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Fifteen Thousand Pieces by Gina Leola Woolsey

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

On September 2, 1998, a Swissair jet went down off the coast of Nova Scotia. Rescuers responded quickly, but it soon became clear that all 229 passengers and crew aboard were dead. So, what was supposed to be a rescue operation almost immediately evolved into the slow processes of identifying victims and determining the cause of the crash. What made this difficult were two things: first, that the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner’s office and the RCMP were often at odds with each other while attempting to fulfill their respective mandates; and second, that, due to the severity of the crash, there were no whole bodies to be found, just small bits of flesh and bone, making identification extremely challenging. Hence, the title of this book.

Fifteen Thousand Pieces has many layers, each of which delivers insight and emotion. First, and primarily, this book reveals the complexity of all that goes into dealing with the aftermath of a fatal disaster. While the book focuses on the role of Dr. John Butt, then the Chief Medical Examiner of Nova Scotia, and his operations to identify the remains of all the crash victims, the narrative also brings out other parts of the response: initial attempts by local fisherman, the navy and the RCMP to find survivors; the subsequent recovery of body parts; the RCMP's role in determining the cause of the crash; and the interaction of government officials with the victims' families.

The narrative alternates chapters detailing the progress of the investigation with others describing the career path that brought Dr. Butt to Nova Scotia. These chapters also track his inner development as a person, not the least of which was his slow awakening to his sexuality. His personality traits, positive and negative, are brought out clearly. Among these, his perfectionism alienated many, as did his territorial possessiveness in his job. The RCMP, in particular, was often at odds with him.

In gathering material for this book, author Gina Leola Woolsey didn’t just interview Butt himself, but crisscrossed Canada to interview family, friends, and co-workers, even some who don’t like him, to get their takes on a very complicated human being. Her writing is fast-moving and detailed, especially with regard to the ins and outs of a medical examiner’s job. But it is also personal, bringing out vividly the turmoil of the emotional evolution that Butt goes through, especially in his interactions with the victims’ families.

Woolsey came to write this book after meeting Dr. Butt at a dinner party in Vancouver and being struck by his humour and intrigued by his occupation. And she gives full credit to his willingness to be open about himself and his struggles. This allowed Woolsey to deliver a portrait all the more nuanced and, indeed, more human. So, despite its main focus on being the aftermath of a fatal disaster and the effect of such tragic deaths on workers and families, Fifteen Thousand Pieces ends up being an extremely enlightening and uplifting work.

Fifteen Thousand Pieces is published by Guernica Editions.


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