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Archive for the ‘Extraordinary Canadians’ Category

L.M. Montgomery was the first author with whose works I truly fell in love.  In Grade 3, my best friend and I started a mini, two-person book club, devoted to her novels.  We devoured the Anne books, likening ourselves to Anne and Diana and wishing there were a boy like Gilbert in our class (well, ideally, two).  By Grade 5, I’d worked through all of her works and when our teacher announced that we would be giving presentations to the class on topics of our own choosing, I immediately knew that I was going to give one on L.M. Montgomery.  I signed every biography on her out of the library (defying my censorious librarians to do so), as well as the available volumes of her journals and I obsessively read every single word.

And I was terribly, terribly disappointed.  She did not match at all my idea of what she should be like.  Even reading her journals as a young woman, I was upset by their melodrama.  There was too much emotion, too little restraint, and none of the control I find so admirable in others (I picked up some very strict morals as a child to my non-religious parents’ everlasting amusement).  It was my first encounter of dissonance between a writer’s work and his or her life and I learned then that it wasn’t necessary to like a person in order to love his or her works.

I still remain interested in Montgomery though, which is what drew me to Extraordinary Canadians: L.M. Montgomery by Jane Urquhart.  It’s a brief little biography, with some rather extravagant artistic flourishes by Urquhart: the book begins with a fictional chapter, detailing Montgomery’s thoughts on her deathbed.  The argument has been put forward recently that Montgomery committed suicide and Urquhart acknowledges it but sensibly retorts that we will never actually know what happened.  What we do know is that Montgomery suffered from depression for most of her life.  Though her teen years were social enough, from her mid-twenties onwards she was mostly isolated from the kind of company she craved, stuck at home caring for her ailing grandmother.  This solitude gave her time to concentrate on her writing, allowing her to create the infamous Anne.  Fame was a double-edged sword though – by the time she married and moved to Ontario, gaining more opportunities to interact with others, she was famous enough to make friendships and relationships in new towns awkward.  The solace of her solitude, her writing, isolated her later in life, when she was surrounded by fans rather than friends.

Urquhart points out that Montgomery had the unique ability to shape her legacy, the privilege of authors who attain such meteoric fame in their lifetime.  The editing of her diaries is well-documented: not only did she remove sections, she rewrote others years afterwards, conscious of the image she would present to future generations.  This quest for control was a common facet of Montgomery’s life and Urquhart details multiple instances of it: even her virtual abandonment by her father gave her the control to idealise him and their relationship, turning him into a perfect, supportive figure, the kind that would inspire the compassionate but distant father-figures in her fiction.  Perhaps the best example of control is her relationship as a young woman with Herman Leard, a local farmer.  Montgomery was in love with Leard and was certainly physically attracted to him but was determined to control her feelings for him, to learn to live without him: “he is dearer to me than ever, but I will conquer – I will live it down even if my heart is crushed in the struggle” (p. 36).  This was not a case of star-crossed lovers, torn apart by disapproving families, but of Montgomery herself considering their relationship in contrast with her aspirations.  She felt he would hold her back and so withdrew from him, though it pained her. 

Eventually, Montgomery did marry, to the Rev. Ewan Macdonald.  One can’t help but assume that Montgomery married to ward off the loneliness and isolation that had plagued her up until then but if that were her aim, it failed sadly – Montgomery went from a lonely youth to a lonely adulthood, with a mentally unstable husband and two distant sons, both of whom disappointed her greatly as they matured to adulthood.  

As an introduction to Montgomery’s life, I would probably find this volume lacking.  Having retained a ridiculous amount of useless information about Montgomery, I was mentally filling in details as I went along.  This was a nice reminder for those familiar with her life, but for fans looking to learn more about her, I would recommend one of the more substantial biographies, which are far more satisfying for the uninitiated.

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I wanted to like this book; I want to like all the books in the Extraordinary Canadians series, due to an inexplicable patriotism, central to my character.  However, this was not to be with Extraordinary Canadians: Lord Beaverbrook by David Adams Richards

It’s been almost a week since I finished reading this rather short, rather sycophantic biography and I have spent much of that time trying to think how I would phrase this review, trying to determine what exactly about the book repelled me.  Was it Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook himself?  Or was it David Adams Richards, who can’t seem to see past the chip on his shoulder?

Lord Beaverbrook was rarely mentioned in my history classes.  A background figure, most of us know him as a ‘the first baron of Fleet Street’ for the press empire he amassed and for the tabloid journalism style his papers championed.  Evelyn Waugh, one of his former employees, based the character of Lord Copper in Scoop on Beaverbrook.

Here, we learn much more about Lord Beaverbrook’s early life as New Brunswick’s Max Aitken.  Son of a Presbyterian minister, Aitken was trouble from the start.  Lying, cheating, stealing – all perfectly acceptable means to achieve his ends.  When R.B. Bennett, a future Canadian Prime Minister, was running for local office, a 17 year-old Aitken ran his campaign.  Bennett won but, after the election, was disgusted by the gross falsehoods Aitken had used to win votes, promising everything to everyone.

