Sylvia Du Vernet

Now decades later, still alive and author of a dozen books, Sylvia had a red rose placed atop the coffin of her devoted husband Ernest Arthur Du Vernet, completing his March 20, 2012 funeral at St. George's On-the-Hill church in Toronto.

Born Sylvia Niemeier, she'd been assigned at Hamilton's Central High to sit in a schoolroom seat in front of energetic and curious Ernie "to be a steadying influence on him." They became devoted to each other, and remained so for the next three-quarters of a century.

Sylvia first discovered Muskoka at age three, visiting her grandparent's Gull Lake cottage near Gravenhurst and her parents' Windermere cottage. Naturally she and Ernie soon found their own cottage at Sandy Bay near Port Carling, where they would in turn introduce their three sons, Peter-Paul, Christopher, and Timothy to Muskoka. The latter two began writing for district publications. Tim has become a full-time Muskokan and photographer of note.

For a couple as closely entwined as Sylvia and Ernie, it's impossible to separate the influences each had on the other. But their mutual fascination with culture, conflict resolved to harmony, history, literature, distant places, song, imagery, and individuals of accomplishment clearly all fused in her books, a rich legacy for Muskokans.

An Indian Odyssey, which she subtitled Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs of Gibson Band of the Mohawk Tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy, first appeared in print in 1986, and was republished with updated information, including the success of cranberry farming, in 1991.

This was not Sylvia's first book, but it's about one of her first loves. When it came to First Nations peoples, Ernie was a perceptive guide because he'd been born and raised among native people in the remote settlement of Kitwanga on the banks of British Columbia's Skeena River: no doctor, no school, no roads, no running water.

An Indian Odyssey is likely the best book available about the Mohawk families who relocated from troubles at Oka in Quebec to the unorganized Muskoka Township of Gibson in 1881. Sylvia's 150-page account is a deeply informed telling of peoples' lives through their "trials, tribulations, and triumphs," enriched by personal stories she learned from close association with the families, and by her own extensive research.

In her hallmark interdisciplinary approach to Canadian literature and culture, she juxtaposes and integrates both personal and documentary accounts, "to show that, as often happens in history, psychology and sociology legitimate both the apparently rational and fanatically irrational goals."

A second important Muskoka book by Sylvia Du Vernet, published in 1985, is her landmark Muskoka Assembly of the Canadian Chautauqua Association. She returned in 1988 with an expanded second edition, which grew from the original 200 pages to 300, incorporating much more information about the remarkable men and women of letters – Bliss Carman, Dorothy Livesay, Charles G.D. Roberts, Wilson MacDonald, and dozens more – who put Muskoka on the map as "Canada's Literary Chautauqua."

Sylvia, witnessing from the margins this Chautauqua at her parents Lake Rosseau cottage, learned the importance of having leading writers and poets assemble each summer in the 1920s at nearby Tobin's Island to experience nature, explore ideas, and encounter their inner lives through literature, theatre, and active living. That's very much how Sylvia herself aspired to live.

For a third book, it was inevitable that Sylvia, after achieving university qualifications in education, literature, and religious studies with emphasis on theosophy, would be drawn to another woman writer with a theosophist's religious outlook – Lucy Maude Montgomery.

In a 44-page study entitled L.M. Montgomery & The Mystique of Muskoka, published in 1988, Sylvia focuses on the celebrated Canadian writer's novel The Blue Castle. It was Montgomery's only book set outside Prince Edward Island, and written for adults.

Montgomery, who'd stayed in Muskoka in the 1920s, had become enchanted. "I loved Muskoka so much that for once I forsook my dear Island and laid the scene in Ontario," Du Vernet quotes Montgomery. She then explores why that was so.

"Through the medium of her novel The Blue Castle, L.M. Montgomery transforms the reality of her experience in Muskoka into an imaginative exploration of the meaning of this experience in terms of her own life and the lives of other Muskokans." She then examines with amazing perception the plot, characters, and larger meanings in L.M. Montgomery & The Mystique of Muskoka.

Sylvia Du Vernet's experience teaching Canadian literature and literary criticism, whether at University of Toronto, McMaster University or, under the auspices of McMaster, at Bracebridge Public Library, are well displayed in these artful works of non-fiction.

Then there's her poetry! Sylvia Du Vernet's life has been poetry itself. The poetic form, like her, is not limited but open to imagination and integration. A steady outpouring of her Muskoka poems found a ready home in the Muskoka Sun under my father Robert Boyer as her editor and publisher, just as he had also been a devoted editor and publisher of her books.

At intervals her best poems were gathered into books, of which more than a half-dozen were published in Bracebridge, including Beams from the Beacon: Poems of Georgian Bay (1974), Perceptions: Poems for Young People of All Ages (1975), More Muskoka Poetry (1977), Muskoka Seasons (1987), Muskoka Sings (1991), and Muskoka Metaphors (1994).

Of these works, wrote Robert Boyer in 1977, "The poetess has traced the changing seasons in Muskoka, as seen with the eye and perceived in the mind. Hers is more than a passing notice."

Especially noteworthy among Sylvia Du Vernet's poems is the volume The Muskoka Tree: Poems of Pride for Norman Bethune, published by Herald-Gazette Press in 1976. She uses as backdrop the Gravenhurst home of Dr. Bethune "to develop a poetic image of the personality which was born there."

A companion second volume appeared two years later, containing poems inspired after Sylvia and Ernie had toured China in April 1977 and the Shanghai Ballet toured Montreal, Toronto, and Gravenhurst in May 1977. It is entitled Pai-Chiu-En: Poems the Chinese People Told Me about Norman Bethune.

Many of these books, though now out-of-print, are in Muskoka libraries and used bookstores. The main titles are still available, either from Muskoka's bookshops or online at

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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