Books I’ve Read This Week: Extraordinary Canadians

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 29: Extraordinary Canadians: Before 2018, I had read and enjoyed two of the biographies in the eighteen volume Extraordinary Canadians series, Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray and Lucy Maud Montgomery,by Jane Urquhart. In recent weeks, I have read seven more books in the series, gaining new perspectives on Canadian history and learning more about important historical figures. Here are this week’s reviews:

#197 of 365 Emily Carr by Lewis DeSoto

Genre: Biography

Format: Hardcover, 185 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Date Read: July 19, 2018

Review: A short biography of Canadian artist Emily Carr, structured as a series of essays about her life and times, including the influence of post-Impressionism on her work, the conflict between marriage and creative expression for women of her time, her engagement with the First Nations communities who inspired her work and the recognition that she received as an artist and writer later in life. While Emily Carr led a very interesting life, some of the chapters in the book were repetitive instead of exploring these themes in detail and the further reading section was too short. The author is an artist who did not initially like Carr’s work but came to appreciate her art after seeing the landscapes depicted in her paintings.

#198 of 365 Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 20, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from ABC Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 174 pages

Review: I have read and admire a number of Margaret Macmillan’s historical works including Women of the Raj, Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace and I enjoyed Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town so I loved reading a blend of MacMillan’s scholarship and Leacock’s humour. Macmillan not only captures the essence of Leacock’s personality with its blend of intellect, humour and melancholy but also gives a good overview of his times and Canada’s gradual emergence from the British Empire. The narrative includes quotations from Leacock’s famous and lesser known works, showing the range of his opinions and work as “a public intellectual in a country that was not yet used to having them.” Highly recommended.

#199 of 365 Lord Beaverbrook by David Adams Richards

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 21, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 200 pages

Review: Lord Beaverbrook is the only Canadian to be mentioned in Season 2 of The Crown on Netflix (in a scene where the former King Edward VIII lists his friends in Britain) and author David Adams Richards observes that he was one of the most important and influential Canadians in a global context over the course of the 20th century. This short biography provides an interesting and enthusiastic overview of his life, achievements and shortcomings. The author’s opinions, however, sometimes overwhelm the narrative. Both Richards and Beaverbrook grew up in the same town in New Brunswick and Richards often attributes opinions to Beaverbrook based entirely on his own experiences of the culture of small town New Brunswick. A good read but the author’s asides about how things are done in Miramichi are sometimes distracting from the overall biography.

#200 of 365 Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin by John Ralston Saul

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 22, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 272 pages

Review: An excellent dual biography of two Canadian political figures who deserve to be better known for their development of the reform movement for Responsible Government and other contributions to modern Canadian politics, education and society. John Ralston Saul presents the closely intertwined personal and political lives of Baldwin and LaFontaine. They were both surrounded by strong women. Baldwin’s daughter Maria became his unofficial private secretary, declaring confidently “Do you think I have lived all my life among politicians for nothing? No indeed! Politics are with me as though they were a second nature.” LaFontaine’s wife Adele worked on behalf of political prisoners during the 1837 Rebellions. Both men were haunted by circumstances in their personal lives: Baldwin became a widower at a young age and LaFontaine’s first marriage was childless. They both poured their energies into politics.

19th century Canadian history has a reputation for being calm and uneventful but John Ralston Saul provides a vivid account of the conflicts of times. As a child, Baldwin fled the burning of what is now Toronto by American troops during the war of 1812. The Rebellions of 1837 cost lives in both Upper and Lower Canada and a few of the rocks thrown at Governor General Lord Elgin at the time of the burning of parliament in Montreal in 1849 are still in the collection of Library and Archives Canada. Ralston Saul also places events in Canada in a wider trans-Atlantic context, examining the impact of the European political upheavals of 1848 and the emigration following the Irish Potato Famine on Canadian politics and society. Highly recommended.

#201 of 365 Lester B Pearson by Andrew Cohen

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 23, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home, Purchased from Amazon.ca

Format: Hardcover, 224 pages

Review:  I enjoyed this short biography of Lester B. Pearson, who was Prime Minister of Canada at the time of the centennial of Confederation in 1967. Cohen observes that in contrast to other famous Canadian Prime Ministers such as John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, Lester Pearson did not have a vision of himself as a “great man” destined to become Prime Minister but instead seized the career opportunities that came to him, reflecting, “I expected to spend at least the next quarter century teaching history…with forays into related activities. I knew that I would never become a cloistered scholar,but I did not know where one of these forays was to lead me.”

In addition to discussing Pearson’s life and accomplishments, the book also provides an overview of the development of Canadian nationhood over the course of the 20th century. Pearson had a sense of a Canadian identity distinct from Great Britain and the United States from a young age and his accomplishments as Prime Minister included the introduction of the current Canadian flag and the promotion of bilingualism. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation of the Suez Crisis, the first example of Canada not joining Great Britain in war. I would have been interested to read more about Pearson’s views of the monarchy as there are references in the book to the “Royal” slowly disappearing from a number of Canadian institutions. A well written and interesting biography and work of Canadian history.

#202 of 365 Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont by Joseph Boyden

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 28, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 224 pages

Review: A vivid dual biography of Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel that centres around the North-West Rebellion of 1885 from the perspective of Dumont then the trial of Louis Riel. I have visited Duck Lake and Batoche in Saskatchewan and could picture the setting. While Boyden focuses closely on the experiences and worldview of these two Metis leaders, the book also discusses the wider impact of the Red River and North-West Rebellions on the development of Canada and the history of warfare. While Dumont comes to life on the pages of the book, the various facets of Riel’s character do not always come to the surface as Boyden focuses closely on his religious views and quotes extensively from his discussions on this subject. I was curious to know more about his early life, upbringing and time in exile between rebellions. A fascinating read.

#203 of 365 Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 29, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 240 pages

Review:  A beautifully written literary biography that captures the eloquence and statesmanship of the Cree Chief Big Bear and the challenges faced by First Nations people in the late 19th century. Wiebe draws upon a variety of sources, including interviews by Big Bear’s descendants, to describe his efforts to reach a peaceful agreement with the Canadian authorities and provide for his people. The final chapters of the book are tragic. Big Bear and his family experienced starvation and poverty, and the Chief was blamed for attacks on settlers that he in fact attempted to prevent. Wiebe concludes that Big Bear still has a lasting impact on Canadian culture, stating, “His insistence on talking to resolve conflict would become the Canadian way. They had, after all, named the whole country Canada, which sounded very much like the Cree word kanata, meaning ‘the place that is clean.'” Well worth reading.

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