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History Across the Genres (by Charlotte Gray)

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Award-winning biographer and historian Charlotte Gray brings us a cross-genre look at great history books. www.charlottegray.ca
John A

John A

The Man Who Made Us
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ÉIntroduction

The spirit of past ages never dies -
It lives and walks abroad and cries aloud.
Susanna Moodie, Victoria Magazine, 1847

If an international competition were ever to be staged to identify the world's most complex and contradictory country, Canada would be a serious contender. The winner, surely, would be India, with its sixteen official languages and more than two hundred local languages, its sacred cows and cutting-edge computer software, its combination of being both the world's largest democracy and the only nation-state with a caste system. Canada might well come in second. It's become a commonplace to describe the country as "the world's first postmodern country," given its unparalleled ethnic diversity, its decentralization (exceeded, if at all, only by Switzerland and Belgium), the in-rush of immigrants (the largest proportionately among developed nations), the expanding population of Aboriginal peoples (second only to New Zealand), and the ever-increasing number of "nations" within the nation-state - Quebec as the latest to join the list.

In quite a few ways, we were postmodern before we ever became modern. That was the way we were in John A. Macdonald's time. In 1884, Goldwin Smith, the leading political commentator of his day, summarized Macdonald's lifelong mission as "to hold together a set of elements, national, religious, sectional and personal, as motley as the component patches of any 'crazy quilt,'and actuated each of them by paramount regard for its own interest." Here, Smith identified exactly Macdonald's supreme talent - that he knew how to herd cats.

No one else in Canada came close to Macdonald; after him, perhaps only Mackenzie King did, his paramount art being that of doing as little as possible for as long as possible. At the time, few others anywhere could match him. Even without the spur of chauvinism, any reasonable ranking of nineteenth-century democratic leaders would be Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, John A. Macdonald. (Otto von Bismarck, no democrat, would otherwise rank near to the top.) Macdonald happened to perform on a stage that was small and threadbare. But in the primordial political tasks - the managing of men (then, only them) and the winning of their hearts and minds, and so their votes - contemporary equals are not easy to identify. Nor were there many nation-builders like him in his day: Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Sim–n Bol’var. His achievement may have been the more demanding because none of the others had to create a country out of a crazy quilt.

Within the range of Macdonald's accomplishments, there are sizable gaps. The largest, surely, is that, unlike Lincoln, he never appealed to people's "better angels."He was a doer, not a thinker, although highly intelligent and omnivorously well read. He lacked the certitudes of a moralist, instead taking human nature as he found it and turning it to his purposes. He was, that is, a very Scottish Scot. He of course drank too much. And although he was in no way the first to use patronage and election funds for partisan purposes - a cherished and well-embedded Canadian tradition (which still thrives) - Macdonald gave the practice credibility and durability by his masterful exercise of it. That's a shoddy legacy for the father of a country to leave behind.

Yet his accomplishments were staggering: Confederation above all, but almost as important, if not more so, extending the country across the continent by a railway that was, objectively, a financial and economic insanity. Also, the National Policy of tariff protection, which endured in one form or other into the 1980s. And the RCMP or, more exactly, its precursor, the North-West Mounted Police. The first immigration from outside the British Isles, and Canada's first labour legislation. On the ledger's other side, he was responsible for the CPR scandal, for the execution of Louis Riel and for the head tax on Chinese workers.

He's thus not easy to scan. His private life was largely barren. Yet few other Canadian leaders - Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker for a time, Wilfrid Laurier - had the same capacity to inspire love. One MP - a Liberal - wrote in a magazine article of Macdonald's hold on his supporters: "They would go through fire and water to serve him, and got, some of them, little or no reward. But they served him because they loved him, and because with all his great powers they saw in him their own frailties." The novelist Hugh MacLennan, in his Scotchman's Return, caught many of the layers within him: "This frail-looking man with the immense and rueful patience of a Celt. . . . This utterly masculine man with so much woman in him . . . this lonely man flashing gay out of his inner solitude . . . this statesman who understood that without chicanery statesmanship is powerless." Macdonald was as complex and contradictory as his own country.

Add a last, lesser, legacy of Macdonald's to the list. In writing this book, I have made a host of spelling "mistakes," but have paid them no heed. Each has been signalled clearly by a red line that my computer's U.S. text system inserts beneath the offending word. The mistakes aren't really mine, though; they are Macdonald's. He had an order-in-council passed directing that all the government's papers be written in the British style, as with "labour" rather than "labor."

