Governance, Gun Control and Religion in McKee’s Guns and Gods in My Genes
Book Review by Carole Mertz
Neill McKee’s memoir, Guns and Gods in My Genes, could be described as a personalized history of North America. He begins his historical overview in modern day by sharing discussions with his oldest living relatives, before taking us back through four centuries of North American history. In his 15,000-mile, 400-year journey through his genealogy, Neill McKee considers his own citizenship as he examines cultural distinctions between Canada and the USA that lead to significant differences in governance, gun control, and religion between the two countries.
In the initial chapters, we learn that McKee’s ancestors arrived in Canada from sites in Ireland and the Scottish lowlands where they had been tailors, cloth dyers, or weavers. He records his father’s lineage, traced back to his 4th great-grandfather, Thomas McKee, who lived from 1777 to 1867. We sense a hardy family line. Many of the McKees, through the generations, had borne large families and raising 8 and 9 children was fairly common. In learning more about his mother’s line and his grandmother, McKee’s search led him to relatives who had moved from Canada to America. His research also brings us into the American Civil War era and then to the pre-Revolutionary days. Many of his forerunners were involved in these wars, in one capacity or another.
Of particular interest is the author’s tracing of the Haskins line. His grandmother, Effie Jane, was born in Cadott, Wisconsin. In the mid-1890s her husband-to-be, John Neill, was an itinerant Methodist pastor in the area when he met Effie Jane, an organist at the local church. After their marriage, the couple moved to Ironton, an iron ore mining and railway town. By 1900, they had moved to a sawmill town along the Kickapoo River where they began their family, always living on a meager salary. Because their first child suffered chronic asthma, they moved farther west, eventually to Fostoria, in Iowa, for cleaner air and a better environment. However, here the couple endured an even cruder life. McKee provides a more colorful, and likely more honest, view of the Wild West than we encounter in the Westerns that fill our screens. However the couple were likely desperate to escape their coarse living and Neill returned, with his family, to Ontario, in 1907.
I quote here from McKee’s Chapter 7:
“Between 1909 and 1912, my grandparents were stationed at the small settlement of Colpoy’s Bay—their longest posting anywhere. Was this because Grandpa Neill had an opportunity to address some of the inequities he had seen in the American West? At Colpoy’s Bay Methodist Church, he had a regular white congregation, but also ministered to the Ojibway people, a branch of the Algonquian tribe who lived at nearby Cape Croker. At the time, it took Grandpa a whole day to drive his horse and buggy, or sleigh in the winter, to their reserve where he stayed with an Ojibway family.”
Family lore related that John Neill had helped translate the Methodist hymnal into phonetic Ojibway, so the author’s grandfather must have made inroads into the Ojibway culture. But, conversely, the author reports that a 1996 document of Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reveals oppressive treatment of the aboriginals, as seen in the 1876 Indian Act, and this treatment often “became a tool of assimilation and cultural destruction… For nearly a century.” McKee continues, “it was effectively illegal to be a First Nations person in a traditional sense while interacting with non-indigenous society in any meaningful way, without losing aboriginal status.”
Another interesting segment of this memoir brings us to earlier portions of Effie Jane’s heritage. She was born a Haskins. Here the author’s history carries us back to one Anthony H[o]skins, who lived between 1632 and 1707. In the chapter “The Haskins Family and the Civil War,” McKee introduces us to Lafayette Haskins, a great-grandfather, who had enlisted in the Civil War (in the 7th Wisconsin Regiment) at the age of 17. The year was 1861. During the war, bullets from the awkward rifles then in use caused irreparable internal damage to the soldiers. Yet officers instructed the troops not to help the wounded, for they had to continue their tasks of loading and recharging their rifles as quickly as possible. In spite of his dim prospects for survival, Lafayette Haskins, having fallen sick and thereby missing the Battle of Gettysburg, survived to 1925. McKee records the shocking statistic that nearly 700,000 soldiers died in the American Civil War, and of those, more than half perished from such diseases as dysentery, pneumonia, measles, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis.
His chapter on the Haskins Family is only one of the many fascinating and detailed reports McKee delivers in his lively Guns and Gods in My Genes. With photos, maps, a major genealogical chart, 8 tables, and meticulous chapter notes, McKee transports us through his detailed memoir all the way back to the 1620 landing of the famous Mayflower at Plymouth. McKee’s fascinating memoir is vividly descriptive, poetic, and analytical in equal measure.
About the Author – Carole Mertz
Carole Mertz is book review editor at Dreamers Creative Writing. Carole’s essays and poems have appeared in literary journals in Canada and U.S., and in African, U.K. and Indian journals. She served as judge for the 2020 Poets and Patrons of Illinois International Poetry Contest and serves on the Prize Nomination Committee of The Ekphrastic Review. Her full-length poetry collection Color and Line, 2021, is available at Amazon.com: Color and Line (9781952326806): Mertz, Carole: Books
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