What I’m reading about Canadian history

I’ve said before that a tagline for this blog could be “I read Canadian history so you don’t have to.” I started out with very little knowledge of Canadian history and have written about the parts I’ve found interesting as I’ve learned. This is my 40th post out of the 52 weekly posts I promised this year, informed so far by 21 books and lectures as well as articles and other shorter sources. Here are some of the highlights.

The history book that kicked off my current binge was the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton, based on the musical Hamilton (or maybe it was the other way around?). I loved it, not just because of the way it revealed the musical to be surprisingly faithful to the source material (Angelica Schuyler really did compare Hamilton to Icarus, and he really did write “I wish there was a war“) but also because there was somehow even more drama in Hamilton’s real life than in the Broadway version.

All of this has pretty much nothing to do with Canada, but because I do not have a Hamilton blog, here, very briefly, are the three craziest things from Chernow’s Hamilton biography that aren’t in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version. One, years before their final encounter, Aaron Burr helped prevent a duel between Hamilton and future president James Monroe. Two, Thomas Jefferson tried to have an affair with Angelica while they were both living in France. And three, after Maria Reynolds’ affair with Hamilton she got a divorce from James Reynolds, and Aaron Burr represented her! Come on!!

Ok so then I went looking for biographies of Hamilton-like figures from Canada’s story, which initially led me to Chester Brown’s “comic-strip biography” of Louis Riel, and Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer.

Champlain’s Dream is a beautiful book that paints Samuel de Champlain in a very positive light. Fischer’s vivid descriptions of Champlain’s voyages helped inspire my post Where the Great Lakes pour into the sea, itemized the extent to which the French were always renaming everything, and also illustrated that Canadian history is world history, since neither Fischer nor this book are particularly Canadian. (Fischer has a personal connection to Champlain via Maine, a state that Champlain explored with flagrant disregard for the Canada-U.S. border that didn’t yet exist.)

In Champlain’s Dream Fischer also says that he changed his mind about the meaning of a famous incident in Champlain’s life after reading the work of Bruce Trigger, an archeologist and historian who researched and wrote much of what we know about the Wendat (he called them Huron in his writings, the name the French re-named them, but later said he would have gone back and instead used Wendat, the name they gave themselves, if such significant revisions to massive print books were feasible).

When I say massive, just one of Trigger’s books on the Wendat, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, is almost 1,000 pages including notes. The simple existence of this book — the fact that a person could write so much covering the history of just one group of people who lived in one small part of Canada (roughly today’s southwestern Ontario) and covering only the time before 1660 (which, I now realize, is a lot of time) — shook my lazy assumptions about the land now called Canada prior to colonization. I realized I could spend years only learning about Indigenous nations and still only skim those depths.

So I started reading The Children of Aataentsic partly in the hopes of getting a different perspective on Champlain, and I did indeed acquire a much less glowing impression than the one Fischer lushly painted. Still, while I was somewhat reassured that Trigger had a connection with Wendat communities, I worried that I wasn’t getting Wendat history from a Wendat person. The solution to that problem serendipitously presented itself only recently.

While I wasn’t yet aware of any Wendat source for Wendat history, there was a lot of buzz about a new book called Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel. I strongly recommend this accessible and entertaining/enraging book for anyone who’s wondering where to begin on this stuff. 9 things I learned from Chelsea Vowel’s “Indigenous Writes” is the only post I’ve written so far that’s specifically about a book itself, and is also my second-most-read post to date. It was also from Vowel that I learned of Canada’s mandatory “Eskimo Identification” tags.

Other than Indigenous histories, the part of Canada’s story most inaccessible to me as someone who doesn’t read French very well is French Canadian history. Thankfully, as a start, there’s Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America. It’s from Legacy that I learned of the French Canadian mayor of Los Angeles.

My parents-in-law gave me that book as a gift, and I’ve also helped myself to a few others from their shelves, including one with a title that immediately excited me: The Patriot War Along the New York-Canada Border by Shaun J. McLaughlin. From that book I wrote three posts about the ill-fated Republic of Canada (another exciting name that isn’t actually in McLaughlin’s book, but which I discovered doing supplementary research), and two posts about the Battle of the Windmill, a ridiculous story about a group of mostly Americans who did a very bad job of invading and liberating Canada.

Speaking of battles, I have so far not been particularly drawn to military history, however I do about half of my “reading” via audio books, and there are almost no audio books about Canadian history, except, for some reason, a whole bunch of military history books by Mark Zuehlke. I chose to listen to Juno Beach: Canada’s D-Day Victory June 6, 1944, an entire book about a single country’s contribution to a single day in World War II. From this book I wrote about a jaw-dropping escape from a land mine and a not so well-thought-out plan to try to make tanks float. Now I find myself looking forward to reading (or listening to, probably) Zuehlke’s other books about Canada at war.

Come to think of it, I guess I have written about war more than I realized, though most of my discoveries about Canada and war have been mentioned as tangents in lectures I’ve listened to on different topics. Due to the aforementioned dearth of Canadian history audio books I’ve been listening to any history I can get via the Great Courses series, which are abundantly available on Audible.

It was, for example, a general history of WWII that alerted me to Operation Fish, the secret plan to hide Britain’s gold in Canada in case Britain fell to the Nazis. A lecture on the American Civil War noted the time that Canada almost entered the Civil War against the North, a fact suspiciously and conveniently absent from Canada’s story as I’ve known it. And it was a lecture series on the French Revolution where I learned of the Voltaire quote from which this blog gets its name.

Most recently I was walking up the main street in Bracebridge, Ontario when I spotted, in the window of a used book storeHuron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle by Georges E. Sioui. This was the book I didn’t know existed, but had been looking for nevertheless! I picked it up and was excited to learn that not only is Sioui himself Wendat, but he was friends with Trigger and draws heavily on his work (meaning I didn’t have to throw out everything I’d already read about the Wendat). My two most recent posts, Standing for anthems and A circular past and an extended present, come from Sioui’s poetic and challenging book.

I started this project with a list of about 100 books I wanted to read, and I’ve now read about 20, so I only have… 157 left to go? Why did I keep adding books to the list?!?

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One Reply to “What I’m reading about Canadian history”

  1. By selecting vignettes from various sources you kind of build a collage that tells a story at the same time as it exposes the limitations inherent to reading history. If that makes sense.

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