Action-packed graphic novel stars HMCS Sackville

Susan Tooke, co-illustrator of Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters, a graphic novel about HMCS Sackville and the Battle of the Atlantic, as told through the perspective of a young naval reservist.

Action-packed graphic novel stars HMCS Sackville

By Joanie Veitch,
Trident Staff

HMCS Sackville takes centre stage in a new graphic novel that tells the story of the Battle of the Atlantic from a young naval reservist’s perspective – and just as the book shows how perseverance and courage won that lengthy battle, the story behind the making of the book also demonstrates a significant triumph of will.

Through detailed illustrations and a compelling plotline, Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters follows young Wally, a farm kid growing up on the prairies in the ‘Dirty Thirties,’ who goes on to join the Naval Reserve after the onset of the Second World War. After travelling to Nova Scotia for basic training in April 1942, Wally is selected as a gunner and assigned to join the crew of HMCS Sackville.

As one of Canada’s 123 small but mighty Flower-class corvettes, Sackville played a critical role in escorting convoys of merchant vessels from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Londonderry, Northern Ireland, defending Allied ships from German U-boat attack during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Text and illustrations combine in this graphic novel, bringing the character of Wally to life and creating action-packed scenes of high intensity. In a section of the story titled “Action Stations,” for example, vivid drawings depict Sackville encountering three U-boats in three separate incidents on August 2, 1942. 

“It’s a lively and engaging read,” said Doug Thomas, a member of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust, the non-profit organization that oversees the preservation of HMCS Sackville as Canada’s naval memorial ship, speaking at a book talk on September 12.

Hosted by Nimbus Publishing aboard HMCS Sackville at the ship’s berth on the Halifax waterfront, the talk featured discussion by both Thomas and Susan Tooke, the book’s co-illustrator, as they told the story of the making of the book.

The initial idea for the project was conceived in 2012, Thomas said, following a conversation he had with Richard Rudnicki, who did most of the artwork. 

Rudnicki had done several military art pieces in the past — he was artist-in-residence at the Army Museum Halifax Citadel for many years — and was known for his compelling style and attention to detail, Thomas said.

“We were hoping for a book to catch the interest of young people, so they can learn about this incredible piece of history we have, right here,” said Thomas.

The book’s author, Saskatchewan writer Brian Bowman, was also a good fit for the project, Thomas said.  Like Wally in the story, Bowman’s father had grown up on the prairies and served on one of the corvettes – HMCS Edmundston – during the Second World War. 

Between Bowman visiting HMCS Sackville on the East Coast and Rudnicki visiting Bowman in Saskatchewan, the two worked together to tell the story of HMCS Sackville and its role in the fearsome Battle of the Atlantic – checking in with Thomas and other members of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust for technical and historic advice along the way.

As is the way with many projects, other work and life got in the way and slowed progress but the duo were nearing the finish line when tragedy struck.  On November 4, 2019, at 68 years of age, Richard Rudnicki died in his sleep at his home in Port Royal, an historic farm property he and his wife, Susan Tooke, had bought the year before.

“It was a complete shock,” Tooke said. “No one, least of all Richard himself, would have expected it.”

An accomplished artist herself with several books to her credit, Tooke decided to complete the project on her husband’s behalf.

“The idea of the book not being completed was terrible to me… Richard had done such extensive research and had worked so hard on the project, that it might not get finished…  I couldn’t stand the thought of that.”

Tooke gave herself a crash course in the illustration software Rudnicki had been using and tried to replicate his distinct style. “It was intimidating… to try to copy another artist’s style… you can only do that to a certain degree,” she said.

Working with notes and sketches Rudnicki had left, Tooke finished the project in just a few months, checking in with Thomas and other members of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust at every step to ensure accuracy in her drawings.

Signing the book on her husband’s behalf following the talk, Tooke said she was feeling a great sense of relief to have the book published and know it’s now going out to readers far and wide.

“Richard was dedicated to this project. It’s still very much his project… I feel as though I’m here representing him and his work,” she said. “It was a challenge – both artistically and emotionally – to finish his work, but it’s good to be able to stand here, on this ship, and know the project is completed.”

Copies of Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters: a story of HMCS Sackville and the Battle of the Atlantic are available from the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust at HMCS Sackville or from Nimbus Publishing’s online store: