Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Notable Canadian history books of 2007... so far.

The Globe & Mail’s Notable Books list of December 29, 2007 included no Canadian histories whatsoever. I’m not about to say they were wrong. I’m not sure 2007 gave us any breakout bestsellers, classics in the making, or titles that really changed the genre of Canadian historical writing. Still, I found a lot to note, a lot I would still like to read.

I’ve listed here books of Canadian historical interest that struck me as notable, whether I have read them or just want to, plus the books suggested to me online if they fitted a capacious definition of “history” and “Canadian” and were published in the last year or so.

Who is publishing noteworthy Canadian history? Looks like McClelland & Stewart by a nose on the trade side (kudos to little Goose Lane of Fredericton) and University of Toronto Press on the academic side (McGill-Queen’s close behind).

Thanks to all who have already participated. New suggestions and responses remain welcome.

Angus L. Macdonald: A Provincial Liberal T. Stephen Henderson (University of Toronto Press)
Recommended by James Muir, online. Hmm, no one mentioned the Chre´tien and Mulroney memoirs.

Beaverbrook: A Shattered Legacy Jacques Poitras (Goose Lane Editions)
Mostly about the fight over the art collection at the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton, I understand. Recommended by Margaret Conrad online as (to her own surprise) “a page-turner,” and a nominee for the BC Prize for the best Canadian non-fiction.

The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament Janet Ajzenstat (McGill-Queens)
Ajzenstat seems to me almost the only political/constitutional scholar in Canada with any historical sense, and that put this one on my to-read list.

Craft Capitalism: Craftworkers and Early Industrialization in Hamilton, Ontario Robert B. Kristofferson (University of Toronto Press).
Recommended by James Muir, online.

Deadly December, The Battle of Hong Kong Ronald C Parker
Ron Parker drew this to my attention online. (It’s the only digitally-published book on this list. Details at I might add that Canadian military history thrives. Notable this year: At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-16 the first of a two-volume history by Tim Cook; Baptism of Fire: The Second Battle of Ypres by Nathan Greenbaum; Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary by Mark Zuehlke; and several books about Canada in Afghanistan.

Falsework Gary Geddes (Goose Lane)
Recommended by Ann Eriksson online (“poetry/prose about the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge in Vancouver in 1958”), but it would have been on my list too.

God's Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery Douglas Hunter (Doubleday)
A book that links the explorations of Samuel de Champlain and Henry Hudson, recommended by Ken McGoogan online. In the (surprisingly) thriving field of exploration history, I also noted Emperor of the North by James Raffan (HarperCollins)

The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon Conrad Black (McClelland & Stewart)
I’m not sure I really want to read about Nixon, but Black was so damned interesting on Franklin Roosevelt a few years ago, I give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad Karolyn Smardz Frost (Thomas Allen Publishers)
A worthy winner of the non-fiction GG in 2007. There’s barely a word by or from Thornton Blackburn about his own life, yet by scrupulous research and careful thought, Frost created an insightful biography of someone largely anonymous.

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left Bryan Palmer (University of Illinois Press)
I know distance doesn’t really count online, but Sean Purdy (who said this book “reflects the maturity of Canadian historians, at least in some areas, who are branching out and tackling broader topics with a more international scope”) sent this suggestion in from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

John A: The Man Who Made Us Richard Gwyn (Random House)
Recommended by John Muir online but would have made my list anyway. I like to think my 1867 helped revive the writing of 19th century Canadian political history, and it’s good to see Gwyn advance the cause with this first of a two-volume life. Also of note: the historical novel Macdonald by Roy McSkimming.

The Making of the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade Carolyn Podruchny (University of Nebraska Press, 2006)
Okay, I missed this when it appeared in 2006, but I’ve been thinking for years a big solid book on this subject would be a good thing, so I’m shoehorning in what looks to be a doctoral dissertation reworked.

Mapping a Continent: A Historical Atlas of North America 1492-1814 Raymonde Litalien, Jean Francois Palumbo, Denis Vaugeois (McGill-Queen’s University Press)
Recommended by Ken McGoogan online, it’s the only translation of a book from Quebec on the list.

Maverick in the Sky: The Aerial Adventures of Flying Ace Freddie McCall Shirlee Matheson (Frontenac House)
Shirlee Matheson drew this one to my attention online. There’s always a huge amount of local publishing about Canadian history; let this stand for a score of good books I never heard of last year.

Measuring Mother Earth: How Joe the Kid became Tyrell of the West Heather Robertson (McClelland and Stewart)
Recommended by Ken McGoogan online, and it’s good to be reminded that copyright litigation is only a sideline for Heather Robertson, a gifted writer on many subjects.

A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard (Penguin)
Blanche Howard mentioned this one to me, and she was right; there’s a vital part of the literary history of Canada in these letters.

The Painted Valley: Artists along Alberta’s Bow River 1845-2000 Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles (University of Calgary Press)
Armstrong and Nelles, together and individually, have written good books on the most amazing range of historical topics. That’s enough to whet my interest in this one. Also I suspect it is beautiful. One of my “wish I’d had a review copy” books.

The Persons Case: The Origins and Legacy of the Fight for Legal Personhood Robert J. Sharpe and Patricia I. McMahon (Osgoode Society/University of Toronto Press)
By a judge and a lawyer, good legal history and good history.

The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein (Random House)
Recommended by Denis Smith, online: “While it's not precisely Canadian history, her impressive account of the underside of recent international history necessarily involves Canada as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Washington Consensus.”

Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself Donald Akenson (McGill-Queen’s University Press)
I’ll read pretty much anything by Akenson with expectations of laughing out loud while reading some very serious thinking about history. Another BC Book Prize nominee.

The Washington Diaries 1980-1989 Allan Gotlieb (McClelland and Stewart)
For aficionados of diaries, these seemed to be the ones to be reading in 2007.
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