A Bear and his Boy

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Curl Up with the Voyages of a bear and his boy

"From In The Hills magazine, Fall 1994"
by Signe Ball

On the walls of Laurie McGaw's studio in Mulmur hang copies of her portraits of such Canadian luminaries as Olympic rower Silken Laumann, long-distance runner Terry Fox, CBC morning man Peter Gzowski, and environmentalist David Suzuki. Added recently to these are several paintings of a small American boy. His name is Douglas Spedden and in 1912, when he was seven years old, Douglas, his nanny, his parents and their maid survived the most famous shipwreck of all time, the sinking of the Titanic.

For Christmas in 1913, Douglas's mother Daisy, an avid diarist, made him a little storybook. It recounted the family's adventure from the viewpoint of her son's favorite toy, Polar, his white mohair bear. The story documents Polar's birth at a German toy factory, his arrival at the famous FAO Schwarz toy store in New York city, his happy adoption by Douglas, his travels around the world with the wealthy family, and finally his harrowing separation from Douglas amid the confusion of the Titanic disaster and their joyful reunion aboard the rescue ship Carpathia.

In 1994, some eight decades later, Daisy Spedden's endearing gift to her only child has been published as Polar, the Titanic Bear, a beautifully illustrated volume that promises to fascinate children and adults alike.

Laurie McGaw describes the opportunity to illustrate Daisy Spedden's manuscript as an "absolute joy". To accompany the text, she meticulously researched and produced 26 watercolor illustrations in four months. It was an extraordinarily demanding schedule, she says but "it was more fun than any job I've done, ever." Not only was the story itself both remarkable and compelling, but the research allowed her to indulge her fascination with period photography, and she had a wonderful working relationship with the project developers at Madison Press in Toronto.

Hugh Brewster, Madison's editorial director and a Mulmur weekender, had received Daisy Spedden's story among a packet of her diaries, photo's and letters, during research for Madison's Titanic: An Illustrated History. The manuscript had been unearthed by a family relative, Leighton Coleman III, who suggested it might be worth publishing. In the rush to produce the big, historical pictorial, Hugh ignored the little manuscript for several months, but when he finally settled down with it, he was captivated. However, others were not so easily persuaded. How could the story of a horrifying sea disaster work as a children's story?

Hugh was convinced it would. He felt it could be known in the trade as a "crossover" book, appealing to both children and adults. What he and his colleagues envisioned was a book within a book: Daisy Spedden's manuscript, with its unusual perspective on an event that has lost none of its human intrigue, bracketed by an introduction and epilogue that would provide a snapshot of social history of one family, a family whose lifestyle typified a refined and privileged class of an era long gone. But the excellent collection of Daisy Spedden's photographs still told only part of the story. To give the story its full dramatic and personal dimension, something more was needed, so Hugh called Laurie for help.

Laurie has a distinguished 20-year career as a commercial and portrait artist, but she had only illustrated one other book, about the eruption of Vesuvius, for Madison Press. Hugh knew that Laurie's particular skill at drawing people, her empathy for her subject and her attention to historical detail would help others visualise the real potential of Polar. She didn't let him down. Armed with three of her sample drawings to accompany the text, they easily persuaded publisher Little, Brown and Company to purchase it.

Once the project was approved, Laurie set to work in earnest. For reference material, she mined the photo archives; she rented A Night To Remember, the classic film about the Titanic, and photographed frames in stop action; she haunted antique stores, vintage clothing stores and toy museums, uncovering such treasures as an ornate brass cash register from a nearby antique dealer, which she used in her drawing of toy shop where Polar was was purchased. She even reconstructed Titanic Life jackets from bits of foam and old t-shirts.

Asked why she was so intent on historical accuracy, Laurie seems puzzled, even impatient, with the question. "It had to be very accurate. It's a true story," she flatly declares.

She called her friends and neighbours as models for various adult characters in the book, so Mulmur natives will recognize many a familiar face peering at them from the deck and staterooms of the great ocean liner. But one of Laurie's biggest challenges was to find models for Douglas and Polar. Douglas it turned out, proved the easier of the two. She had a good idea of what he looked like from photos in the Spedden albums and a small, excellently detailed old portrait of Douglas. She found her model in eight-year-old Anthony Facciolo of Shelburne.

"I walked into my daughter's class and there he was. The likeness, even to the little bow lips was unbelievable." Anthony was a willing model - it would have been hard not to enjoy such a jolly, prolonged and parentally-sanctioned game of dress up. And he found a new friend in Laurie's daughter Gwynne, who joined in the fun of staging a July 4th tea party and huddling down in a mock lifeboat scene. The two of them joined Laurie at her book launch , repressing giggles as they printed their names alongside hers on the flyleaf.

The model for Polar took longer to find. The original manufacturers, the famous Steiff Company of Germany, said the bear was long since out of production. Laurie finally settled for an expensive and less-than-satisfactory facsimile from an exclusive store for Teddy Bear collectors in Toronto. A few weeks later, she walked into the Shelburne I.D.A. drugstore and found the very likeness of Polar sitting on the shelf, with a modest $20 price tag around his neck. Dressed up in costumes made by Pat Billard of Shelburne, it was Polar incarnate.

Little, Brown has published an astounding first-run of 75,000 copies of Polar, the Titanic Bear, for distribution in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. If local sales are any indication, they haven't over-estimated the books appeal. Within the two weeks or so of publication, Booklore had sold 145 copies, well above their initial order of 100 books. The book had a national promotional boost when Laurie and Hugh were interviewed by Peter Gzowski on CBC Radio's Morningside. Its success was clinched by Laurie's nomination for a Governor General's Award for Children's Book Illustration.

Like the story of another famous bear and his boy, Pooh and Christopher Robin, Daisy Spedden's story ends with reflections on growing up. "Though I realize I will see less and less of him as the years go by, I shall always feel, no matter what happens, that I occupy a large corner of his true and tender heart,' says Polar, and he wishes his master "a long and happy life."

But the epilogue recounts a more tragic outcome. Just three years after the Titanic disaster, young Douglas was killed in a car accident in Maine, one of the first such accidents in the state. Though his heartbroken mother lived until 1950, she never kept another diary. She might now have been pleased to know that her little book with it's new and wonderful illustrations, will ensure her son a special corner in the hearts of thousands.



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