Discoveries of this kind have been for me one of the chief delights of writing this book, and even more so of researching it. All historians, professional or freelance like myself, are keenly aware that these small epiphanies are the joy that more than compensates for the later pain of trying to transfer from mind to computer screen whatever it is one wants to say. The discovery, for instance, that, at least in parts of nineteenth-century rural Canada, unmarried mothers were often regarded far less as sinners than as a "species of heiress"; as one observer noted, their condition both confirmed their fecundity and, as dowry, they brought children who would soon be able to work on the farm. The discovery, one of slightly grander moment, that the principal reason the Confederation Fathers spent almost no time discussing the respective powers of the national and provincial governments - the obsession of our politicians ever since - was that most Canadians then were self-sufficient farmers (even making their own clothes and soap and candles) and didn't want governments to do much for them or to them. The discovery, most substantial of all, that the single most important decision Canadians made in the nineteenth century was not to become a confederation, but, rather, not to become Americans. And the discovery that the National Policy, a phrase always applied only to Macdonald's policy of tariff protection for Canadian manufacturers, began instead with Confederation itself, with tariff protection as a later sub-policy, together with other highlights such as his building a transcontinental railway.

Macdonald made us by making a confederation out of a disconnected, mutually suspicious collection of colonies, and by later magnifying this union into a continental-sized nation. He could not have brought off Confederation without the others of the "Big Four" - George-Étienne Cartier, George Brown and Alexander Tilloch Galt. Among them, though, the irreplaceable man was Macdonald. He understood as well something more fundamental. The United States had emerged from its Civil War as a putative superpower. Britain, the global superpower, wanted to pull back from North America in order to attend to its empire. For Canada to survive on its own, it had to demonstrate that it possessed the will and nerve it took for a nation to survive. Confederation was the essential means to that end. What Macdonald understood as no other, excepting perhaps Galt, was that Confederation was only a means, not an end.

I began work knowing precious little about Macdonald and his times. What I knew was negative - that while Macdonald was the most important of all our prime ministers, the last full-scale, critical, biography of him had been written more than half a century ago. It is the greatest biography in Canadian historiography - Donald Creighton's two volumes The Young Chieftain and The Old Politician, published in 1952 and 1955. They are magisterial and encyclopedic, composed with narrative flair. But times move on, new evidence emerges, attitudes and assumptions change and open doors - maybe trap doors - to new interpretations of old givens. Anyway, why should the United States, where history was once dismissed as "bunk," each year publish up to a half-dozen biographies of historical figures or major studies of past doings that attempt to extract contemporary lessons from long-ago events, while Canada settles for so few - precariously close to none at all? Our history, as we know perfectly well, lacks the drama of revolutions and civil wars, of kings and queens losing their heads. But it is our history. It is us. It's where we came from and, in far larger part than often is recognized, it is why we are the way we are now, no matter all the transformational changes sinceÑdemographic, economic, technological, lifestyle. Moreover, as was always Macdonald's core conviction, human nature itself changes little.

I came to this biography sideways. This book started out to be a slim one, then threatened to grow obese, then was sliced into two more or less manageable halves. This is to say that I began boning up on Macdonald for a Brief Life series on historical figures for another publisher. Out of this cramming came one, to me, unarguable conclusion: Macdonald deserves a new full-scale biography, and Canadians deserve the chance to rediscover him. With quite considerable daring - in Canada, history really is often now treated as "bunk" - Random House of Canada accepted the challenge, eventually taking the double dare that an originally planned single volume should be divided into two. This book is the result of that dare.

A last note on my work habits. Early on, Carol, my wife, found a large poster of Macdonald created originally to promote Macdonald's cause in CBC-TV's The Greatest Canadian contest. She installed it in my attic office. Throughout my labours, he's looked down, quizzically and mischievously.

One
Lairds Ourselvess

Mark my words, John will make more than an ordinary man.
Helen Macdonald's judgment on her eldest son.

Where John A. Macdonald was born and when he was born are unknown. Or, rather, are not known exactly. About the essentials of his beginnings, there are no doubts whatever. He was born in the Scottish industrial city of Glasgow in 1815.

There were historical dimensions to both place and date. Glasgow was the lustiest child of Britain's Industrial Revolution: a sleepy town of only twenty thousand in 1791, its shipyards along the Clyde, its engineering works and factories and its "dark Satanic mills" had sent the town's population soaring above one hundred thousand by the time of Macdonald's birth, less than a quarter-century later. As well, 1815 was the year of the Battle of Waterloo. That cataclysmic military clash didn't so much ensure Napoleon's defeat (which was inevitable eventually, anyway) as ensure that Britain, its strength multiplied by its long industrial lead over all its rivals, would become the global powerhouse of the nineteenth century. By pure happenstance, Britain's global reach created a possibility that its leftover colonies in North America, strung across the top half of the continent like widely spaced and oddly sized beads, and having little in common other than their mutual Britishness (for the most part), might yet - just - remain independent from their overwhelming neighbour, the coming hegemon of the twentieth century. For that to actually happen, however, required the arrival of a leader who could cajole and bluff and bully these colonies into becoming a whole larger than the sum of their parts. In 1815, little of this was of the slightest interest to anyone in the British Isles. Yet it was in Glasgow in that year that Canada's future began to take shape.

