Archive for the ‘Pierre Berton’ Category

I have reviews of three excellent children’s books for you today, each containing those magic elements necessary in all good children’s books: new surroundings, limited adult supervision, and unlimited imagination.

The Magic SummerThe Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild actually made me understand why people love Streatfeild so much.  I had never read any of her children’s books before, just Saplings, which, though children feature as major characters, is definitely an adult book.  I had been told that Streatfeild wrote children’s voices exceptionally well, but there was little sign of it in that book.  Here, on the other hand, the children come alive.

With their parents in the Far East, the four Gareth children are sent to stay with an eccentric great-aunt in Ireland.  Great-aunt Dymphna has no interest in basic domestic chores or children and so, for the first time in their lives, the children are left to fend for themselves.  The two eldest, Alex and Penny (ages 13 and 12), do their best to keep up the standards they are used to a home while their younger siblings, Robin and Naomi (10 and 9), are much quicker to recognize and embrace the freedom their great-aunt is offering.  The summer is spent exploring and learning, occasionally terrifying themselves as they test the limits of their abilities.  There is nothing fantastical about their experiences, which is part of what I liked so much about this book: the Gareths’ experiences are the same ones any child could have, consisting as they do of decidedly mundane tasks like learning to cook or memorizing a bit of poetry.  No magic spell or secret portal necessary: just determination and a willingness to try new things.

The relationships between the children were especially wonderful.  Though they all, to some extent, strike out on their own, mostly we see them together.  They try to support one another but they also snap and bicker.  With none of the pastimes they are used to available in their new surroundings, they become bored and bad-tempered.  They act selfishly and then are ashamed when they realise they ought to apologize (but really don’t want to).  They feel, in short, like real children.

Tom's Midnight GardenYou want to know who doesn’t feel like a real child?  Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.  I know people adore this book and will hate to hear any criticism, however minor, but they will have to forgive me.  He is flat but the book is not.  It is a magical story, about a boy who, while staying with his aunt and uncle, discovers that when the clock strikes thirteen each night in the lobby of their apartment building he is able to slip into the past.  Rather than the dreary, rundown apartment building of modern times (“modern” here being the 1950s, as the book came out in 1958) he finds himself back in the days when the building was a family home, when it was surrounded by a large garden instead of other buildings, and when a young girl, Hatty, lived there.  Most people cannot see Tom when he appears in the past but Hatty can and they become playmates.  Night after night, Tom visits her but with each visit she grows a little older, years passing in what for him is a single day.  Thought the ending was clear from the very beginning of the book, it still made me tear up a little.  I am so glad I finally read this.

The Secret World of OgBut the book I am most glad to have read, the one that entertained me the most, was The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton.  Until recently, I had no idea that Berton, a Canadian historian, had written a children’s book.  Apparently, my father could have told me as much: this was one of his childhood favourites, having been published in 1961 when he was six years old.

When “The Pollywog” (otherwise known as Paul) disappears from the playhouse, his four older siblings set out to find him.  A manhole has been sawed in the playhouse floor and, lifting it, they find a tunnel descending into a mysterious underground world, full of green creatures who can only say “Og”.  Or can they?  As Penny, Pamela, Peter, and Patsy explore this foreign land, their fear and suspicion lessens with the more Ogs they meet.  Not only are the Ogs wearing familiar clothing – dress-up items that had gone missing over time from the playhouse, in fact – but some even appear to speak English, learned from the cowboy comic books that the children love so much and which, like the clothing, had been stored in the playhouse.

I loved everything about this book.   I loved the world of Og itself, with its giant tree-like mushrooms and its citizens who are happy to play make-believe all day, but mostly I loved the five Berton siblings.  Like any children, they love the idea of a world devoted to imaginative play and, even more, adore being authorities on subjects the Ogs are most eager to learn about.  But they also realise that sometimes fantasy needs limits and it can be just as exciting to discover real things as imaginary ones.  This book is so fun and clever and well written that I can understand why Berton considered it his favourite of his works and why it has remained a favourite among readers for fifty years.

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credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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When I started this blog in January, the first book I reviewed was Canadians by Roy MacGregor, noting that “I have a particular weakness for navel-gazing books about Canada and the elusive Canadian identity.”  While MacGregor wrote eloquently on the topic, there is no author who has done more to articulate the Canadian experience than Pierre Berton.  Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a home library in Canada that doesn’t have at least one of his history books, usually The Last Spike (personally, I’m partial to Vimy and Marching As to War).  In most of his books, Berton examines what it means to be Canadian and where that sense of national pride originates but, to my knowledge, Why We Act Like Canadians is the only volume entirely devoted to this study.  Now apparently out of print, it’s an eloquent and surprisingly undated analysis of those myths and experiences that shaped the national character.

