Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Guy St-Denis, "Tecumseh's Bones" (2010)

St-Denis writes a fascinating genealogy of speculation and claims regarding the final resting place of the remains of Shawnee chief Tecumseh, whose contributions to Canada's defence during the War of 1812 was a critical contribution. He died in 1813, during the Battle of the Thames. His archival scholarship is wide-ranging and apparently meticulous.

Tecumseh's Bones does suffer from some weaknesses, however, that are a little surprising within a book from an academic press. Noting them is invaluable for me, however, as they relate mostly to lessons for my own history writing. (St-Denis has attempted a study similar to one I am undertaking on another topic.)

1) The book does not place its discussion within any sort of academic framework or context, either regarding historiographic practice, public history, etc. Without any consideration of what the state of academic research regarding Tecumseh and his final resting place was at the point this book was written, it is difficult to understand what compelled St-Denis to undertake his effort, or to gauge his success in contributing something new to our understanding of this issue. Additionally, I believe St-Denis has 'missed the train' when he opted to not consider how his research might compel us to think differently about myth-making's relationship to public history, whether within southern Ontario, Canada, or globally. This concern is certainly popular, the relevant materials are not particularly onerous to read, and if the concern was that these considerations would not have been of interest to a wider audience, they could have easily been hived off into a separate chapter.

2) The sheer density of information - the detailed tracking of the to'ing and fro'ing of correspondence, conversations, and letters to the editor - quickly becomes mentally exhausting. Without some effort to 'pack' his work within some kind of organizational framework, with signposts provided to help orient the reader, this book quickly gains the feel of a laundry list of documents, references, ideas, and claims. There is certainly nothing wrong with that kind of information processing. I would hope, however, that the author would be able to provide the reader with the benefit of his long-term engagement with the material, and to provide larger proposals of meaning-making for the reader. For instance, what is significant about some new proposal for where Tecumseh's bones laid? If discussion of a new claim is the focus of a chapter, how does that information fundamentally change what we already know and believe? If the information is essentially the shuffling of details within an already detailed spectrum of information, perhaps the degree of detail provided was not necessary.

3) The book is short. That is not a problem, but I wonder if perhaps this was closer to an essay that was exaggerated into a book. The provision of a lengthy chronology (representing in a more clearly organized fashion what was included in the body of the book) suggests 'padding'. On the other hand, provision of some academic context and weight would have helped to expand the importance the book could play in our understanding of history writing, as well as the events and issues St-Denis discusses.

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