The minutiae of Macdonald's birth need to be cleared up. Throughout his life and for the near century and a quarter that has followed his death, his birthdate has been commemorated as January 11, 1815 - as in the joyous celebratory dinner staged each year in Kingston, Ontario, for example, and in the inscriptions on all the plaques and statues that honour him. But this particular day may be a mistake. The January 11 date is taken from the entry for his birth made by his father, Hugh Macdonald, in his memorandum book. The entry recorded in the General Register Office in Edinburgh, though, is January 10.* Similarly, precision about where specifically Macdonald was born, while a matter of lesser consequence, is as difficult to determine. The delivery may have taken place at 29 Ingram Street in Glasgow or, not far away, at 18 Brunswick Street, both on the south side of the Clyde River, because the family moved between these locations around the time of his birth. To pick at a last unknowable nit, Macdonald's father recorded the moment of birth as 4:15, without specifying afternoon or early morning.

The other defining attributes of Macdonald's birth are known beyond argument. His parents were middle class, if precariously so. They were Scots, and so of course was he. And soon after his birth, they chose to immigrate to Canada rather than take the advice of Samuel Johnson about the most attractive prospect that any Scotsman could ever come upon and follow the usual road to London.

Immigration always happens for one of two reasons or for both simultaneously: either individuals or families are pushed out from their homeland by poverty, oppression, failure or plain bad luck, or they are pulled towards a new country by the tantalizing promise it holds for new beginnings and new opportunities. Both factors applied to the Macdonalds, but in distinctive ways, when they set out across the Atlantic in 1820. John A. himself was then five years old. An early biographer described him as having "a bright eye, a lively manner and a head of curly brown hair which darkened into black as he grew up." At least supposedly, he showed early promise of having the gift of the gab, once giving a speech to a gathering of relatives by mounting a table, from which, as his gestures became ever more dramatic, he projected himself to the ground.

As soon as the Napoleonic wars ended, England was gripped by a depression that cut most deeply into its farming counties; the same outwards push existed in Scotland, given force there by the clearances of people from the land to make way for sheep - as often, despite later myth, by Scottish landowners as by English ones. The great migration from the British Isles to both Canada and the United States dates from this period, although it remained relatively small until the 1830s, later multiplying exponentially through the 1840s as the Irish fled from the horrors of their Great Famine. To magnify the force of the outwards push, the British governments of the day accepted the thesis of Thomas Malthus that population growth would always outpace the growth in food production. To avoid social unrest, perhaps even the ultimate horror of a revolution of the kind from which Napoleon had sprung, successive governments encouraged the "idle poor" to move elsewhere.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
This is the first volume of a vivid, multi-dimensional portrait of a fascinating character and his times, by one of Canada’s finest political pundits. Gwyn combines contemporary insights, anecdotes, and impeccable research for this biography of our Founding Father, who created a country that is, in Gwyn’s view, a miracle of peacefulness, diversity, and determined un-Americanness. Volume 2 coming this fall.
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Alias Grace

Alias Grace

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1859.
I am sitting on the purple velvet settee in the Governor's parlour, the Governor's wife's parlour; it has always been the Governor's wife's parlour although it is not always the same wife, as they change them around according to the politics. I have my hands folded in my lap the proper way although I have no gloves. The gloves I would wish to have would be smooth and white, and would be without a wrinkle.

I am often in this parlour, clearing away the tea things and dusting the small tables and the long mirror with the frame of grapes and leaves around its and the pianoforte; and the tall clock that came from Europe, with the orange-gold sun and the silver moon, that go in and out according to the time of day and the week of the month. I like the clock best of anything in the parlour, although it measures time and I have too much of that on my hands already.

But I have never sat down on the settee before, as it is for the guests. Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said a lady must never sit in a chair a gentleman has just vacated, though she would not say why; but Mary Whitney said, Because, you silly goose, it's still warm from his bum; which was a coarse thing to say. So I cannot sit here without thinking of the ladylike bums that have sat on this very settee, all delicate and white, like wobbly softboiled eggs.

The visitors wear afternoon dresses with rows of buttons up their fronts, and stiff wire crinolines beneath. It's a wonder they can sit down at all, and when they walk, nothing touches their legs under the billowing skirts, except their shifts and stockings. They are like swans, drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour near our house, when I was little, before I ever made the long sad journey across the ocean. They were bell-shaped and ruffled, gracefully waving and lovely under the sea; but if they washed up on the beach and dried out in the sun there was nothing left of them. And that is what the ladies are like: mostly water.

There were no wire crinolines when I was first brought here. They were horsehair then, as the wire ones were not thought of. I have looked at them hanging in the wardrobes, when I go in to tidy and empty the slops. They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen's trousers. The Governor's wife never says legs, although the newspapers said legs when they were talking about Nancy, with her dead legs sticking out from under the washtub.

