A Number of Things: Stories About Canada Told Through 50 Objects – Jane Urquhart

28374401On the Cover: From one of our nation’s most beloved and iconic authors comes a lyrical 150th birthday gift to Canada. Jane Urquhart chooses 50 Canadian objects and weaves a rich and surprising narrative that speaks to our collective experience as a nation.

Each object is beautifully illustrated by the noted artist Scott McKowen, with Jane Urquhart conjuring and distilling meaning and magic from these unexpected facets of our history.

The fifty artifacts range from a Nobel Peace Prize medal, a literary cherry tree, a royal cowcatcher, a Beothuk legging, a famous skull and an iconic artist’s shoe, as well as an Innu tea doll, a Sikh RCMP turban, a Cree basket, a Massey-Harris tractor and a hanging rope, among an array of unexpected and intriguing objects.

Bringing the curiosity of the novelist and the eloquence of the poet to her task, Jane Urquhart composes a symphonic memory bank with objects that resonate with symbolic significance. In this compelling portrait of a completely original country called Canada, a master novelist has given all of us a national birthday bouquet like no other.

Published: October 2016


 

The Review:

This book contains a list of 50 objects, complete with description, history, significance, and why it relates to Canada as a whole. I was initially concerned that 50 objects would be a marathon, yet somehow this book absolutely engaged me as a reader.

There is such a fascinating variety of objects here and I never knew what was coming next. The book brought a smile to my face when I recognized an object and instilled a curiosity when I didn’t. While some of the items deeply resonated with me – Sir Isaac Brock’s hat, or a cross stitch sample – many did not, but instead exposed me to many of the cultures and histories that make up the fabric of Canada. Urquhart skillfully explains how each object is connected to the people and places of our country and why it is significant. It made me incredibly happy that not only did I feel represented but that I was taught something as well.

The only drawback to the book is that some objects are very strongly personal to Urquhart, and are accompanied by personal anecdotes in the description. While these objects do connect to the larger picture of Canada, they contrast sharply to the objects that are historic and have a textbook description. I had very mixed feelings about the inclusion of personal stories; while this was Urquhart’s version of Canada, the personal touches felt out of place and more appropriate for a memoir.

All drawbacks aside, this is a fascinating collection. It gives a superb snapshot of so many corners of Canada and I was immensely impressed with how many different locations and cultures were represented in 50 objects. This is a great book to read for Canadians, to feel that smile when you read one of Urquhart’s objects and know it’s one of yours, too.

Rating: 4 / 5

Quotations: 

“Twisted metal and charred timbers lay in contorted positions around the foundation, and the old clock from the central tower, which purportedly had continued to tick and chime until the tower fell, was smashed on the ground. Rescued furniture and relics were piled haphazardly in the snow, and in some cases were covered in ice themselves. But one thing that was neither rescued nor hosed down and then frozen was the mace. And this was a big problem for Parliament. p 182 “Mace”

“Canadians love their libraries and their small bookstores, and in spite of all efforts to discourage us, we are very loyal to our authors, whether they write about camping in the Canadian wilds or never make reference to a Canadian landscape at all.” p 36 “Books”

 

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland – Jim DeFede

The Day the World Came to Town

 

On the Cover: “For the better part of a week, nearly every man, woman, and child in Gander and the surrounding smaller towns stopped what they were doing so they could help. They placed their lives on hold for a group of strangers and asked for nothing in return. They affirmed the basic goodness of man at a time when it was easy to doubt such humanity still existed.”

When thirty-eight jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001, due to the closing of United States airspace, the citizens of this small community were called upon to come to the aid of more than six thousand displaced travelers.

The people of Gander were asked to aid and care for these distraught travelers, as well as for thousands more, and their response was truly extraordinary. Oz Fudge, the town constable, searched all over Gander for a flight-crew member so that he could give her a hug as a favor to her sister, a fellow law enforcement officer who managed to reach him by phone. Eithne Smith, an elementary-school teacher, helped the passengers staying at her school put together letters to family members all over the world, which she then faxed. Bonnie Harris, Vi Tucker, and Linda Humby, members of a local animal protection agency, crawled into the jets’ cargo holds to feed and care for all of the animals on the flights. Hundreds of people put their names on a list to take passengers into their homes and give them a chance to get cleaned up and relax.

