Hirtle, Sheila

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Hirtle, Sheila


Born in Canada; married Marq de Villiers (an author and researcher).


Home—Eagle Head, Nova Scotia, Canada.


Editor, researcher, and author.


(With husband, Marq de Villiers) Blood Traitors: A True Saga of the American Revolution, HarperCollins (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996.

(With Marq de Villiers) Into Africa: A Journey through the Ancient Empires, Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1997.

(With Marq de Villiers) Essential Africa, Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000.

(With Marq de Villiers) Sahara: A Natural History, Walker (New York, NY), 2002.

(With Marq de Villiers) Sable Island: The Strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic, Walker (New York, NY), 2004, published as A Dune Adrift: The Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2004.

(With Marq de Villiers) Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold, McClelland & Stewart, 2007.

Also author of House of Imagination.


A freelance editor and researcher who has experience in journalism and fine arts studies, Sheila Hirtle writes books that combine travel with human and natural history. With the exception of her architecture book House of Imagination, she collaborates with her husband, journalist Marq de Villiers, on books about the history and natural environments of Africa and Canada, including Into Africa: A Journey through the Ancient Empires, Sahara: A Natural History, Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold, and Sable Island: The Strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic.

Into Africa is an ambitious book that seeks nothing less than to provide a complete portrait of the continent and dispel many Western preconceptions about the people and cultures there. In particular, the authors feel that Westerners have an overly negative view of Africa as a place riddled with political unrest, poverty, and disease. While acknowledging there are, indeed, problems, such as AIDS and ongoing wars, the authors celebrate the rich history, culture, and wildlife of the land, as well. Carolyne A. Van Der Meer, writing for Quill & Quire, felt that sections on history and politics "do not carry the immediacy or the conviction of personal experiences," while the strongest parts of the book entail the passages where de Villiers relates his personal experiences on the continent, adding that the recorded conversations with the people there are "stark, or moving, or frightening, but always larger than life." African Business reviewer Stephen Williams noted that the book dwells primarily on sub-Saharan Africa, but overall appreciated how the work "reveals a thoughtful, honest, sometimes harrowing, but generally optimistic view of Africa approaching the millennium."

The authors rectify neglecting north Africa with Sahara, which relates the colorful history, people, and animals of a desert large enough that it could cover the United States. Many people think of the Sahara as a barren expanse of sand, but Hirtle and de Villiers explain that a considerable amount of life exists there and that only about twenty percent of the Sahara is actually sandy desert. As with their earlier book on Africa, London Times critic Anthony Sattin considered the material describing the geography and animals of the region to be somewhat dry and "seem more like an encyclopaedia or compendium than a narrative about the living desert," while the material on the nomads and other people living in the Sahara "provides the most powerful writing." Library Journal contributor Tim Markus felt that the authors at times become "overly dramatic" and the text "a bit complex and convoluted," but added that Sahara is still "a worthy purchase." "Insightful and intelligent, this fascinating book will appeal to anyone with a curiosity about the world's largest desert," asserted Kristine Huntley in Booklist.

From continent, to region, to city, Hirtle and de Villiers continued to narrow the scope of their Africa books with Timbuktu, which is a history of one of Africa's most mystical cities. Founded one thousand years ago, Timbuktu, located in what is now the country of Mali, flourished as a center of trade and was an important city in the Ghana-Wagadu kingdom. Muslim invaders came in the 1500s, however, and the city has been in a decline ever since. Today, the city remains interesting for its complex past, as well as for the Mamma Haid- ara Library, a repository for thousands of works on Islamic scholarship. While Hirtle and de Villiers include travelers' anecdotes in the story of Timbuktu, several critics found the book to be less than engaging. A Publishers Weekly writer felt that it "falls short with a lack of narrative tension." "Fascinatingly recondite, but also fairly deadening: scarcely useable or even readable for most pleasure travelers," assessed a Kirkus Reviews critic. Booklist contributor George Cohen, however, considered Timbuktu to be "absorbing in its detail."

Hirtle and de Villiers stuck closer to home with Sable Island, the story of an unusual island off the coast of Nova Scotia that seems to be drifting and changing in size. Visited off and on by various explorers over the last five hundred years, the island is also the site of many shipwrecks. Today, it is inhabited by a herd of wild horses, seals, and birds. The authors describe this unique place's geological, human, and natural history in what a Kirkus Reviews critic called "another finely etched portrait of a strange, romantic place from this accomplished duo." Although Lee Bumsted noted in his Gulf of Maine Times review that the book would have benefited from more information about the current state of the island's wildlife, he asserted that the book is "an engaging portrait of a remarkable place."



African Business, October, 1998, Stephen Williams, review of Into Africa: A Journey through the Ancient Empires, p. 41; March, 2003, "Sahara: The Life of a Great Desert," p. 63.

Atlantic Books Today, winter, 2004, "To Be There or Not to Be There—That Is the Question."

Booklist, September 1, 2002, Kristine Huntley, review of Sahara: A Natural History, p. 33; January 1, 2003, review of Sahara, p. 791; November 1, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of Sable Island: The Strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic, p. 456; June 1, 2007, George Cohen, review of Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold, p. 23.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, February, 2003, G. Stevens, review of Sahara, p. 1005.

Discover, February, 2003, Maia Weinstock, review of Sahara, p. 83.

Guardian (London, England), April 12, 2003, Matthew Collin, "The Sahara Unveiled."

Gulf of Maine Times, winter, 2004, Lee Bumsted, review of Sable Island.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of Sahara, p. 928; September 15, 2004, review of Sable Island, p. 899; June 15, 2007, review of Timbuktu.

Library Journal, November 1, 1997, Louise F. Leonard, review of Into Africa, p. 89; August, 2002, Tim Markus, review of Sahara, p. 136; November 1, 2004, Margaret Rioux, review of Sable Island, p. 116; June 15, 2007, Melissa Aho, review of Timbuktu, p. 79.

National Geographic Adventure, November, 2002, "The Nile," p. 47.

Natural History, March, 2005, Laurence A. Marschall, review of Sable Island, p. 66.

New Scientist, January 18, 2003, "Fly Me to the Dune: Nigel Winser Loves the Life of One of the World's Great Deserts," p. 48.

New Statesman, February 13, 1998, Stephen Howe, review of Into Africa, p. 47.

Publishers Weekly, July 8, 2002, review of Sahara, p. 42; October 4, 2004, review of Sable Island, p. 80; May 14, 2007, review of Timbuktu, p. 41.

Quill & Quire, September, 1997, Carolyne A. Van Der Meer, review of Into Africa, p. 65; May, 2003, Jenefer Curtis, review of Sahara.

Reference & Research Book News, February, 2005, review of Sable Island, p. 76.

Science News, September 7, 2002, review of Sahara, p. 159.

Seattle Times, September 12, 2002, review of Sahara.

Times (London, England), February 9, 2003, Anthony Sattin, review of Sahara.

Times Higher Education Supplement, September 5, 2003, "Gallic Gloire in a North African Sandpit," p. 32.

Times Literary Supplement, July 18, 2003, "The Lone and Level Sands," p. 4.