It isn't only the jellyfish ladies that come. On Tuesdays we have the Woman Question, and the emancipation of this or that, with reform-minded persons of both sexes; and on Thursdays the Spiritualist Circle, for tea and conversing with the dead, which is a comfort to the Governor's wife because of her departed infant son. But mainly it is the ladies. They sit sipping from the thin cups, and the Governor's wife rings a little china bell. She does not like being the Governor's wife, she would prefer the Governor to be the governor of something other than a prison. The Governor had good enough friends to get him made the Governor, but not for anything else.

So here she is, and she must make the most of her social position and accomplishments, and although an object of fear, like a spider, and of charity as well, I am also one of the accomplishments. I come into the room and curtsy and move about, mouth straight, head bent, and I pick up the cups or set them down, depending; and they stare without appearing to, out from under their bonnets.

The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder? All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself. Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

Murderer is merely brutal. It's like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.

Sometimes when I am dusting the mirror with the grapes I look at myself in it, although I know it is vanity. In the afternoon light of the parlour my skin is a pale mauve, like a faded bruise, and my teeth are greenish. I think of all the things that have been written about me—that I am an inhuman female demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life, that I was too ignorant to know how to act and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am fond of animals, that I am very handsome with a brilliant complexion, that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes, that I have auburn and also brown hair, that I am tall and also not above the average height, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am brisk and smart about my work, that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once?

It was my own lawyer, Mr. Kenneth MacKenzie, Esq., who told them I was next door to an idiot. I was angry with him over that, but he said it was by far my best chance and I should not appear to be too intelligent. He said he would plead my case to the utmost of his ability, because whatever the truth of the matter I was little more than a child at the time, and he supposed it came down to free will and whether or not one held with it. He was a kind gentleman although I could not make head nor tail of much of what he said, but it must have been good pleading. The newspapers wrote that he performed heroically against overwhelming odds. Though I don't know why they called it pleading, as he was not pleading but trying to make all of the witnesses appear immoral or malicious, or else mistaken.

I wonder if he ever believed a word I said.

When I have gone out of the room with the tray, the ladies look at the Governor's wife's scrapbook. Oh imagine, I feel quite faint, they say, and You let that woman walk around loose in your house, you must have nerves of iron, my own would never stand it. Oh well one must get used to such things in our situation, we are virtually prisoners ourselves you know, although one must feel pity for these poor benighted creatures, and after all she was trained as a servant, and it's as well to keep them employed, she is a wonderful seamstress, quite deft and accomplished, she is a great help in that way especially with the girls' frocks, she has an eye for trimmings, and under happier circumstances she could have made an excellent milliner's assistant.

Although naturally she can be here only during the day, I would not have her in the house at night. You are aware that she has spent time in the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, seven or eight years ago it was, and although she appears to be perfectly recovered you never know when they may get carried away again, sometimes she talks to herself and sings out loud in a most peculiar manner. One cannot take chances, the keepers conduct her back in the evenings and lock her up properly, otherwise I wouldn't be able to sleep a wink. Oh I don't blame you, there is only so far one can go in Christian charity, a leopard cannot change its spots and no one could say you have not done your duty and shown a proper feeling.

The Governor's wife's scrapbook is kept on the round table with the silk shawl covering it, branches like vines intertwined, with flowers and red fruit and blue birds, it is really one large tree and if you stare at it long enough the vines begin to twist as if a wind is blowing them. It was sent from India by her eldest daughter who is married to a missionary, which is not a thing I would care to do myself. You would be sure to die early, if not from the rioting natives as at Cawnpore with horrid outrages committed on the persons of respectable gentlewomen, and a mercy they were all slaughtered and put out of their misery, for only think of the shame; then from the malaria, which turns you entirely yellow, and you expire in raving fits; in any case before you could turn around, there you would be, buried under a palm tree in a foreign clime. I have seen pictures of them in the book of Eastern engravings the Governor's wife takes out when she wishes to shed a tear.

On the same round table is the stack of Godey's Ladies' Books with the fashions that come up from the States, and also the Keepsake Albums of the two younger daughters. Miss Lydia tells me I am a romantic figure; but then the two of them are so young they hardly know what they are saying. Sometimes they pry and tease; they say, Grace, why don't you ever smile or laugh, we never see you smiling, and I say I suppose Miss I have gotten out of the way of it. My face won't bend in that direction any more. But if I laughed out loud I might not be able to stop; and also it would spoil their romantic notion of me. Romantic people are not supposed to laugh, I know that much from looking at the pictures.

