Friday, January 21, 2011

(Finally) the 2010 Review of Canadian History bests

In December we promised a review of historical bests of 2010.  Before January 2011 is over, we should fulfill that promise.

First, a few suggestions from readers. Daniel Francis, who blogs at KnowBC and recently published Seeing Reds about events surrounding the Winnipeg Strike of 1919, writes, “I thought I'd accept your challenge to lay down some of my best books of the year. Since I am always behind in my reading, two of them weren't even published in 2010." That’s okay with us, Dan, we're the same.  Dan recommended:
  • Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal White Relations by John Sutton Lutz. "Puts the First Nations back into the post-contact picture by emphasizing the key role they played in the provincial economy." 
  • Images from the Likeness House, by Dan Savard. |"A collection of photographs of BC First Nations from the 1850s to 1920s, curated and explicated by the longtime head of the Royal BC Museum audio-visual collection."
  • Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary, by Bertrand Patenaude. "When I was in Mexico City not long ago  the best place I visited  was the Trotsky House/Museum where he lived out his final years and where he was murdered. Patenaude tells the whole sorry tale of Trotsky's attempt to escape his psychotic tormenter."
Laurie Waldie, historical consultant in Guelph, Ontario, was an early advocate for "The King's Speech" as the best historical film of 2010.
I had the pleasure of seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival and it quite frankly had me speechless. Very well presented, visually stunning, with some sympathetic humour and very emotional. I had known George VI had a stammer, but didn't realise it had caused him such great hardship. I felt Helena Bonham-Carter was a near spitting image of a young Queen Elizabeth and portrayed her strength and support well but honestly I had trouble seeing the historic George VI in Colin Firth. But his performance was brilliant and convincing nonetheless.  I'm hoping a few Oscar nods come this film's way.

Military historian and blogger Ken Reynolds, recently back from a tour of duty as a National Defence historian in Kandahar, saluted Tim Cook for The Madman and the Butcher
 …. a wonderful read.  Tim is an incredible writer - engaging, informative and accessible. His research is at the same level and I have enjoyed the book very much. At an intellectual level, as an historian whose heart lies in Canada's military history during the First World War, it has been an absolute joy to read.  I absolutely recommend it.
My own impression of 2010 was that it was a quiet year in Canadian history.  Charlotte Gray’s admirable Gold Diggers was probably the top bookstore Canadian history title in the Christmas market. There seemed to be fewer than usual of the big packaged picture book Canadiana titles this year. There was not much, I think, in the way of transformative books, no spectacular feuds or discoveries, and only the usual endless crises of funding and staffing in history departments, museums, and institutes.  (Am I wrong on this? Let me know.)

It was however, a pretty good year for substantial readable biographies. As well as Cook’s book on Arthur Currie and Sam Hughes, I’m thinking of John Boyko’s  Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation (imagine, biography of an unpopular dead prime minister becoming a trade-book success. Bravo. -- though the publisher went belly-up later in the year),  R.B. Fleming’s Peter Gzowski: A Biography, Charles Foran’s Mordecai: The Life and Timesand John Ralston Saul’s dual biography Baldwin and LaFontaine – and indeed the whole group of brief lively biographies in the series Extraordinary Canadians edited by Saul, a very impressive feat in Canadian historical writing, publishing and marketing.

I can’t help noticing that all of these are trade-market books by independent writers rather than academic scholars. Even Cook is mostly a museums historian rather than a fulltime prof, I believe.  The disconnect between what Canadians read about Canadian history and what history professors write remains immense.

Canadian history would be in big(ger) trouble without freelance writers, for sure. That’s not to say there is not some terrific work being done inside the tower. Just to give one example (and be unfair to scores of others), over Christmas my daughter brought home a reading assignment I’d probably not otherwise have noticed: Lara Campbell’s Respectable Citizens: Gender, Family, and Unemployment in Ontario's Great Depression.
[Update: Matthew Hayday from the University of Guelph kindly reminds me that Campbell's book was a John A. Macdonald Prize nominee, and adopted in a class he teaches as well as the one my daughter attends. So not so much neglect as my own ignorance, maybe.]

Okay, it too was a 2009 book, not a 2010 – typical of how so much of Canadian history publishing goes out largely unnoticed, unreviewed, undiscussed.  But, just browsing in it, I could not help but be impressed by the depth of original research and analysis in this study of the “ material difficulties and survival strategies of families facing poverty and unemployment” in 1930s Ontario.  There is a lot of good scholarship going on, even if so most of it is subterranean. Best of times, worst of times.

Finally, I think my favorite big-read history of the year was Steve Pincus's enormous polemical history of England's "glorious" revolution, 1688: The First Modern Revolution, which won a slew of international historical prizes in 2010.

What did I miss?
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