It’s easy to amass a fortune if you have no morals and Aitken certainly did.  He made his first million still in his twenties, but then left the country hastily; if he had stayed, he would most likely have been charged with securities fraud over his role in the Canadian cement scandal (sounds scintillating, doesn’t it?  What could be more scandalous than cement?).  Instead, he went to England, where he won a seat as an MP.

Aitken lied and cheated in his business dealings, so it’s no wonder, really, that he lied to his family and cheated on his wife Gladys.  Gladys was his greatest asset in the social circles he aspired to, a graceful, mannered woman who, said another MP of the time, would be welcome at any table or court in Europe.  Not so with the loud, rather gauche Aitken.  Not only did Aitken cheat on his wife, he flaunted it, taking his mistress out to dinner with friends, installing her first in his city apartment and then, when his family demanded to be moved up from the country after discovering the affair, into the country house his family had just vacated. 

David Adams Richards, who seems to identify with Aitken a rather alarming amount, holds him up to be the most important Canadian of the 20th Century.  This argument was never proven to my satisfaction.  Richards seems to feel all the slights against Aitken very personally, claiming that he was hated because he was rich and powerful.  Perhaps.  What seems more likely is that, rather than hating him because he had pulled himself up and made his own fortune, they hated him because he was an odious man, with no morals or manners, uncomfortable to be around and impossible trust.

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Biographies are never easy to write.  There’s always so much to say, so much to consider when you approach a person’s life and the writer has the potential to either bore his or her readers with far too much detail or frustrate them with too little.  The Extraordinary Canadians series however seems to be doing an admirable job balancing the facts of the subjects lives with their social impact in delightfully small volumes.  In Extraordinary Canadians: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Nino Ricci (author of award winners such as Lives of the Saints, Testament, and The Origin of Species) does it in only 207 pages.  To do so, Ricci had to pick his areas to focus on – giving more time to Trudeau’s early life and career prior to politics than he does to his time in government (and the last twenty years of his life are barely mentioned).  For me, this certainly made the book more appealing.  As a student, we studied only Trudeau the Politician, discussing the FLQ crisis and the War Measures Act, the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, the decriminalization of homosexuality and, of course, the implementation of official bilingualism.

Trudeau was an anomaly in Canadian politics – in any kind of politics, frankly.  For those of us born after his years in office, it’s still very difficult to comprehend the extent of ‘Trudeaumania’ or to imagine our PM appearing on the front of tabloid magazines around the world (or having a wife who partied at Studio 54 and with the Rolling Stones).  But it was exciting, this change, particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when youth counterculture was strong.  Here was this politician, almost 50 himself when he first came to national prominence, that young people embraced as their own and who excited the usually apathetic nation.  As the successor to the bow-tie wearing, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Lester Pearson, Trudeau was a radical, but welcome shock to the system:

For the many people who followed Canadian politics merely as a kind of background static, who might normally have sooner tuned into an American leadership debate than a Canadian one, Trudea had turned their heads, had made them think more of themselves, well before he had slain the dragon of referendum or brought home the constitutional grail (p. 155) 

Ricci is rather vague on Trudeau’s legacy.  There is no fawning adoration, sensible considering the enduring unpopularity of many of Trudeau’s most prominent achievements (the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the War Measures Act, bilingualism).  Trudeau spent much of his career trying to bring Quebec closer to the rest of Canada yet only succeeded in driving it further away while increasing its political importance.  Quebec is still a hot-button issue in Canadian politics, threatening to separate every few years.  It is also the province that politicians work hardest to woo, knowing that without its support, a majority government is impossible.  It’s hard to express the resentment this has created amongst the other provinces, especially in the resource-rich west. 

And yet we’re still proud of him, proud that he was ours though we can still hardly believe it.  He was glamourous and hip and famous and unlike anything we had seen before or have seen since.  When he died in 2000, his funeral captured the attention of the nation, bringing back proud memories for those who remembered him and introducing a whole new generation, long before they came across him in their history books, to his legacy.

Just as he had one when he was a student at Brébeuf, Trudeau had found the way in politics to marry the stance of the rebel to the slog of getting on with the job. ‘The truth is I work.’ It was such a quintessentially Canadian sentiment, as true of the habitant stock of New France and the Scots Presbyterians and Irish refugees of Upper Canada as of the First Nations running their trap lines and the latter-day immigrants of every hue.  Perhaps our attraction to him came exactly from this, that however different from us he seemed, however much the outsider, we sensed he was one of us.  He gave the impression of adventure and change even as he affirmed the general flow of things as they were.  Rebellion without risk.  A very Canadian sort of rebellion.  Or put different: he showed us how to be ourselves, but to do it with style. (P. 180-181)

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