Monday, 16 November 2009

Pierre Berton, "Prisoners of the North" (2004)

Pierre Berton, Prisoners of the North (Toronto, ON: Doubleday, 2004).

Berton is one of Canada’s most eminent ‘popular historians’, meaning he is one of those writers who:
a) spends significant time exploring a place or time period through the experiences of exceptional (or exemplary) individuals, and
b) he provides very little guidance as to how he has arrived at what he claims to be fact (better said, he does not provide the reader with a convenient means to check what in his stories is fact, what is supposition, and what is creative interjection). This would be more problematic if Berton attempted to shake the foundations of Canadian history. He does not do this. His proposals about history are rarely earth-shaking.

I admit that this book offered me new information, however, on a number of historical figures I was not familiar with: among them, Lady Jane Franklin (spouse of the ill-fated Northwest Passage explorer); 'Klondike' Joe Boyle, a Dawson (Yukon) entrepreneur who rose to fame as a WWI soldier in Romania; John Hornby, a lone explorer who died in the Northwest Territories trekking from Edmonton to Hudson’s Bay. The book also covers the work of explorer/anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and poet Robert Service. One or two of these figures might deserve larger consideration in the writing of Canadian history, but on the whole, I think the people Berton’s memorializes serve better as emblematic symbols of certain types of Canadian experiences and people.

On the whole, Prisoners of the North is entertaining and informative, no doubt. The historian in me would like more information, however, as to where Berton collected the information for his writing.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Ann Fessler, "The Girls Who Went Away" (2007)

Subtitle: "The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade."

Fessler has produced a striking text, filled with short testimonials from women whose babies were taken from them (this is one of the core arguments of the text, that these women rarely voluntarily sought to "dispose" of their children) during the 1950s and 1960s. Building around a solid skeleton of statistical and policy history regarding adoption and pregnancy among unmarried young women, the text offers a concise and clear introduction to a complex and challenging issue. The real strength of the text, however, is the testimony from voices rarely consulted.