After 80 years, HMCS Sackville leaves its legacy…in a graphic novel

By Steve Gow

One of Halifax’s quieter Harbourfront attractions is finally grabbing the spotlight in a brand new graphic novel.

Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters tells the story of HMCS Sackville and Canada’s involvement in the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War — a fascinating local history that many Haligonians are woefully uninformed about.

“It’s the last remaining corvette from something like 269 that were built overall,” says author Brian Bowman of the 1941-commissioned navy vessel that currently serves as a National Historic Site near the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

As one of 123 corvettes that were built in Atlantic Canada, HMCS Sackville’s duties included escorting convoys overseas and engaging German U-boats that threatened transportation and shipping lines. In fact, in August of 1942, HMCS Sackville took on three U-boats within 24 hours, putting two of them out of action before they were able to escape.

“We were entirely responsible for safeguarding convoys to Europe — here and back — and it was the longest, most extended campaign of the entire war,” adds Bowman of the role the corvettes played in Canada’s contribution to the Allied victory. “Sackville represents that achievement.”

Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters follows a young man who departs his family farm to join the navy during World War II.  A combination of high-stakes action, a love story and a detailed account of the vessel's history, the graphic novel was conceived to generate interest and education for younger readers in Canada’s naval heritage.

“I think it might be a little challenging for an 8-year-old but it’s certainly young adult reading and there’s been a surprising interest from adult readers as well,” says Bowman, adding that he approached the book similar to a movie script. “I used those techniques to design and create it. It went all the way through from treatment, to step outline, and the graphic novel script really is a script for a movie.”

The graphic novel actually has a fairly fascinating history itself. Originally conceived in 2012 by co-author and award-winning illustrator Richard Rudnicki, the idea was initiated through the Sackville Trust.

In 2019, when the pair were about three-quarters finished with the project, Rudnicki passed away suddenly, putting its completion in jeopardy. Soon after, Rudnicki’s wife, Susan Tooke, stepped up.  Also an artist — her illustrations for Full Moon Rising earned her the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Illustration from the Halifax Regional Municipality  — she contributed to finish her late-husband’s legacy.

“He completed about 450 panels and as you’ve seen, it’s gorgeous stuff,” adds Bowman. “She volunteered to end the project so it’s kind of a labour of love in a way.”

Bowman himself is an unlikely choice to author a book about HMSC Sackville. Having been raised in the Qu’Appelle Valley of southern Saskatchewan, Bowman still lives in the Western province where his background has involved everything from advertising, to government, to journalism and editing, but he has never imagined adding graphic novelist to his list of titles.

“I have always been impressed with them and there are sterling examples in the genre that have definitely had an impression on me,” says Bowman, adding that he strived to create a good balance of entertainment and education with Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters. “You do it through dialogue, you do it through interaction and character (but) there’s elements of light-hearted humour and, of course, you depend heavily on illustration to get all that stuff across.”

As for Haligonians, Bowman also hopes his book enlightens readers so that next time they’re strolling along the waterfront boardwalk near Sackville Landing from June until late-October, they'll take a second glance with respect towards one of Halifax's most notable monuments resting in the harbour.

“I think (Haligonians) will see that something that is at least locally recognized as a national monument is getting more attention,” says Bowman of HMCS Sackville. “There is something about seeing a squat little vessel like that sort of proudly standing at the jetty. Where so many other nations’ glorified battleships and aircraft carriers and large ships have stayed like that — Canada humbly sits its little bulldog.”

For information on Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters, visit the graphic novel's website.

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