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The Spirit of Canada: Canada’s Story in Legends, Fiction, Poems, and Songs

by Barbara Hehner, ed.

Anthologies are one of the original, interactive, non-linear technologies. In the real world (as opposed to the reviewer’s world) readers of anthologies dip and skip, fanning out from the familiar to the new, selecting a different order on each reading, choosing their own adventure. For these real world readers the success of an anthology depends, therefore, less on the elegance of its concept and arrangement than on the simple quality of its selections.

Barbara Hehner performs the anthology juggling act very successfully in The Spirit of Canada, a history of our country as reflected in stories, poems, and songs. With selections old and new, familiar and obscure, regionally and culturally diverse, and lighthearted and serious, Hehner keeps an impressive number of balls in the air. Her arrangement, in eight parts, is roughly chronological, from “When the World Was New” to “From Far and Wide,” with a couple of segues into fantasy and humour.

Giving each section its own identity and unity are the illustrations. The choices here are inspired. Children’s book regular Kim Fernandes models her candy-coloured Fimo illustrations for the section “Animals Wild and Mild” and gives a bright face to an excerpt from Grey Owl’s The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People. Luc Melanson, a commercial artist and newcomer to picture books, is a perfect choice for “The Dirty Thirties.” Monumental, naive, solid, his figures are in no danger of blowing away in the wind. It can be disconcerting to see a picture book text reillustrated but Tim Shortt’s big-headed hockey player works fine in Roch Carrier’s classic The Hockey Sweater as does Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson’s new interpretation of an excerpt from Shizuye Takashima’s A Child in Prison Camp. The variety of media – pastels, pen and ink, watercolour, pencil – and the lively book design, incorporating full-page illustrations, vignettes, and decorations, pull us from chapter to chapter.

The concept, arrangement, design, luxurious look, and wide age-range appeal make this a bookstore shoe-in for the gift season. But what of the actual reader? What about the dippers and skippers? I predict for them a long and happy relationship as the book hangs around the house, on the coffee table or bedside or in the bathroom. The Spirit of Canada contains such good stuff. Hehner seems to have resisted almost completely the anthologist’s pitfall of including the second-rate just because it fits the theme and fills a gap. Anthology editors often have their lovely plans scuttled by difficulties of copyright permissions, resulting in lopsided books. Not this one. If Hehner had to compromise, she covered her tracks well. Her choices are also highly original. I consider myself well read in Canadian children’s literature but at least half her selections were new to me, especially the memoir excerpts and songs (27 of them, with music and chords; I’ve never reviewed a book where I’ve done so much humming.)

As I chose my own adventure through this collection I went back to childhood favourites like the Paul Bunyan stories. I was reminded of stories I had forgotten such as James Reaney’s The Boy with an R in His Hand. I caught up on things I had missed like James De Mille’s “Sweet Maiden of Passamaquoddy,” a poem that cries out to be memorized. I encountered entirely new writers such as Inuk poet Alootook Ipellie and Manitoba’s Beatrice Fines. And I was urged beyond the covers of the book to search out more cornball Johnny Chinook stories, to reread Grey Owl, to dig out my Stan Rogers tapes, to annoy the household by singing Bobby Gimby’s “CA-NA-DA.”

Dippers and skippers appreciate good apparatus, and the table of contents, indexes, and contributor notes do this job efficiently. Libraries, schools, and families will find this a handy one-stop source for quick reference – the third verse of “O Canada” in French, a fast reminder of what the Family Compact was all about, the tune for the “Song of Louis Riel.” Set this anthology on the shelf beside Janet Lunn and Christopher Moore’s The Story of Canada and you’ll be in good shape.

Hehner has also appended detailed notes to each selection, and only here did I find myself out of sympathy for the collection. I know that the spirit of Canada has its earnest, careful side, but do we really care that the Lake Lebarge of “Sam McGee” is really Lake Laberge? Likewise there is something a bit plodding about assuring us, in a note before a poem about ice-fishing, that “the Inuit did not hunt for sport – only for their own survival” and, in an introduction to a story about girls and baseball in the 1940s, that “in those days, most people believed that certain games were only for boys or only for girls.” Only here does this anthology have that oppressive textbook flavour.

Of course, as a real life reader I would simply skip those bits and settle right into the pieces themselves, a selection that in its variety, quality of writing, beauty of illustration, and essential good-heartedness made me feel (oh dare I say this? It is so unCanadian. Will I sound like some flag-waving fanatic? I’ll risk it) proud.