a good book

…or two.

While building a book list for our Manitoba unit, I was often struck simultaneously by a feeling of wonder at how fascinating and varied the province’s history is and a feeling of bewildered frustration that more hasn’t been written about it. It made finding suitable books difficult, especially when trying to add into the mix the variables of reading levels and appropriate content. I’m not one to talk about ‘appropriate content’ too much – we let our kids range pretty far and wide into the world. But when dealing with the history of aboriginals in particular, the worry I have is that it will be grim and heartbreaking. I’ll be frank – I am not terribly strong when authors/directors turn up the sadness. I have not read The Diary of Anne Frank, for instance, because I’m worried I won’t come out ok on the other side.

I found two excellent books that I’d like to tell you about. They’re both from the same series, a set of biographies put out by Penguin Canada called the Extraordinary Canadians. They’re short biographies, but with a depth of writing and clarity of focus. They’re not written by historians, at least these two, but novelists.

Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, Joseph Boyden

Dumont and Riel, two names that are linked in Canadian minds. Both were Metis and both wanted nothing but a simple human right: for their people to be seen as people by the new Canadian state. The Metis had been powerful in the west for generations, a people that organized and negotiated, the social lubricant in the fur trade. Suddenly, they weren’t wanted. The Hudson’s Bay Company sold all of the west to Canada, and Canada wanted the land settled by people who were…WASPs. Catholic and French-Native, the Metis were undesirable. Never mind their rights to property as established with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Never mind their farms and communities already established.

Of course they stood up for their rights. Canada called it a rebellion.

This was a powerful book, one that gathers nearly all of the themes of Canadian history and weaves them into a whole, just as the Metis themselves gather so many parts of Canada into themselves. Over the past few decades, since my teachers first started talking about Canadian history, I’ve layered facts and theories onto my experiences of Canada today. This book somehow connects them all even if only for this one, narrow event.

I wish all Canadians would read this book.

It is powerfully written. Boyden’s choice to use the present tense is inspired. It shook me out of my world and my preconceptions. It made the drama of the unfolding events so much more dynamic.

Big Bear

Big Bear was a chief who lived outside of Manitoba, but whose life illustrates Native Canadian’s lives during the great transition. From nomadic existence stretching back generations to signing the treaty, his life spans a time which can only be described as revolutionary. This is fabulous book, one that manages to convey other ideas of space, landscape, and time – which is what I was really looking for. I wanted a window on that other time and those other modes of relating to the world and Rudy Wiebe managed it. It was instructive without being at all heavy-handed, lyrical but factual.

I’m really looking forward to discussing this with Sandra once she’s read it this fall. It is sad, but never heartbreaking. It made me see the prairie as a whole, not as I grew up knowing it – a space made up of parcels and lines, a packaged place. I see my yard differently. I think of it as my yard, but in truth it is a small piece of another people’s whole. I put my hand down on the earth, and I think about moving over the land as alliances and the bison dictate.

This is the second of the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series that I have read and they have both been great. Brief, solid on facts, but full of energy and emotional resonance. They’ve convinced me that reading all of the bios in this series is part of my To Do list.

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