Various Canadiana

Reviewed by Gisèle M. Baxter

We have here three quite different books that explore key aspects of traditional Canadiana: the post-Second World War theatre scene, historic sites both as public monuments and as recreational spaces, and the engagement with the representation of war by the author of possibly the most iconic Canadian children’s novel. In a way, these books also suggest something about the varieties of contemporary publication and their engagement with areas of academic research.

Keith Garebian’s William Hutt: Soldier Actor is published by Guernica Editions, an independent press backed by funders including the Canada Council for the Arts and the Canada Book Fund, and with an aim—inspired by Picasso’s landmark painting commemorating the bombing of Guernica by fascists during the Spanish Civil War—of publishing books that seek to make the world a better place. This is a compelling, genuinely delightful biography that not only focuses on the trajectory of Hutt’s long and active career and personal life, but also situates this personal history in the development of Canadian theatre following the Second World War, and in the coincidence of that development with the advent and popularization of television, which gave working opportunities to many actors whose first love was the stage. This book is written with seriousness and insight as well as affection: it provides analysis as well as anecdote, and Garebian’s long history as a writer on theatre gives it great confidence. Both theatre historians and the theatre-loving general public will find much of interest here, including several photographs (both in colour and in black and white) from stage and television productions, reproductions of artwork, a bibliography of cultural history and theatrical biography, a detailed chronology of Hutt’s performances, a section of chapter annotations, and a detailed index.

Claire Elizabeth Campbell’s Nature, Place, and Story is intriguing in that, in some ways, it reads as an introduction to a series rather than a volume in one (the Rural, Wildland, and Resource Studies Series published by McGill-Queen’s University Press). In some ways it reflects a growing trend in academic publishing of producing books of interest both to researchers and to the general public, and certainly an overview of well-known historic sites, and the hook of the author’s own anecdotal reminiscences about childhood visits to several of them, will resonate with the latter, as will her argument about considering public policy concerning these spaces through a holistic environmental lens. However, the breadth of geography covered and the relative brevity of the book (there are but five chapters and so just five sites covered: two in eastern Canada, one in Ontario, and two in western Canada) mean that several ideas are introduced rather than fully pursued, although there is an impressive bibliography that provides ample material for researchers taking up any of the issues addressed, and an impressively detailed index. The black and white photographs work best when they are of archival material. Tough questions are raised in a clear, straightforward way about the pervasive conservatism both of public history and of public expectations concerning these sites; it is to be hoped that vital questions concerning who has written history and who should write it, and concerning how land ownership and use are “officially” defined, are pursued vigorously by researchers taking up the resources Campbell’s book provides.

In some ways the most purely academic of these books is L. M. Montgomery and War, a collection edited by Andrea McKenzie and Jane Ledwell. Its publication was most welcome when I was about to teach Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside for the first time. Chronologically the last of the series that started with the iconic Anne of Green Gables, Rilla flips Anne’s premise: its focus is not on a dislocated orphan anxious for a home and a loving family, but on Anne’s somewhat spoiled and babied youngest child, whose journey from the cusp of adolescence to young womanhood is the duration of the First World War. The novel largely focuses on various women’s experiences on the home front, its implication of combat experience primarily through Rilla’s doomed brother Walter, a poet. McKenzie and Ledwell’s collection addresses this novel as well as Montgomery’s extensive journals and correspondence, her short stories and poems that made their way into The Blythes Are Quoted, some of her other fiction, and Canadian war literature more generally. The introduction provides a useful, compelling overview and analysis of all this material, and the ten chapters—by scholars including several notable names in Montgomery scholarship, such as Irene Gammel, Holly Pike, Laura Robinson, and Elizabeth Epperly—take it up through a variety of lenses, including gender studies, literary/cultural history, visual representation, and environmental studies. There are several black and white reproductions, mostly of war art, and a section of colour plates, an impressive general bibliography, and a detailed index. Although its topic seems like a niche area of Montgomery’s output, the book situates her war writing within her body of writing as a whole. The book is also of potential interest to researchers more generally interested in Canadian literature, cultural representations of war, and gender studies.

This review “Various Canadiana” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 129-130.

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