Tuesday, January 05, 2016

History Books of 2015

Not such a banner year for Canadian history or historians, I would say, after looking over some lists of notable books of 2015. No real buzz-making title (say, Gwyn on Macdonald, a few years ago) or stirrer of controversy (Dashuk's Clearing the Plains) or obviously authoritative work of scholarship.  The important book surely ought to be the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I fear it will not be widely read or in the end even followed very much in the long run, but maybe we should not judge history books that way.

The most noticed titles seem to have been Rosemary Sullivan's biography Stalin's Daughter and Dean Jobb's Empire of Deception about the early 20th century swindler Leo Koretz.

Stalin's Daughter got a ton of critical praise and won the Hilary Weston prize, among other nominations. Empire of Deception made several notables books of 2015 lists, including the Globe's, CBC Books' and the National Post's, and was shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Nonfiction Prize.

Stretching "history" a bit, we also might note from the Globe's Top 100 list Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff's study of the collapse of BlackBerry, Losing the Signal, and John Ibbitson's Stephen Harper. Critical reaction seemed divided among those who liked Ibbitson's rather sympathetic study of Harper and those who preferred Michael Harris's very unsympathetic Party of One.

It was a pretty good year in Canadian military history. Tim Cook completed his two-volume study of Canadians Fighting the Second World War with Fight to the Finish.  Doing the First and Second Wars in two big volumes each since 2007 is a remarkable achievement of research and writing that has been pretty widely recognized, but maybe with this last one book journalists were beginning to say, oh, another Tim Cook book. It seemed a little less widely noted, though it was much present in pre-Christmas bookstores. Jack Granatstein, equally prolific (and for decades!), also had a new military history about Canadians in the Second World War, Best Little Army in the World.  And Granatstein's sometime co-author David Bercuson provided a one-volume Second World War history, Our Finest Hour. David O'Keefe's One Day in August, about Dieppe, was nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize.

Prize winners and nominees -- note the presence of women:
  • Rosemary Sullivan's Weston for Stalin's Daughter, as mentioned above
  • Jean Barman won the CHA's John A. Macdonald Prize for French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest and its original interpretation of early west-coast history.
  • Daniel Macfarlane won the Ontario History Chalmers Award for Negotiating a River, his study of the St Lawrence Seaway.
  • Susan Pederson won the Cundill Prize for The Guardians, on the League of Nations.
  • Elizabeth Fenn won a Pulitzer in History for Encounters at the Heart of the World, a history of the Mandan nation of central North America.
  • Legal historian Constance Backhouse won the Molson Prize for her body of work.
  • Edward Metatawabin was nominated for a G-G for Up Ghost River, to my mind the best and most substantial of the residential schools memoirs that are beginning to appear.
  • Lawrence Hill received the Pierre Berton Award for popular Canadian history for his novel of slavery and loyalism, The Book of Negroes.
I'm thinking the late-breaking international history book that we ought to be reading is Mary Beard's big new history of Rome, SPQR.  Unfortunately it was sold out in Toronto and wider ("even online!" reported my outraged daughter) in December, so I have not yet received my Christmas gift copy.

I should acknowledge my own book this year, Three Weeks in Quebec City, made no award lists, no notable book lists, and no bestseller lists, and was pretty much buzz-free, apart from here.  But it got excellent reviews in venues as various as the Globe, the Literary Review, and Geist.  I tell myself it is quietly making its way by word-of-mouth among those who need to read it. (Actually some evidence of that! 1867, my previous book on confederation, couldn't even get a review in the CHR, but has gradually become pretty much the standard work on the subject)

Feel free to think the same about your own works, neglected here or elsewhere!  Corrections and additions and suggestions from your own reading gratefully received.

Update, January 6, 2016:  A lot of history on the recently released Hill Times 100 Top Political Books of 2015 -- including even Three Weeks in Quebec City.

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