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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Canadian History Revisited

  • James E. Moran (Author)
    Committed to the State Asylum: Insanity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Quebec and Ontario. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Aimée Laberge (Author)
    Where the River Narrows. A Phyllis Bruce Book (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Gordon Bölling

Since the publication of Michel Foucault’s seminal Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique in 1961 interest in the history of insanity has increased. Foucault’s revisionist study portrayed the institution of the asylum as an instrument of social control and thereby criticized conservative accounts of the rise of the asylum as a progressive and humanitarian enterprise. Building not only on Foucault’s work but also on a larger number of more recent approaches towards asylum historiography, Committed to the State Asylum “traces the social history of the lunatic asylum in Ontario and Quebec in the course of the nineteenth century.” In his introduction, James E. Moran calls for a contextualized history of the asylum that considers “a complex synthesis of pressures generated by the conflicting interactions of people from a hierarchy of social and economic circumstances – government inspector, asylum superintendent, local legal or religious authority, jail surgeon, and relatives or neighbours of the person considered to be insane.” Moran’s well-written and comprehensive history relies on his extensive analysis of primary documents. The great number of individual case studies resulting from the author’s meticulous research are particularly interesting to read. Committed to the State Asylum also benefits from repeated comparisons between the evolution of the asylum in nineteenth-century Canada and asylum development in the United States and England. Moran thereby places the rise of the asylum in Quebec and Ontario in a larger international context.

The first two chapters examine the state’s responses to insanity in nineteenth-century Quebec and Ontario respectively. In Quebec, the state negotiated a series of contracts with a group of powerful physicians for the institutional management and care of those considered to be insane. This so-called “farming-out system” is peculiar to the history of the state asylum in Quebec and led to the creation of a monopoly with the proprietors of the Beauport Lunatic Asylum. In contrast, the development of the state asylum in Ontario is characterized by a seemingly endless series of power struggles between the medical superintendent, government officials and the community. In his third chapter, Moran looks at nineteenth-century treatment strategies. Often these therapeutic efforts consisted of a combination of patient work, entertainment, and the regular delivery of religious services. The following chapter focuses on the politics of committal. It delineates in detail the diverse social, economic, and political contexts of committal to the state asylum. The changing attitude towards those classified as criminally insane is at the center of the final chapter of Moran’s study. The recognition of criminal insanity as a separate category resulted in the establishment of the Rockwood Criminal Lunatic Asylum in 1855. However, in the course of the nineteenth century, officials such as medical superintendent John Palmer Litchfield altered their perspective on criminal insanity as a specialized psychiatric disorder. Subsequently the criminally insane were no longer regarded as a distinct group in need of a specific form of medical institutional treatment. Committed to the State Asylum is not only of interest to readers of medical history. In its broad approach to questions of insanity and society in nineteenth-century Quebec and Ontario, Moran’s important study is likely to appeal to a much wider audience.

Aimée Laberge’s début novel, Where the River Narrows, takes its title from the Mi’kmaq place name guébeg. The historical novel tells the story of the Tremblay family, at the center of which is the enigmatic and elusive Antonio Tremblay. Although the coureur de bois disappears into the woods near Chicoutimi during the Spanish influenza epidemic in late 1918, his legacy continues to haunt the members of his family. In particular Antonio’s great-granddaughter Lucie Des Ruisseaux is obsessed with her family’s past. While living in London with her husband and her two children in the late 1990s, she works as a part-time librarian at Canada House and carries out historical research for graduate students and university teachers at the British Library. It is during her visits to the library that Lucie comes to realize the subjectivity and selectivity of traditional historical accounts: “But what brings me to the library is not only my research of the early history of Quebec. Because it’s not all there, is it? The past is not contained within the library’s subterranean stacks, frozen in an immovable alphabetical order. History is rewritten every day, and the more I read, the more voices I hear whispering between the lines.” The recovery of the past serves Laberge’s protagonist as a place of refuge from her tumultuous present. Lucie’s marriage to Laurent, an industrial designer, is falling apart, she is having a brief affair with an ex-lover, and her mother is dying back home in Quebec.

Where the River Narrows is much more than a compelling family saga. Like Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here, Laberge’s novel also covers the larger histories of Quebec and Canada. Longer parts of the narrative recount historical events such as the explorations of Jacques Cartier and the story of the nearly eight hundred filles du roi, who were sent to the French colony in the seventeenth century. In addition, Where the River Narrows raises questions about constructions of Canadian identity and nationhood: “What is it, Canada? . . . It’s also just a word, six letters trying to hold all the granite, the grain, the timber, the fish scales, and the fur together. A word with a shifty meaning, a name for a shifting place.” The successful reconciliation of a wider national history with the private history of the Tremblay family makes Aimée Laberge’s story a pleasure to read.

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MLA: Bölling, Gordon. Canadian History Revisited. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 161 - 162)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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