The daughters put all kinds of things into their albums, little scraps of cloth from their dresses, little snippets of ribbon, pictures cut from magazines—the Ruins of Ancient Rome, the Picturesque Monasteries of the French Alps, Old London Bridge, Niagara Falls in summer and in winter, which is a thing I would like to see as all say it is very impressive, and portraits of Lady This and Lord That from England. And their friends write things in their graceful handwriting, To Dearest Lydia from your Eternal Friend, Clara Richards; To Dearest Marianne In Memory of Our Splendid Picnic on the Shores of Bluest Lake Ontario. And also poems:

As round about the sturdy Oak
Entwines the loving Ivy Vine,
My Faith so true, I pledge to You,
'Twill evermore be none but Thine, Your Faithful Laura.
Or else:

Although from you I far must roam,
Do not be broken hearted,
We two who in the Soul are One
Are never truly parted. Your Lucy.
This young lady was shortly afterwards drowned in the Lake when her ship went down in a gale, and nothing was ever found but her box with her initials done in silver nails; it was still locked, so although damp, nothing spilt out, and Miss Lydia was given a scarf out of it as a keepsake.

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten,
When this you see, remember me,
Lest I should be forgotten.
That one is signed, I will always be with you in Spirit, Your loving 'Nancy', Hannah Edmonds, and I must say the first time I saw that, it gave me a fright, although of course it was a different Nancy. Still, the rotten bones. They would be, by now. Her face was all black by the time they found her, there must have been a dreadful smell. It was so hot then, it was July, still she went off surprisingly soon, you'd think she would have kept longer in the dairy, it is usually cool down there. I am certainly glad I was not present, as it would have been very distressing.

I don't know why they are all so eager to be remembered. What good will it do them? There are some things that should be forgotten by everyone, and never spoken of again.

The Governor's wife's scrapbook is quite different. Of course she is a grown woman and not a young girl, so although she is just as fond of remembering, what she wants to remember is not violets or a picnic. No Dearest and Love and Beauty, no Eternal Friends, none of those things for her; what it has instead is all the famous criminals in it—the ones that have been hanged, or else brought here to be penitent, because this is a Penitentiary and you are supposed to repent while in it, and you will do better if you say you have done so, whether you have anything to repent of or not.

The Governor's wife cuts these crimes out of the newspapers and pastes them in; she will even write away for old newspapers with crimes that were done before her time. It is her collection, she is a lady and they are all collecting things these days, and so she must collect something, and she does this instead of pulling up ferns or pressing flowers, and in any case she likes to horrify her acquaintances.

So I have read what they put in about me. She showed the scrapbook to me herself, I suppose she wanted to see what I would do; but I've learnt how to keep my face still, I made my eyes wide and flat, like an owl's in torchlight, and I said I had repented in bitter tears, and was now a changed person, and would she wish me to remove the tea things now; but I've looked in there since, many times, when I've been in the parlour by myself.

A lot of it is lies. They said in the newspaper that I was illiterate, but I could read some even then. I was taught early by my mother, before she got too tired for it, and I did my sampler with leftover thread, A is for Apple, B is for Bee; and also Mary Whitney used to read with me, at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson's, when we were doing the mending; and I've learnt a lot more since being here, as they teach you on purpose. They want you to be able to read the Bible, and also tracts, as religion and thrashing are the only remedies for a depraved nature and our immortal souls must be considered. It is shocking how many crimes the Bible contains. The Governor's wife should cut them all out and paste them into her scrapbook.

They did say some true things. They said I had a good character; and that was so, because nobody had ever taken advantage of me, although they tried. But they called James McDermott my paramour. They wrote it down, right in the newspaper. I think it is disgusting to write such things down.

That is what really interests them—the gentlemen and the ladies both. They don't care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it's only what they admire in a soldier, they'd scarcely blink. No: was I really a paramour, is their chief concern, and they don't even know themselves whether they want the answer to be no or yes.

I'm not looking at the scrapbook now, because they may come in at any moment. I sit with my rough hands folded, eyes down, staring at the flowers in the Turkey carpet. Or they are supposed to be flowers. They have petals the shape of the diamonds on a playing card; like the cards spread out on the table at Mr. Kinnear's, after the gentlemen had been playing the night before. Hard and angular. But red, a deep thick red. Thick strangled tongues.

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Why it's on the list ...
Atwood explores a true crime, and takes a reader right into nineteenth century Ontario. She sends chills down readers’ backs with the weirdness of the period, at the same time as fascinating them with the daily life of a struggling society.
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The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams
Excerpt

Besides what little clothing I had, I didn't bring much with me except my oilcloth map of Newfoundland, a fishermen's union pullover with its codfish-emblazoned badge, which I planned to wear while working at the Call, and my father's History of Newfoundland.

My parents and brothers and sisters went with me to the railway station to say goodbye, and though they made quite a fuss, especially my mother and the girls (my father and the boys manfully shook hands with me and clapped me on the back), they were upstaged by the entire Jewish community of St. John's, about whom I had written a laudatory feature in the Telegram two months before and who were surreally on hand to see me off, waving their black hats and weeping as if one of their number was leaving them for good.

