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Longlist #4: Julian Sher’s The North Star

April 25, 2024 / Ariel Gordon / Book Prize

There are ten books on the 2024 J.W. Dafoe Book Prize longlist and today we’re going to highlight The North Star: Canada and the Civil War Plots Against Lincoln (Alfred A. Knopf Canada).

A riveting account of the years, months and days leading up to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the unexpected ways Canadians were involved in every aspect of the American Civil War.

The cover of Julian Sher's The North Star, which features a black and white image of a building and the title in big gold letters.Canadians take pride in being on the “good side” of the American Civil War, serving as a haven for 30,000 escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. But dwelling in history’s shadow is the much darker role Canada played in supporting the slave South and in fomenting the many plots against Lincoln.

The book shines a spotlight on the stories of such intrepid figures as Anderson Abbott, Canada’s first Black doctor, who joined the Union Army; Emma Edmonds, the New Brunswick woman who disguised herself as a man to enlist as a Union nurse; and Edward P. Doherty, the Quebec man who led the hunt to track down Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

At the same time, the Canadian political and business elite were aiding the slave states. Toronto aristocrat George Taylor Denison III bankrolled Confederate operations and opened his mansion to their agents. The Catholic Church helped one of Booth’s accused accomplices hide out for months in the Quebec countryside. A leading financier in Montreal let Confederates launder money through his bank.

Sher creates vivid portraits of places we thought we knew. Montreal was a sort of nineteenth-century Casablanca of the North: a hub for assassins, money-men, mercenaries and soldiers on the run. Toronto was a headquarters for Confederate plotters and gun-runners. The two largest hotels in the country became nests of Confederate spies.

Meticulously researched and richly illustrated, The North Star is a sweeping tale that makes long-ago events leap off the page with a relevance to the present day.

Julian Sher is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including “Until You Are Dead”: The Wrongful Conviction of Steven Truscott and White Hoods: Canada’s Ku Klux Klan. He co-authored two books on biker gangs, The Road to Hell and Angels of Death, and wrote two books on crimes against children, One Child at a Time and Somebody’s Daughter.

As an investigative reporter, he worked for the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. He was a Senior Producer of CBC’s the fifth estate, Canada’s premier investigative TV program, for five years. He has directed and written major documentaries, covering wars and intrigue across the globe. His documentary Nuclear Jihad, produced for the New York Times and CBC, won the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.

His 2021 film, Ghosts of Afghanistan, won three top Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Documentary. He is also active in protecting media freedoms, as a Senior Fellow at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Centre for Free Expression and working with Journalists for Human Rights.


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