Book recommendations for Canadian patriots or just bored history buffs.
So what does it mean to be Canadian?
Surely there has to be more it than hockey, beer and oddly specific cuts of pork.
Since Canada’s Intellectual Elite are too busy writing slam poetry about moose farts, I suppose we’ll have to try to find answers for ourselves. I’ve picked out four books that are worthwhile reads on this account. Canadian history can be very difficult to learn since it doesn’t capture the young mind as easily as the history of more exciting nations. Still there are stories to be found and patterns to be identified and yes occasionally somebody gets shot in the face.
I’m just a hack with a blog but if I had to design a homeschooling curriculum I would work in one or two years of American history about the age of eleven or so and then go full bore into Canadian history once the student has a basic understanding and thus something to contrast the sometimes overly nice and civil history of Canada with. Now don’t get me wrong Canada has a few dirty secrets here and there but it can take an awful lot of digging to find those well buried skeletons. Anyway on with the show.
The Corvette Navy
by James B. Lamb
Date of first publication: 1977
Expect plenty of World War II talk on this blog since the two topics I can really hold a confident conversation about are the WWII and Austrian economics. Economics are very boring to talk about and so many others do it so much better, I’m left with no real choice but to focus on the greatest disaster in human history. Not that I mind since learning the history of the war, then learning the revisionist history, then figuring shit out on my own has been a tremendously fun lifetime hobby.
So that said if you wanted to start learning about world war II from a Canadian perspective you really can’t wrong with James Lamb’s classic The Corvette Navy which tells the story of the small ships of the Royal Canadian Navy and the men who went to sea.
This well paced book manages to cover a lot of topics from the struggles with the dangerous weather to the constant fight between the shore bound bureaucracy and the men who were actually fighting the war. There’s a lot of humor in this book as well and the chapter Signal Log is absolutely hilarious.
In summary this is a fun, easy to read book, full of little stories, that can be given to an eighth grader without too much worries.
There’s also a second follow up book titled On the Triangle Run which covers more of the authors war time experiences. Not the brilliant summary that The Corvette Navy is but far more intimate and personal work.
American readers can hunt down Torpedo Junction by Homer H. Hickam, jr. If they want a collection of U-boat stories from their Navy and Coast Guard.
by David Hackett Fischer
Date of first publication: 2008
“After the delusions of political correctness, ideological rage, multiculturalism, postmodernism, historical relativism, and the more extreme forms of academic cynicism historians today are returning to the foundations of their discipline with a new faith in the possibilities of historical knowledge, and with new results. This inquiry is conceived in that spirit. It begins not with a thesis, or a theory, or an ideology, but with a set of open questions about Champlain. It asks, who was this man? Where did he come from? What did he do? Why did he do it? What difference did he make? Why should we care?”
If we’re going to rediscover the Canadian identity and we’re starting basically from scratch, where do we begin? Logically at the beginning of course. With Canada the beginning starts with Samuel de Champlain the first prominent man to attempt to build a new nation in the lands of what is now Canada. Almost four hundred years later this man left a much greater mark than most people realize. I would go so far as to argue that Champlain’s vision for Canada is Canada in almost a deep metaphysical sense.
Champlain’s Dream is the first full biography written about Samuel de Champlain written in living memory. It is an intensely detailed account and a very large intimidating book suitable for squishing spiders. That said when I finally picked it up and began reading it was if a hundred pieces of a jigsaw puzzle began to snap into place. The picture wasn’t complete but I could finally see what I was working on.
Also as a sidenote; this is why you always check the bargain section of your local bookstore. I think I paid eight dollars for a hardcover and picked it up on a whim. Not bad for a book that forms the central core of my refocus of trying to pin down the Canadian identity. Maybe my luck isn’t always bad?
David Hackett Fischer has also written heavily on American history, mostly on the American Revolution.
Booze: When Whiskey Ruled the West
by James H. Grey
Date of first publication: 1972
“The ‘first class drinking men’ of the era adhered to rather rigid drinking code. No one drank alone– a wise precaution in face of the risk inherent in the quality of the booze and the saloon environment. No one bought a drink for himself without buying one for a friend. No one accepted a drink from a friend without buying him one in return., No one deserted an unconscious drinking companion. Through not strictly adhered to in grocery-store drinking, the drinking man’s code was not completely ignored either.”
