Sam McGee was from Tennessee but despite what Robert Service’s famous poem would have you believe, he wasn’t cremated in the Yukon- he’s actually buried in the small town of Beiseker, Alberta, just east of Calgary. How McGee went from goldrush poet’s muse to a dusty prairie graveyard is one of many life stories that Miller touches on her interesting and informative journey through Alberta’s history via its graveyards- her stated intent is to tell stories backward, starting with gravestones she found interesting.
Although this book won’t win any literary awards- the writing is basic, the author inserts herself and her own experiences often, and there isn’t much flow between stories or chapters- the history was really fascinating and very present. As an example: on my walk to work (back when that was a thing…) I pass an inner city hospital that is relatively new and modern, lots of glass and steel. There are several sandstone posts at the far edge of the hospital parking lot that seem out of place, like a different building was started and abandoned. Turns out it’s the opposite- these posts were part of a Senator’s sandstone mansion that lived a long and storied life before being razed to create the current hospital. Every time I pass these posts now I think about the mansion and the juxtaposition of that history with its current state (the mobile safe injection site usually sets up just next to these posts, which is a whole new level of juxtaposition…).
Other stories Millar relates are less personal but equally enlightening- the quirkiest piece of trivia I picked up was tied to the German WWII flying ace, the Red Baron, who was killed in action after he turned to chase a Canadian pilot who had been attacking the Baron’s cousin. That Canadian pilot was a 21 year old Edmontonian named Wilfrid “Wop” May, who returned home after the war to other adventures (harrowing bush rescues, ‘the hunt for the mad trapper’, training US firefighters as ‘smokejumpers’) before he died at age 60 (he’s buried in Edmonton).
I would really recommend this to any Albertan, with a caveat to ignore the writing style and read with your phone handy (you’re going to want to google so many things).