Because of them and because of my oversized nose, many of my fellow passengers took me to be Jewish, a misconception I did nothing to discourage, since it made them less likely to sit with me, not because they had anything against the Jews, but simply because they doubted they could sustain a conversation for long with so exotic an individual. Normally, there is nothing I would rather do than talk, and I knew if I got started I might well talk all the way from St. John's to Port aux Basques, oblivious to the landscape we were passing through. I would, many times in the future, spend cross-country train trips in just that manner, staying awake twenty-eight hours at a stretch, hardly noticing when one exhausted listener made way for the next, but on this trip I wanted to keep to myself and that, for the most part, is what I did.

The building of the railway had been one of the few great ventures in Newfoundland not connected with the fishery. Its primary purpose was not to link the scattered settlements around the coast, but to convey passengers and freight back and forth between the eastern and western seaports, St. John's and Port aux Basques, to give Newfoundlanders access to both the ships that crossed the ocean to England and those that crossed the gulf to the mainland. Its route was not determined by the sea, nor was the sea visible at more than a few points along the way.

We started out from St. John's just after sunrise. In two hours, we had crossed the Bog of Avalon, a sixty-mile stretch of barrens and rock scraped bare and strewn with boulders since the ice age. This gave way to a lonely, undifferentiated tract of bog and rolling hills devoid of trees because of forest fires that had burned away even the topsoil so that nothing would ever grow there again that was more than three feet high. It was September, but not so far into the month that the browning of the barrens had begun. An overcast day with a west wind that would keep the fog at bay. There was beauty everywhere, but it was the bleak beauty of sparsity, scarcity and stuntedness, with nothing left but what a thousand years ago had been the forest floor, a landscape clear-cut by nature that never would recover on its own. It was a beauty so elusive, so tantalizingly suggestive of something you could not quite put into words that it could drive you mad and, however much you loved it, make you want to get away from it and recall it from some city and content yourself with knowing it was there.

No one, not even aboriginals, had ever lived on this part of the island. It was impossible to speak of its history except in geological terms. On one treeless, wind-levelled stretch of barrens, there were crater-like sink-holes of mud where the surface had collapsed. I saw an eastward-leaning stand of junipers, all bent at the same angle to the earth as though half-levelled by a single gust of wind.

Crossing the narrow isthmus of Avalon, I could for a time see ocean from both sides of the train. Fifty years later, after the train had ceased to run, travellers on the highway would be able to see from there the ruins of my refinery at Come by Chance; after it was mothballed, small amounts of crude oil would still be sent there for refining, so that, at night, you would be able to see the flame from the highest of the stacks from forty miles away.

Next came the Bog of Bonavista, and I began to think that Newfoundland would be nothing but a succession of bogs with clumps of storm-stunted spruce trees in between. We stopped at Gambo, the town where I was born and that I was really seeing for the first time, having been too young when I left to remember anything about it. Gambo was the one place in the 253 miles between Port Blandford on the east coast and Humbermouth on the west coast where the railway touched the shoreline, but it was not a fishing village, for the cod did not come that far up Bonavista Bay. It was a logging town and a coastal supply depot, boats sailing up Bonavista Bay to unload their cargo there, where it was then reloaded onto the train and transported inland to towns whose only link with the rest of the island was one of the world's most primitive railways, a narrow-gauge track with spindle-thin rails on which the cars swayed about like sleds on ice.

Gambo was not much to look at, just a cluster of crude, garishly painted one-storey houses, log cabins and unbelievably primitive tar-paper shacks whose front yards were linered with a lifetime of debris: bottles, wooden crates, discarded clothing, broken barrels. I self-ashamedly thanked God we had forsaken the place and our lumber business there in favour of St. John's. I saw the house where I was born -- my mother had described its location and appearance to me. I will admit that it was one of the better houses within view, a white, blue-trimmed two-storeyed salt-and-pepper house with a gabled attic window that I could all too easily imagine myself looking out to sea from on a Sunday afternoon. I had fancied, before the trip began, that when we stopped in Gambo, I would proudly announce it to my fellow passengers as the place where I was born. But having seen it, I kept this information to myself and turned sideways in my seat, staring crimson-faced out the window and trying not to imagine the Smallwood that might have been, standing out there, staring in wonderment and longing at the train.

I saw from the windows of the train old men who I fancied had never travelled more than fifty miles from home, sitting side on to their windows, looking out. At the same time as I found the very sight of them oppressive and lived in horror of ending up that way myself -- which I was for some reason well able to imagine, me in there looking out, ambitionless, untravelled and uneducated, watching the water break on the rocks in a pattern of foam I had so often seen it was imprinted on my brain -- I envied them their apparent self-contentment and dilemma-less existence. For though their afflictions may have been many, irresolution and ambivalence were not among them. I did not begin to feel better until mid-afternoon, when we crossed the Exploits River into central Newfoundland and the sudden change in the landscape revived my spirits. We travelled through a leafless forest of blazing-white birch trees, tall, schooner-mast-sized trees that went on and on until I could stand to look at them no longer.

