope. In Toronto he'd go to the gym, run for an hour, dripping with sweat, to get everything out of his system for a few minutes. It was a steady fight from the time they got up to the time they went to bed, especially after Clarence had a few drinks. Once, as they were crossing the horseshoe bridge, driving into Chapleau, arguing furiously, Clarence crashed the car straight into the town dairy, demolishing both it and the car. On occasion his temper got him into bar brawls ("If he gets mad enough, get out of his road," warns Gordon).
By the time Carrie Ann was born on December 16, 1967, both Clarence and the marriage were finished. His nerves shot, he committed himself to a mental hospital. Discharging himself after several weeks, he returned home and quickly realized he could not take it anymore. One day he went out for a pack of cigarettes and a loaf of bread. Nobody in the family heard from him for months until he turned up in Toronto, back working for CNR in the boxcar department. Eventually, he returned to Chapleau and went to work on the railway as an engineer.
Clarence never came back. He left his daughters with a powerful genetic inheritance -- beauty and a wonderful singing voice -- and his wife with a shadow of fear, a worry that one day he might return and demand to take his children away with him. When she was seven, Eilleen asked what her father looked like. Sharon described him. The next day Eilleen was out in the park and saw a man who fit that description. She rushed home and, as children do, announced excitedly, "I saw Clarence. I'm sure I did." She remembers her mother's nervous reaction: "Where did you see him? What do you mean?"
Although they first met formally when she was thirteen, Eilleen still has distinct memories of her father from her early childhood. Not of his face -- "I didn't know what he looked like at all" -- but of this obscured, shady image.
"I was scared by that image because it was always secretive," she says. "I always got the feeling that he wasn't supposed to be there. My mother didn't want him around, but he came in and out of her life anyway. I didn't need to see him -- I was probably in bed -- but I knew that was him. He'd surprise my mom and she'd get nervous. My mother was scared of him. I don't know why I was afraid of him but I always sensed fear when he was around."
"It was a very sad marriage," says Don. "Clarence and Sharon were just bad for each other. She was prone to be excitable and high-strung for sure. They were set staying at my mother's place in Hoyle and he [Clarence] just left and never come back. I'd say Clarence was the worst person she could have married and Jerry was the best."
Eileen Morrison adored her three granddaughters. After Clarence left, Sharon and the girls lived with her in Hoyle. She looked after them as well as supporting Sharon financially. Knowing how sick she herself was, Eileen worried about them all the time. "Sharon got depressed and Eileen worried that she wouldn't look after the girls properly. I imagine that Sharon loved her in her way, but she wasn't the easiest person to live with," says May Thompson. "Eileen gave her life up for those three little girls. When she was on her deathbed, she said to me, 'I've been lying here thinking what is going to happen to those kids. I've decided that my sister Grace will take one, my sister-in-law Isla will take one.' I said to her, 'Which one am I going to have?' and she said, 'Carrie Ann.'"
That never happened. Sharon had already met the man who would give her the stability and support she had craved for so long. A man who wanted to be a father to her three little girls.
Copyright é 2002, 2005 by Robin Eggar