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Manitoba History: Reviews: Mary Lile Benham, La Verendrye, George Woodcock, 100 Great Canadians & Marian Ogden Sketch, Ten Moments in Canadian History (1759-1900)

by Henry Huber
Gordon Bell High School, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The last few years have seen welcome additions of readable and reasonably priced books to fill the vacuum in the Canadian shelves in public, school, and personal libraries. Previously, most Canadian history books were aimed at the academic community. These volumes, produced for scholars, were very often too detailed and dry for the general reading public and for the ordinary junior and senior high school student. All that remained for the general reader and average student was a limited number of general texts of Canadian history which often concentrated on constitutional, political and economic history. While not downplaying well researched and highly detailed studies, we should encourage the continued production of the popular brand of history for those readers not in the academic community. The publishers and writers who have taken up the challenge for more popular history fill this need with books that are accurate but combine this accuracy with brevity, human interest, and visual aids in charts, drawings and prints.

One such group of books is the series produced by Fitzhenry & Whiteside called The Canadians. There are nearly a hundred titles in this series of Canadian biographies aimed primarily at school children. La Verendrye by Mary Lile Benham is one of these that reminds Canadians that we do not have to look south of the border for frontier heroes. The adventures of La Verendrye are even more dramatic and interesting than the Davy Crockett many Canadians were raised with, and Mary Lile Benham’s account of La Verendrye’s explorations is well told. Details about the rugged life of the voyageurs bring understanding of the hardships they faced. These mangeurs du lard, who sloshed across the marshy portages of Canada laboriously hauling trade goods out West and valuable bundles of furs back to Montreal, are the men who made the French fur trade.

Through the story of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Verendrye, and the problems he encountered in his search for la mer de l’ouest, we are given interesting and useful information about the early French fur trade, the fur trade goods, and the movement of those goods. La Verendrye’s meetings with the Cree, the Mandan and other native groups in the West give the reader a valuable insight into the social and economic life of this period. These accounts are supplemented with excellent illustrations which enhance the booklet, those relating to native life being especially valuable.

George Woodcock in his 100 Great Canadians fills the same need for Canadians to know themselves. Many of the Canadians whose biographies are found in Woodcock’s book often rate only a line or two in a standard Canadian history. However, these “Greats” are the men and women who built Canada, and give the story of Canada its vibrancy and colour. This collection brings to life such relative unknowns as Piapot, Jack Miner, Brother Andre and Casimir Growski, as well as the old regulars such as Champlain and John A., by detailing their contributions to Canadian society. It is regrettable that Woodcock did not take this opportunity to include more new material, instead of repeating many accounts from his 1978 edition of a similar book called Faces From History.

Ten Moments uses an unusual approach to give us a sense of the drama in our history. The sculptures of Ralph Mackern Sketch are the focus of this book, and the ten moments are presented in a manner which has an emotive, as well as a visual, appeal. The riderless horse, Alfred, forever awaiting the fallen Brock, is more evocative and memorable than a chronology of the events of the Battle of Queenston Heights. Each “Moment” is described in an interesting and accurate fashion by the sculptor’s wife, Marian Ogden Sketch. The texts are accompanied by easily read maps and useful illustrations and prints. While some of the “Moments” like those depicting Mont-calm and William Lyon Mackenzie are familiar to all, the tales of “Kootenai” Brown and Washington Grimmer will be new to many. One’s main complaint with this book is that the author did not find any “Moments” in the Maritimes to balance the full title of the book, Ten Moments in Canadian History 1759-1900.

The future will undoubtedly see more of these popular histories come to print. Such books can help create interest in history among the general public and students who will then, it is hoped, proceed to explore further aspects of our identity as Canadians.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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