I took out my map to see if I could fix exactly where we were. It struck me more forcefully than it ever had before that virtually the whole population lived on the coast, as if ready to abandon ship at a moment's notice. The shore was nothing but a place to fish from, a place to moor a boat and sleep between days spent on the sea. Of the land, the great tract of possibility that lay behind them, beyond their own backyards, over the farthest hill that they could see from the windows of their houses, most Newfoundlanders knew next to nothing. Just as I, who knew nothing about it, feared the sea, though I believed my ignorance and fear to be more justified than theirs. I knew of grown men who hurried home from trouting or berry-picking in a panic as the sun was going down, for fear of being caught out after dark and led astray by fairies. My mother had often told me stories of people from Gambo who, fairy-led, were found weeks later at the end of a trail of clothing that in their trance, they had discarded. They had been led in a dance by fairies until they flopped down dead from sheer exhaustion, my mother believed, and no appeal to common sense or any amount of scorn could change her mind. Yet these same fairy-feeble men would go out on the sea at night in the worst weather to rescue a neighbour whose boat was going down. Here was all this land and they had not claimed an inch of it as theirs, preferring instead to daily risk their lives, hauling fish up from a sea that never would be theirs, and to kill seals walking on ice that could not, like land, be controlled or tamed.

I watched a group of loggers driving a large boom down the river, walking about with their pike-poles like the navigators of some massive raft. Even they preferred the water; they would rather ride the river than the train, though they acknowledged our whistle with a wave as we went by.

The aboriginals were gone. There was no one on the river now, besides the loggers, except guide-led sport fishermen from places like New York and Boston, and not even any of them past a certain point, just the river, which someone had once followed far enough to guess where it was headed and put that guess like gospel on a map. But no one knew where the river went. They knew where it began and where it flowed into the sea; what happened to it in between no one still alive could say.

We reached the town of Badger, where, in the one major departure from the route the highway would take years later, we kept on heading west through what, for the men who built the railway, must have been the most difficult stretch. There were so many hills the engineers had had no choice but to go straight through them. The train wound its way through cuts of rock so sheer and high you could not see the tops of them. Down the face of the rock ran little, spring-fed streams that sparkled in the sun, unseen except for the few minutes when the train was passing by.

There were rickety, gorge-spanning trestles, the gorges only thirty or forty feet wide but hundreds of feet deep. And there were ponds, lakes. When the train curved round some pond, I could see its whole length from my window. It began to rain, a sun-shower, and soon the stretch of rails ahead was gleaming, as was the rainwashed locomotive. I saw the conductor, the seamed, soot-blackened faces of the engineer and fireman and the smoke blown back mane-like above the cars. I saw other passengers in other cars unaware that I was watching them, and I felt as the people we passed along the tracks must have felt and saw myself as they must have, as impossibly remote from them as I was to the lives I had left behind and was headed towards, caught up in the dream of travel, the travel-trance that overtakes you when there are no familiar landmarks to remind you you are making progress, when it seems you have no destination and the landscape you are moving through goes on forever.

All along the line, every mile or so, were little shacks in which the section-men and their families lived what must have been strange and solitary lives. I saw the wives of section-men standing in their doorways watching as the train, the reason they lived where they did, fifty miles from the nearest town, moved past. I saw them standing with their children in their arms while their older children abandoned the tracks they played on to let the apparition of the train go by.

This is not an island, I told myself, but a landlocked country in the middle of an otherwise empty continent, a country hemmed in and cored by wilderness, and it is through this core that we are passing now, the unfoundland that will make us great someday.

It seemed strange to think that some of my fellow passengers were heading home, but some were; they had a different look about them, that half-resigned, half-expectant look of people soon to see familiar sights, familiar faces, the circumscribed geography of home. I did not want to think that anyone was heading home, or that the train was moving for any purpose but to take me, and only me, where I was going.

Sometime in the afternoon, I dozed off and did not wake up until we were approaching the Gaff Topsails, a steep-sloped tract of wilderness, the highest point on the line and the place where delays were most likely in the winter when the tracks were blocked by snow. The train went slowly upgrade for a hundred suspenseful miles, the passengers urging it on, knowing that if we stalled, we might be stranded there for days. We laughed and rocked forward and backward in our seats as if to coax the locomotive one more inch until, when we felt it make the crest, a great cheer went up and it seemed we were leaving home in earnest now, though one-third of our journey still remained.

Though I had vowed not to, I fell asleep again and awoke at dusk to see what appeared to be some kind of snow-plain, flatter even than the barrens, with only the occasional train-borne and bleary-eyed observer to confirm that it was real. It was not until I saw that the stumps of trees, dead two hundred years and petrified by age, formed a kind of barricade around it that I realized it was a frozen lake that we were passing, Deer Lake, the first I had ever set eyes on that was so wide you could not see the other side.