The book takes the form of letters written to Sam, an American friend with little knowledge of his northern neighbour.  For a book written in 1982 (the first letter is dated April 17, the day the Constitution Act was signed), it’s amazing how much of what he says still resonates.  “…why did we let the Mounties get away with all those crimes?” he asks, referring to a scandal of the day.  Almost thirty years later, the RCMP is still scandalizing us with their behaviour but we’re as happy as ever to take no action.  Berton’s explanations as to the national weakness for redcoats still holds true:

The frontier Mountie was actually a solider, disguised as a policeman by a shrewd prime minister who didn’t want to annoy you Americans; had soldiers chased the whiskey traders back to Montana it might have been considered an act of war.  But the Mountie quickly became more than a solider.  Over the years he took his place as a father figure in a nation that adores father figures.  Incorruptible, adaptable, courageous, courteous, kind (he had all the Boy Scout virtues, as well as the hat), the Mounties comforting presence prevented our west from going wild.  The Indians called him ‘father’ to his face, but it was not only the Indians who appreciated his paternal qualities. (p.28-29)

“A nation that adores father figures.”  I can’t get over that description and how much it still resonates.  So much of the Canadian identity revolves around being secure, being cautious.  We love institutional authority, though hold significant contempt for the individuals who wield it – the very opposite of the American ethos, with its passionate reverence of the President.  We love authority because we love order – the one cannot exist without the other, certainly not in a country as large and as sparsely populated as Canada.  For this, we have been called socialists (still are, in fact, even by the mainstream American media) but it remains as staunchly Canadian value:

…historically, Canadians put order first, individual freedoms second.  I think it’s fair to say that for most of our history we have tended to look askance at what we considered to be a permissive society below the border.  ‘Liberty,’ in our northern view, is alarmingly close to ‘libertine’. (p. 40-41)

Immigration and nature are favourite topics in Berton’s writing and his most eloquent passages are devoted to them.  For those unfamiliar with Canada’s rather amusing nation-building attempts, Berton provides an excellent summary of our approach to immigration:

What we really wanted were well-to-do, right-thinking, English farmers.  Unfortunately these had no intention of leaving so we settled for those Europeans who came to Canada to escape intolerable conditions at home; and we lured them, in our stolid Canadian way, not with romantic slogans but with the promise of free homesteads and rich farmland.  Canada was advertised not as the land of the brave and the home of the free but as a place to make money.

            Thus, the much-touted mosaic is the result of good old Canadian compromise, an adjustment to the kind of tensions produced when reality doesn’t match up with the ideal.  We wanted proper-thinking Brits; we got Slavic peasants.  So we made a virtue out of ethnicity; and ever since we’ve gone along with those groups who want to retain something of their original culture, language, and dress – like the Quebeckers.  It’s said, for instance, that more Gaelic is spoke on Cape Breton Island than in all of Scotland.  The onion-shaped domes of the Greek and Ukrainian Orthodox churches are as familiar to our prairie landscape as the grain elevator.  In Canada, where Italian flags can outnumber maple leafs and half the short-wave radios in the Dufferin area of Toronto are tuned to Rome, the babushka is almost as familiar as the kilt. (p. 71)

And like any book about the Canadian identity, Berton takes the time to mention the Scots.  Even in the 21st Century, when our greatest waves of immigration come from Asia and not Europe, the hard-working Scot is still the ideal that so many strive for.  I remember in school how those of us with no Scottish ancestors (a large proportion, since most of my schoolmates were from Hong Kong) longed for at least one red-headed great-great-grandparent.  But why?  The Scots were hardly the first group to come to Canada and though their culture may have come to dominate certain regions, they remained concentrated, staying mostly in Eastern and Central Canada.  For whatever reason, we revere the Scottish settlers, even those of us who came relatively recently and have no Scottish background of our own:

If we are a sober people who sometimes equate ‘fun’ with ‘sin’, and liquor with the devil; if we feel guilty when we succumb to distractions; if we squirrel away our money in banks at twice your per capita rate; if we are canny to the point of overcaution – some of these qualities are traceable to the Scottish influence and the Scottish example.  For of all the immigrant cultures that form the Canadian mosaic, the most admired is the Scottish. P. 79

And as for nature?  What Canadian can’t go on for hours about the awesome beauty of our country, and of the danger it contains?  I am half convinced that it’s this theme alone, man versus nature, that drove many Canadian authors to write in the first place – it’s certainly well-represented in our literature.  But it’s inescapable.  “We are a wilderness nation; it has not been easy to come to terms with a harsh environment.  Geography has been our enemy more often than it has been our friend” (P. 104).  Wherever you are in the country, there are moments when you feel humbled by its size, its emptiness, its power.  Perhaps it is this omnipresent foe that keeps us humble, that instills in us the deferential attitude that so amuses foreign visitors:

Dwarfed by nature, we Canadians have every reason to feel like lesser creatures in a Brobdingnagian world.  Few have seen the cliffs of Baffin or the eskers of the tundra but we all live cheek by jowl with the wilderness; and all of us, I think, feel the empty and awesome presence of the North.  If we are not as cocky as we might wish to be, if we are more sober than those who live by placid, sunlit waters, it is party because of an uncanny environment that beckons even as it repels, seductive in its beauty, fearsome in its splendour. P. 109

Bowties are cool

As with all of Berton’s works, it is beautifully written.  No other author has ever captured the romance of our history as he could.  In these letters to Sam the American, he does an excellent job of praising Canada without belittling the States, no easy task and a show of restraint certainly not expected by his target audience.  And because the style is such that he looks to parallel or contrast Canada and the States, I think that makes this much more accessible for non-Canadian readers.  He gives the necessary historical information in his typically engaging way, so readers really shouldn’t need any specific knowledge of Canadian history of culture to thoroughly enjoy this. 

I can do no more to praise this than to report, truthfully, that it is the most perfect book I have ever read about the Canadian identity.  But one would hardly expect less from Berton, the undisputed authority on the history and legacy of the people who have made Canada what it is.

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