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The True North Strange and Free

by Philomena Hurley Rutherford

Who knew that the Fathers of Confederation considered calling the new nation Hochelaga before settling on Canada, or that Canada Post keeps a mailbox deep in Sudbury Mines? Such are among the Canadian facts that The True North Strange and Free, a new Reader’s Digest book, crams into its 320 pages. A text meant for dipping into rather than reading cover to cover, True North combines encyclopedic breadth and a news-bite style with short entries on topics including geography, history, people, and inventions. Refreshingly, the arts receive significant coverage as well.

Rutherford, a former journalist, targets the kinds of readers, typically boys, who happily pore over trivia compilations like The Guinness Book of World Records. However, without the organizing principles that guide such books, I often felt overwhelmed, despite the help of a thorough index and internal cross-references. I was also surprised as well as irritated by the number of errors and inconsistencies. Actor Hume Cronyn died this year, not in 1994, for example, and Margaret Laurence’s first book, A Tree for Poverty, was published in 1954, not 1944; the production date for the film Kamouraska is listed on one page as 1973, and on another as 1974.

More problematic, though, is the ambiguity of the book’s target audience. The sophisticated vocabulary (which includes such words as screed and peripatetic) and references (one section title alludes to McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”) appeal to adult readers, but the glossy layout and informal tone suggest a teen audience. True North makes a good coffee table book for the whole family to share, but may be daunting for many young adult readers.