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Showdown at Border Town: An Early Adventure of Paul Martin

by Caroline Woodward

With its Leaders and Legacies series, Fireside Publishing House takes a novel and potentially rewarding approach to mythologizing our political leaders. Each book in the series stars a future prime minister as a child and conjures a mostly fictionalized tale of derring-do, in which certain themes in Canadian history and politics are introduced with varying degrees of subtlety.

The previous two books focused on John Diefenbaker and John A. Macdonald. Having Paul Martin jump the queue ahead of more storied PMs like Mackenzie King and Pierre Trudeau is surprising enough. Even more surprising is the idea of a young, preteen Martin as an amateur detective who risks life and limb to go up against a murderous bootlegger.

It is 1950, and Martin is a lanky 12-year-old cottaging on Lake Erie (which the real Martin, who contributes a foreword to the book, actually did). He befriends a native boy from the Walpole Island reserve, and through him helps uncover some cross-border booze smuggling (which was also really happening around that time). During the story’s quieter moments, Martin has earnest conversations with his father (Paul Martin, Sr., who served in King’s cabinet) about health care and the idea of native self-governance. These conversations slow the narrative down a little, but they do fulfill the series’ history-by-other-means mandate.

The most remarkable part of this book, perhaps, is the age of its author: Caroline Woodward is a 17-year-old Ottawa high school student. Though the story shows the occasional sign of inexperience – especially in the uneven pacing – for the most part, it’s easy to forget that this is not the work of a more established author. Woodward has the adolescent gumshoe formula fairly mastered, and loads her tale with a remarkable amount of historical detail, the sources for which are outlined in the book’s appendix. Paul Martin and “high stakes adventure” are not an obvious fit, but Woodward does a good job of making the pairing work.