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”

 

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The Great Escape: A Canadian Story – Ted Barris

the-great-escapeOn the Cover: On the night of March 24, 1944, 80 Commonwealth airmen crawled through a 336-foot-long tunnel and slipped into the forest beyond the wire of Stalag Luft III, a German POW compound near Sagan, Poland. The event became known as “The Great Escape,” an intricate breakout more than a year in the making, involving as many as 2,000 POWs working with extraordinary co-ordination, intelligence, and daring. Yet within a few days, all but three of the escapees were recaptured. Subsequently, fifty were murdered, cremated, and buried in a remote corner of the prison camp.

But most don’t know the real story behind The Great Escape. Now, on the eve of its 70th anniversary, Ted Barris writes of the key players in the escape attempt, those who got away, those who didn’t, and their families at home. Barris marshals groundbreaking research into a compelling firsthand account. For the first time, “The Great Escape: A Canadian Story” retells one of the most astonishing episodes in WWII directly through the eyes of those who experienced it.

Published: 2012

 


 

The Review:

The Great Escape: A Canadian Story takes an in-depth look at the Canadian role in the events of March 24, 1944. Yet what I found interesting about this book is that it is so much more than the Great Escape. The book covers time before the war, including brief histories on many of the key players and the events leading up to the men becoming prisoners of war. The book also follows those POWs past the Great Escape, through the end of the war and their tiring journey home. In between lies a gold mine of information, illuminating the life of a POW, activities in the compound, and the dozens of ingenious ways that POWs refurbished, retooled, and reengineered their surroundings to make life bearable and escape possible.

The opening chapters of the book provide a substantial amount of information. POW names, ranks, flight squadrons, and histories of Canadian roots all blur together. What surfaces from this deluge are individual stories of flight crews evacuating flaming bombers, stunning moments of men throwing themselves into the air or attempting to land their aircraft in any survivable way. Through the progression of the book, individual names begin to stand out, and by the end the book feels exactly as it should: like prisoners of war sitting with me and telling me their stories in their own voice.

This book is incredibly well researched, and I learned a great deal from the information contained within its pages. Barris is a champion for Canadian POWs and strives to tell their story with the greatest amount of respect and awe. The Great Escape: A Canadian Story is a humbling reading experience for Canadians and a wonderful historical resource for all.

Rating: 4 / 5