Well I had to choose a non-WWII book in order for balance and this one seemed to fit since in 2016 anyone who publicly proclaims that they are proud to be Canadian is just assumed to be drunk.
This book tells the story of alcohol in the Canadian west. While the Canadian west was not as violent as the American west (mostly due to the Judge Dredd-like powers given to the Northwest Mounted Police) it was none the less just as drunk. Naturally all this alcohol led to some very negative consequences, including a very strong prohibitionist movement. People actually forget that there was prohibition in Canada, although nation-wide prohibition was fairly brief. In the three prairie provinces a series of provincial laws kept prohibition more or less in place from 1916 until 1924.
About 60% of the population supported prohibition. Another 20% went along with it because it was the law. However the remaining 20% rejected prohibition and fought it with every tool at their disposal. Thus begun a era of smuggling, corruption, legal loopholes and human ingenuity. Center stage in this drama was the heroic villain Harry Bronfman a multi-talented Jewish businessman who never quite broke the law and worked every legal loophole at once, all while smiling for the camera.
The most interesting part of this book however is that the author actually takes a prohibitionist stance himself although he is very careful not to let his bias affect the work or to twist the established facts around in order to support a narrative. It’s a level of professional detachment that’s rare to see in a writer.
The true beauty of this book is not the central narrative (or lack there of) but rather the hundred little anecdotes that offer a window into a past that is forgotten if not actively suppressed. Booze: When Whisky Ruled the West can be a little dry, melodramatic and snarky at points but it is highly educational. A good read for anyone interested in the history of Manitoba or Saskatchewan.
“Straight alcohol and water could be transformed into imitation rum by adding rum caramel and blackstrap molasses.”
Like I said highly educational.
One Day in August
by David O’Keefe
Date of first publication: 2013
“We must not lose our faculty to dare, particularly in dark days.”
—Winston Churchill March 24, 1942
One of the topics a Canadian historian amateur or professional must address is the riddle of Dieppe. More importantly the question is what the hell did those idiots think they were trying to accomplish? Prior to reading One Day in August the best explanation I had been able to gather was that the entire Dieppe raid had been a feint, designed to fail from the start in order to draw the Germans into a false sense of security and into misled them as to future allied intentions. Cold, ruthless, arrogant but pragmatic; classic Winston Churchill. Thankfully there’s a more reasonable, less Machiavellian explanation behind Dieppe. One that makes considerable sense once viewed in the greater context of the war.
Not only does David O’Keefe solve the riddle of Dieppe he does so with a style and a flair worthy of the men who kicked at the darkness at a time when Britain was at her greatest peril.
It is a testament to Mr. O’Keefe’s skill as a writer that he is able to maintain a sense of suspense is this book when everyone knows the story will end tragically. I won’t completely spoil the book here but yes the Dieppe Raid had a clear objective, a chance to succeed in that objective and most importantly an objective important enough to justify the risk of the operation. In hindsight it was a disaster but leaders in peace or in war do not have the benefit of hindsight. When facing a great challenge is it better is it better to take a risky approach or to take a patient less active approach? At Dieppe the Allied leadership decided to take a chance but they did not do so out of pure folly. That should be enough to sooth the Canadian soul. It certainly helped mine.
Bonus section: because I can never finish an article without finding something interesting.
The Corvette K-225 Movie
I was very surprised to find a Canadian WWII movie; set in the Battle of the Atlantic no less. Damn good movie too and if you have eyes to see it an excellent example of storytelling and well constructed propaganda. Simple, easy to relate to characters, dozens of subtle messages (especially about ordinary men doing their duty) life lessons about leadership, friendship and an iconic lead character that you can’t help but root for. 8/10. Better than an awful lot of crap you’ll see in theatres in the modern era. Little cheesy mind you.
This 1943 movie appears to be in the public domain.
You can watch it here through the power of the internet:
Some distortion and time synch issues around the 40-5 minute mark but otherwise watchable.
and it looks like you can buy an actual DVD here
More WWII posters ’cause they’re FUN.