The Day the World Came to Town is a positively heartwarming account of the citizens of Gander and its surrounding communities and the unexpected guests who were welcomed with exemplary kindness.

Published: 2003

 


 

The Review:

I was drawn to this book entirely because of it’s subject matter of 9/11. To keep this in perspective, I should share that in 2001 I was twelve years old. While I was aware things were going on, I didn’t really understand them, and certainly didn’t understand the significance of it all. I had also never considered what active roles Canada had taken that day and in the days that followed.

The novel does a great job of relaying a lot of history in a short amount of space. I didn’t know that the US actually shut down it’s entire airspace, and that planes already in the air needed to find alternative places to land. Multiple Canadian airports took planes in, including Gander. I also learned that Gander had a military background with a fully functioning airbase, which eventually was transformed into a civilian airport and on 9/11 was able to accommodate 38 jetliners, all parked end to end on the tarmac. I was fascinated by how the emergency was handled, and the many people in Gander that were mobilized to make this possible.

Gander AirportGander Airport after 9/11

Putting all that history aside, this novel really focuses on the people. I really enjoyed that DeFede was able to capture such a variety of stories of the different people trying to fly to the States, their backgrounds, and their feelings of finding themselves in Gander. There was a surprising amount of emotion in this book, from stress over the current events, to unending gratitude, and at times even bouts of laughter. There were so many little details that make these stories memorable – such as Newfoundland families donating every towel and bed sheet that they owned, or Americans participating in a good old-fashioned Newfoundland Screech-in, kissing a days-old cod. DeFede is an incredible storyteller, and many of these stories really stuck with me.

I had never considered how much risk Canada or other countries took when accepting these planes. Nor had I ever considered how much fear these people would have, landing in a tiny place that they had never heard of, not knowing when they would get home. These stories of Newfoundlanders opening their arms to strangers and doing anything it took to make their stay easier are incredibly heartwarming and moving. This novel is good for so many reasons, and I sincerely recommend reading it.

And there’s one image that I will probably never get out of my head: weary travelers coming off of planes and seeing a giant world map hanging on the wall with an arrow pointing to a tiny island off of Canada and the words, You Are Here.

Rating: 5 / 5

 

Quotations:

“O’Reilly was privately terrified that there would be an accident. It wasn’t a question of his not having confidence in the ability of his controllers. The problem in his mind was that there were too many planes and, because they all had to land as quickly as possible, too little time to see them all in safely.

Without being called, off-duty controllers started arriving at the center within a half hour of the attacks. Eventually every controller working a screen had at least one backup and a supervisor to help. There was no real plan or thought given to which planes should land where. The controllers started dividing planes up among a handful of airports that could accommodate them. St John’s and Stephenville in Newfoundland, Moncton in New Brunswick, Halifax in Nova Scotia, as well as the airports in larger cities like Montreal, Quebec, and even Toronto. The key for O’Reilly, however, was Gander.” (p 23)

“O’Donnell had one rule for the toys: nothing violent. No war toys. No guns. Not now, not with everything that had happened on September 11. Instead, O’Donnell loaded up on dolls and stuffed animals and board games and trucks and race cars. She even managed to find a few handheld computer games. She made sure that every toy that needed batteries had them. They filled up the back of a fire truck and raced home to Gander. The fire truck went from shelter to shelter, handing out toys to kids who would come running to greet them. Each day it made a loop of the shelters to make sure none of the kids was missed. Members of Gander’s volunteer fire department took turns going to the different schools, churches, and lodges so they could see the look on the kids’ faces when they pulled up. O’Donnell wasn’t sure how many toys they gave away or how much it cost. She just liked the feeling of being a Newfie Mrs. Claus.” ( p 150)

Image source: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/09/11/canada-remembers-september-11-gander-newfoundland_n_957214.html