Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Book notes: Anastakis on Death as History

University of Toronto Press was kind enough to send me Dimitri Anastakis's new book Death in the Peaceable Kingdom: Canadian History Since 1867 Through Murder, Execution, Assassination and Suicide

I knew of Anastakis as the author of serious monographs in political economy: the Auto Pact, free trade, globalization. Death is a breezier work, roaming over post-confederation topics though murders, uprisings, executions, suicides, police shootings, mercy killings, even highway traffic deaths and the "death" of the National Policy at the hands of continental free trade, right down to internet victims Amanda Todd and Rehteah Parsons.

There's a serious intent: the book grew from a course Anastakis has been teaching at Trent, and he declares it is "focused on telling the story of the social, cultural, political and economic evolution of the nation state of Canada.;" a kind of disguised post-confederation survey textbook, in effect.

The need to highlight violent death sometimes produces a certain amount of tabloid history:
The tale of Canada's emergence is not for the faint of heart. Creating the nation was a challenging, titanic, often brutal, and thoroughly violent affair -- the country itself emerged from a maelstrom
I'm second to none on the dramas of the confederation process, but this doesn't sound like the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences I know. The shooting of D'Arcy McGee has to become "a pivotal event for the young country," Then, to heighten the drama, Anastakis retells the old story of the trial of  Patrick James Whelan as a sham trial, thought I thought David Wilson's biography had established that was hardly the case, and that Whelan was a great deal more involved in the Fenian threat to McGee than he and his apologists pretended.

But these are mostly quibbles. In undergraduate teaching, nothing succeeds like whatever works, and one suspects that from these materials Professor Anastakis makes a history class lively and compelling enough to survive even if scheduled on the far side of campus for 8:30 on Mondays and 4.30 on Fridays . Can other teachers of the post-confed survey take this material (Death is well provided with questions, project suggestions, and sidebars) and make it equally successful?  Not for a non-teacher to say, but it seems worth trying.
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