Oswald “Newton” Marshall is a Jamaican hero with whom many are unfamiliar.
Last year, he became the first person from the Caribbean island to complete the arduous 1,161-mile Iditarod dogsled event, finishing 44th in the 72-man race that starts on the first Saturday in March in Anchorage and ends in Nome two weeks later.
In 2009, the 27-year-old was also the first Black musher to enter the Yukon Quest, considered the toughest dog sledding event in the world.
Marshall proved that his appearance was more than a publicity stunt, finishing 13th in the gruelling event run over 1,000 miles of frozen wasteland between Whitehorse in Yukon and Fairbanks in Alaska over 11 days in extreme, frigid temperatures. Making it from start to finish was quite an incredible accomplishment for the Jamaican since 13 of the 29 starters failed to complete the difficult course.
It’s hard to fathom the progress Marshall has made after being introduced to the sport six years ago and earning his first educational certificate in September 2008. His maternal grandmother and his mother didn’t attend school and Marshall was denied an education until a few years ago when he, as an employee of Chukka Caribbean Adventures, was enrolled in a special education program run by a former Michigan special needs educator.
He took advantage of the program, sharpening his reading, writing and social skills.
Described as a natural-born dog man, Marshall is the subject of a new book, One Mush: Jamaica’s Dogsled Team, which was released in Toronto last month.
“I think the real story behind this book is that people can make their mark in a major way despite the challenges they face or the backgrounds they come from if they are just given an opportunity,” said Jamaica’s consul general George Ramocan. “Marshall’s story attests to that. There are many young people like him who are just waiting for the chance they might never get. He was very fortunate and he made the most of the opportunity.”
Whitehorse resident and writer John Firth conceived the idea for the book after a Yukon Tourism employee introduced him to Chukka founder and Toronto property owner Danny Melville who exposed Jamaicans to dog sledding following a business trip to Edmonton in 2005.
Firth, who spent a month in Jamaica two years ago researching for the 316-page self-published book filled with fascinating pictures, said there was a great deal of pessimism when he told people he was documenting the Jamaican dogsled story.
“The reaction was what are you doing and why are you wasting your time because this is not a story that people are going to be interested in,” he said. “I suppose if you look at it from the perspective that this was just a story about dogsled racing, they would probably be right on the surface. However, it’s the people that are involved that really became the focal point of the book. It became Newton’s story as opposed to the Jamaican dogsled team story. I think this is what makes this book different from what I suppose a lot of people were expecting.”
Melville said the new book is inspirational.
“What is so exciting for me is to hear what people have to say about this book,” said Melville who spotted a dogsled for the first time in an Edmonton garage six years ago while shopping for dune buggies. “It’s also a story about young Jamaicans grasping the opportunity to travel and see the world.”
Former Ontario Premier Bob Rae, Britain’s Deputy Consul General Ashley Prime and award-winning author Rachel Manley, who wrote the book’s foreword, attended the launch at Ben McNally Books.
“I am blown away by this story,” said Manley, the daughter of late Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. “It’s not just moving and well told. It manages to break ranks with the normal history or travel or sports story by combining all three, without ever compromising each part.
“This story, told through the extraordinary quest of Newton Marshall, shrinks many diverse cultures into a common parable of determination overcoming hardship, courage overcoming challenge and danger, perseverance overcoming the handicaps and hurdles of poverty and its every setback. Most of all, it is the determination of mindset over every obstacle and hurdle, the golden quest of a spirit that triumphs to mend the human heart.”
Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffet, who has been the biggest supporter of the dogsled team which is constantly fundraising, had high praise for Marshall.
“Newton Marshall is a hero of mine and a hero of our times,” he said. “How could he not be? His story of raising himself up from the humble and difficult beginnings to finding, pursuing and accomplishing his dream is as inspiring a story as you will ever read.”
In November 2009, Underdog – a 45-minute documentary chronicling Marshall’s rise from humble beginnings in rural Jamaica as a horseback ride ‘n’ swim tour guide at Chukka to the Yukon Quest – was screened in Toronto.
Marshall, the 2010 winner of the Institute of Jamaica Youth Musgrave Medal, has been in Fairbanks, Alaska since September 1 training with four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey for the new season that began on December 18 with the Sheep Mountain 150 sled dog race just outside Anchorage.
He races in the Copper Basin 300-mile race in Alaska this weekend and the International Pedigree Stage Stop event in Wyoming from January 28 to February 5 before the Iditarod from March 5-15.
Marshall is one of three mushers representing Jamaica on the international circuit this year. The others are sprint dog racers Damion Robb, who began mushing in 2006 after graduating from Marcus Garvey Technical High School in the parish of St. Ann, and newcomer Jermain Burford. They are in Minnesota training with dogs from the Elfstone Kennel owned by Ken and Donna Davis.
Robb’s season begins in Canada on February 4 at the three-day Mamora Snofest event in central southern Ontario. He also competes in the 17th annual Kearney event in Parry Sound on February 12 and 13, the Georgian Bay Skijor and Dogsled Dash a week later and the seventh annual Cannington Winter Festival in Brock township on February 26 and 27 before returning to the United States for his final event of the season in Duluth, Minnesota on March 5 and 6.
Burford, on the other hand, makes his debut this weekend at the Pine River Run in Wisconsin. He also participates at the Kalkaska Winterfest in Michigan on January 15 and 16 before heading to southern Ontario for the Haliburton Highlands Dogsled Derby on January 22 and 23.
One Mush: Jamaica’s Dogsled Team is available at Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay St. The price is $26.20 (tax included).