Is Canadian history boring? Or, has it been poorly served by boring writers?
That’s a question that has been nagging me since I finished reading One Summer, written by Bill Bryson. As I mentioned in my best books blog, One Summer is a crackling-good read by one of the American masters of popular history. Bryson uses the flight of Charles Lindbergh — the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, which also made him the first mega-hero of the 20th century — as the tent pole for the story of the summer of 1927.
In his always engaging and often laugh-out-loud style, Bryson paints a page-turning portrait of America at its Roaring Twenties apex. In 456 pages, he seamlessly blends the stories of Lindberg (boy hero who would later have the nation turn against him), Babe Ruth (baseball legend who in one season had more home runs on his own than any other team), Henry Ford (automobile visionary and vicious anti-Semite who shut down his entire Ford motors plant to launch a new car), Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray (two now-little known murderers who were the O.J. Simpson of their day), two very peculiar presidents (Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover), Sacco and Vanzetti (alleged anarchists who became a cause célèbre around the world), Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney (boxing heavyweights and rivals whose battle captivated the world), Al Capone (superstar gangster/businessman), Clara Bow (the ‘It Girl’ of silent movies), Prohibition, the birth of sound movies, eugenics, the very earliest days of television (and one of its tragic co-creators, Philo T. Farnsworth) the seeds of the Great Depression, and dozens of other secondary, but no-less colorful characters.
When I was finished with One Summer, I wondered if anyone in Canada could write a similar book? Is there anyone remotely like Lindbergh in Canadian history? Was there a sporting event in this country that could match the excitement of the Tunney-Dempsey title fight, or the homerun race of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig? Any industrialist of the power and scope of Henry Ford?
Canadian historians seem fixated on very early Canada, and mostly through the actions of political leaders. Typical Canadian history books have titles like Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Vol. 1. Passion, Reason and Politics, 1825-1857 and its follow-up thriller, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Vol.2. The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868. (Seriously, those are real books.) What other country could produce a two-volume biography of someone called an ‘extreme moderate’?
Maybe that’s the problem with Canadian history — could it be that we’re a nation of extreme moderates, which doesn’t produce exciting history? Or is it that we just don’t have history writers of the caliber of Bryson? The last really popular Canadian historian I can think of is Pierre Berton, who wrote a series of hugely popular books on Canadian history. But Berton has been dead for nearly a decade, and no one to my knowledge has stepped forward to replace him. (My favorite Berton book, by the way, is The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama, published in 1977.)
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe our history is exciting and weird, and filled with colorful characters. Maybe there is a great Canadian history writer out there that I don’t know of. I hope I’m wrong, and I hope you’ll let me know if I am. If there are great Canadian history books out there (preferably 20th century history, 1920s-1940s, my favorite era), I’d love to know what they are.
Until then, I’ll just have to assume that the Roaring Twenties in Canada were the Boring Twenties.