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Book Reviews

The Book of Letters: 150 Years of Private Canadian Correspondence

by Paul and Audrey Grescoe

“Is there anything uniquely Canadian about Canadian correspondence?” ask Paul and Audrey Grescoe in the introduction to this English-language compilation of private Canadian letters. Their answer is a refreshingly realistic “yes and no.” The Grescoes use a range of material to illustrate nuances in style and perspective – they note that on the whole English letters can be more emotionally reserved than those written in French – rather than embarking on an elusive quest for a singular Canadian identity drawn from letter writing.

The selections range from notes by regular folk to missives from political figures like Sir John A. Macdonald and Tommy Douglas and such Canadian cultural icons as Peter Gzowski and Jack McClelland. The sections “The Making of Canada” and “Ideas and Ideal” include letters that illustrate lesser known injustices in our history, such as written pleas from Punjabi passengers denied access to Canada (and even drinking water) while on board a ship at Vancouver’s harbour in 1914. Similarly, a letter detailing conflict between the First Nations people at Oka over land rights is especially interesting because it’s dated 1875, not 1990. Letters of love and friendship, as well as correspondences grouped under “The Art of the Ordinary,” round out the collection.

The editors’ notes that frame the letters are concise and usually sensitive to the writers’ nuances in tone. A glaring exception follows a letter from Lawren Harris to Emily Carr. Harris writes powerfully about his interest in non-representational painting and his spiritual beliefs about the wisdom of humanity, only to be directly followed by a jarring note detailing how much money both he and Carr’s art has sold for in recent years. The final entry is a letter from a university professor to the Montreal Gazette on global warming, something of an ideological ending for such a broad and absorbing collection.


Reviewer: Kate Sellar

Publisher: McFarlane Walter & Ross


Price: $34.99

Page Count: 320 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-55199-104-7

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 2002-9

Categories: Memoir & Biography