When it was very late and the car was dark and almost empty and most of those still in it were asleep, I looked out the window at what, at that hour, I could see of Newfoundland: dark shapes of hills and trees; a glimpse, when the moon was out, of distant placid ponds; small, unaccountably located towns a hundred miles apart, nothing more than clumps of houses really, all with their porch lights on but otherwise unlit, occupied by people who, though it passed by every night, rarely saw or even heard the train.

From Stephenville Crossing, we followed the Long Range Mountains southwest to Corner Brook, going downstream along the black, cliff-channelled Humber River. Sometime early in the morning, I fell asleep again and did not awake until the sun was up. Someone said we were thirty miles from Port aux Basques. I had stayed in the smoking car all night and not even made it to my complimentary berth, though in my Telegram article, I extolled its comfort and convenience as if I had not budged from it from St. John's to Port aux Basques.

We were to cross the gulf by night and reach Cape Breton early in the morning.

I had intended to stand at the railing of the ship until I could no longer see the island. It seemed like the appropriately romantic thing to do.

I wished Fielding had come with me, though I knew she would have made some deflating remark that would have dispelled my mood.

I was pleased to discover, after about fifteen minutes, that all the other passengers had fled the cold and gone inside. I pulled up the hood of my raincoat and imagined what I must look like from in there, a lone hooded figure at the railing. But though I stood staring at it for what seemed like hours, the island got no smaller.

After a while, all but blue with cold, I went inside. And each time I went back out to see how much progress we had made, we seemed to have made none at all. The dark shape of the island was always there, as big as ever, as if we were towing it behind us.

I settled for standing at the window, looking out. When I saw the lights along the southwest coast, I thought of the fishermen's broadcast that I used to listen to on the radio when I lived at home. It always concluded with an island-wide temperature round-up.

Every evening, there was the same cold-shiver-inducing litany of place-names: Burgeo, Fortune, Funk Island, Hermitage.

I imagined myself looking out to sea at night from the window of a house in Hermitage. Hermitage. I wondered what lonely fog-bound soul had named it. It occurred to me that as Hermitage seemed to me now, so might Newfoundland seem from New York six months from now, an inconceivably backward and isolated place, my attraction to which I could neither account for nor resist. The whole island was a hermitage.

To leave or not to leave, and having left, to stay away or to go back home. I knew of Newfoundlanders who had gone to their graves without having settled the question, some who never left but were forever planning to and some who went away for good but were forever on the verge of going home. My father had left and come back, physically at least.

In the lounges, people sat listening to the radio until, about twenty miles out, the sound began to fade. There were groans of protest, but people kept listening as long as they could hear the faintest hint of sound through the static. Finally, when the signal vanished altogether, there was a change in mood among the passengers, as if we were truly under way, as if our severance from land was now complete. The radio was left on, though, eerily blaring static as though it were some sort of sea sound.

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Why it's on the list ...
Newfoundland has always produced some of our best writers. Here Johnston uses his province’s storm-wracked history, and the real-life politician Joey Smallwood as his main character, to illuminate the island’s decision to become part of Canada.
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Extraordinary Canadians Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baa
Why it's on the list ...
J. R. Saul has always enjoyed challenging Canadians’ received wisdom about the great figures of our past, and in this addition to the series “Extraordinary Canadians,” which he edited, he prompts readers to rethink our French-English duality.
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Defiant Spirits

Defiant Spirits

The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook

A Globe 100 Book of the Year for 2010 and shortlisted for the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

A Governor General's Award-winning author recounts the turbulent years during which a group of young Canadian painters went from obscurity to international renown.

 

Beginning in 1912, Defiant Spirits traces the artistic development of Tom Thomson and the future members of the Group of Seven, Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. Mac …

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National Dreams

National Dreams

Myth, Memory, and Canadian History
edition:Paperback
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Why it's on the list ...
An incisive study of the most persistent icons and stories in Canadian history, and how they inform our sense of national identity. You’ll never look at the photo of the Last Spike in the same way after reading this.
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The Englishman's Boy
Why it's on the list ...
One of the bloodiest events in our history was the 1873 Cypress Hills Massacre in
Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan writer Vanderhaeghe brilliantly links this brutal event with Hollywood in the 1920s.
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The Madman and the Butcher

The Madman and the Butcher

The Sensational Wars Of Sam Hughes And General Arthur Currie
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged :
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Why it's on the list ...
A powerful double biography of Sam Hughes, Canada’s war minister, and Arthur Currie, who commanded Canadian troops during World War One. I am not usually drawn to military history, but Cook uses the hatred between these two men as a brilliant framework within which to explore questions of Canada's role in the war, the need to place blame for the terrible blood loss, and our discomfort with heroes.
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