In the struggle to help Canadians learn more about their past, Penguin Canada has launched a series of mini-histories designed to reach out to the general reader. The Extraordinary Canadians series, edited by John Ralston Saul, gives well-known authors about 200 pages to tell us why we should know more about some of our historical figures.
The concept is a good one. Saul describes each subject as “a key that opens the whole society of their time to us,” and this strategy offers readers the chance to learn a bit more about history, while hopefully encouraging some to seek out more in-depth analyses. The results for the first three volumes in the series are mixed, however. While the biographies of Nellie McClung and Emily Carr deliver vibrant sketches, the one of Lord Beaverbrook misses the mark.
Charlotte Gray uses her considerable skills as a biographer to tell us the story of Nellie McClung, who made women’s rights acceptable for mainstream Canadian society, fighting to give women the power to work within their traditional roles to better all of society. Gray shows us how McClung moved from working in her community to fighting on the provincial level to being part of the national movement to have women declared as “persons” under the law. She was only one of many in this fight, but was a force who inspired women both then and now to fight for equality.
Gray freely discusses McClung’s more questionable beliefs (for example, her support for sterilizing the “unfit”) while also highlighting some of her forgotten talents (I had no idea she was a bestselling fiction author). Generous use of McClung’s own words adds to the energy of the book, and reflects the vigour of the subject.
Artist and author Lewis DeSoto takes a somewhat different route to tell us the story of Emily Carr. The first half of the book is straight biography, while the second explores specific issues. This leads to a bit of repetition, but that is easily overlooked as the book delves into her art, which comes alive even without any reproductions of her paintings.
DeSoto gracefully shows us how Carr became one of Canada’s most recognized artists. Studying in the U.S., England, and France, Carr combined diverse national styles to refine her images of the harmony and beauty of our own wilderness.
DeSoto also dispels some key myths about Carr; rather than a solitary, sexually repressed eccentric, we see a much-loved woman who turned her passion toward nature itself. Samples of Carr’s writing further illuminate the abilities of this incredible woman.
The disappointment in this trio is the volume on Lord Beaverbrook by novelist David Adams Richards. Born Max Aitken in New Brunswick, Beaverbrook moved to England in his early thirties, where he was extremely influential as minister of aircraft production during the Second World War. Richards’ fast narrative pace matches the life of his subject, who was always hurrying to achieve even greater success, be it in the lumber industry, the financial sector, politics, or the press.
Richards’ book is an admiring portrait of a powerful man that employs a decidedly irreverent approach. But if Richards has set out to redeem Beaverbrook, his point gets lost along the way. The author occasionally inserts his own views into the proceedings, offering repeated snide remarks about contemporary Canadian society’s lack of creativity. He also provides frequent excuses for Beaverbrook’s questionable business dealings and personal failings, all of which does nothing to add to our understanding of why he is worthy of inclusion in this series.
Given the success of the volumes on Carr and McClung, these brief sketches can serve to increase our understanding and enjoyment of the past. However, the decision to allow the authors freedom of style does come with risk, as exemplified in the case of the Beaverbrook volume. While this series will not meet the needs of anyone looking for deeper knowledge or a good source for research (especially given the lack of indexing), these slim volumes do serve well in the fight for an expanded knowledge about who has made our country great.