Jackie Muise

Jackie Muise with a copy of her book, Island Girl: From Orphan to Military Wife, which features the biography of her mother, Mary Elizabeth Whitty. Muise’s mother spent many years in Pictou, and the author will be at the McCulloch House Museum and Genealogy Centre on Oct. 3 for a reading and signing.

(Submitted photo)

Mary Elizabeth Whitty’s life in Pictou County is well-documented in a new book written by her daughter.

Jackie Muise, who lives in Oromocto, N.B., will be in Pictou on Sunday to read from and sign copies of Island Girl: From Orphan to Military Wife.

“The book is a biography of my mother,” said Muise. “It’s her life story. I found it quite interesting, although she thought it was not a big deal.”

Muise’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Whitty, was born in a lighthouse in Souris, P.E.I., to an unwed mother. At the age of five, she was sent to live with a farming couple in St. Georges, who became her lifelong parents.

“Most of my mother’s life takes place in Pictou,” explained Muise. “She was a military wife and had lived in Europe, but then moved back to Pictou. My father was born in Pictou.”

What spurred Muise to write Whitty’s biography was her mother’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. She passed away from the disease in April 2017. Originally, Muise went to Nimbus about possibly publishing the book, however was told by publishers they didn’t think it was sellable because Whitty wasn’t famous enough to make it interesting.

“I disagree with them thoroughly,” said Muise, noting profound events of the 20th century, such as tuberculosis, didn’t affect just Whitty, but all Maritimers.

“From beginning to end, but it wasn’t just her. All Maritimers were affected in a similar way.”

The biggest difficulty Muise had in writing the book was to be objective.

“I wrote it as an outsider looking in. I wanted her life to come through as her own self.”

For months, Muise spent day in and out interviewing her mother and father, Fred Leblanc, digging into her mother’s storied past. She says it took longer to track down her mother’s biological extended family than it did the interviews and research.

“The book does come to find the biological people who gave her up. I was able to find the last person who lived with Mom in those five years. That process took longer,” said Muise.

While most of the extended family still lives in Souris, Teresa Babineau was living in Charlottetown when Muise was able to find her.

“She remembered Mom, but more importantly she remembered (Whitty’s) biological mother. She died at a young age. Teresa had such fond memories of my mother … it was just a treasure.”

Since the book was written and published, Muise is quite sure she’s also found her mother’s biological father through 23 and Me. Muise also helped her mother find a brother neither knew existed, as he was given up at birth.

“They did become close before he passed,” she said.

A pivotal part of the book, says Muise, is her mother’s two-year battle of life and death with tuberculosis. There were four generations of Muise’s family who battled tuberculosis, including the author herself. Whitty’s biological mother had died of tuberculosis.

“She almost didn’t make it,” said Muise about her mother. “I was just a baby then and had it as well. She was in hospital for two years, and I was in the children’s hospital in Halifax for a year.”

Muise took about a year to write the book itself, which Acorn Press picked up and published. Due to COVID-19, the publishing was delayed but finally happened. The pandemic also saw Muise hold her book launch in New Brunswick instead of Pictou, but she still wanted to hold a reading and signing.

“Pictou is so prominent in the book, with its history from the Second World War on,” she said.

Writing the book was a cathartic process for Muise.

“At the end, it was difficult when I was really having to let her go, where I had spent every day with her,” Muise said. “But then I realized we never do let go, really.”

The reading and book signing will begin at 2 p.m., Oct. 3, at McCulloch House Museum and Genealogy Centre in Pictou. Books will be available for purchase at the centre, and they can also be purchased through Coles, Chapters, any book store (through order) or online through Acorn Press.

Reporter

Raissa Tetanish has been a journalist for the past 15 years, and has spent four years as editor of both The Light and Hub Now. She joined the Pictou Advocate in April 2021.