Introducing The Idiot Historian, and happy birthday to Cecile and Annette Dionne.

Wednesday marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most amazing, uplifting and ultimately tragic stories in Canadian history. Let’s see if the lazy Canadian media, so terrible at telling Canadians stories about Canada, takes notice.

On May 28th, 1934, in Corbeil, Ont., in a tiny farmhouse, Elzire Dionne, wife of Oliva Dionne, gave birth to five identical girls, weeks premature. Today, the birth of five identical babies would still be rare, but not so unheard of that it would cause a sensation. At best, the family would get a reality show on A&E or TLC. But in 1934, no quintuplets had ever survived. The fact that they did survive, in incredibly primitive conditions, surely qualifies as one of the genuine miracles of the 20th century.

The Dionne quintuplets were a media sensation in depression-era North America. Indeed, the girls — Annette, Cecile, Yvonne, Emilie and Marie — would be a favourite of newspapers and newsreels for most of their lives. Their story is, as Pierre Berton subtitled his excellent 1978 book on their story, “a Thirties melodrama”. (The book is available at the Edmonton Public Library; I don’t know if it is still in print.) It’s a truly amazing story, with elements that would be unthinkable to 21st century audiences. I won’t go over the whole thing here, but for a pithy summery of their story, I suggest you go to The Idiot Historian, which was written by my non-idiot son, Blake. While it is not true that, as Blake writes, “The Dionne Quintuplets were often told they would form a relatively effective indoor soccer lineup if they could find a proper keeper,” the rest of it is accurate. (Might I suggest, again, a browse through the website for other historical nuggets, both domestic and international.)

I’m hoping some Canadian media outlet will take note of the anniversary. This would be a great time to showcase a fascinating, but increasingly forgotten, chapter in Canadian history, when it was judged perfectly OK to take children away from their parents and put them on display for tourists (see, I told you it was incredible). But Canadian media outlets do a terrible job of telling Canadian stories to Canadians. Many years ago, the CBC aired a terrific documentary on the Dionnes, by filmmaker Donald Brittain, which would certainly fill a hole in the CBC lineup for Wednesday (if there’s no hockey, of course). But I doubt we’ll ever see it again. History Television, which began with such promise, has no mention of the anniversary; would it be too much to ask to take Pawn Stars off the air for one night? Even Canadian History magazine (known for most of its existence as The Beaver, until current linguistic trends forced it to change its name) failed to note the anniversary.

From time to time, major events get adequate play (expect to read and hear plenty about the beginning of World War I later this year), but lesser moments in our history are glossed over and forgotten. So, so typically Canadian.

On Wednesday, the two surviving sisters, Annette and Cecile, will turn 80. They live together in St. Bruno, Que. In the extremely unlikely event either of them will read this blog, may I just wish them joyeux anniversaire. Some of us still know your story.

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Wanted: One Great Canadian history writer.

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.

Recommended reading in the Canadian history dept.

Just before the Legislature returns and this blog gets back to its unhealthy obsession with the session  — what is wrong with me? — I’d like to again recommend a couple of books that I’ve recently read. They’re strictly for Canadian history freaks, as opposed to fans of Karen Carpenter and David Clayton-Thomas.

The first is The Wild Ride, by Charles Wilkins, a beautifully illustrated story of the great North West Mounted Police march west. It’s an entertaining depiction of the extraordinary hardships faced by the earliest Mounties as they trekked west to bring good old Canadian law and order — or peace, order and good government — to the west. I got this book from the EPL, but with its outstanding illustrations, it’s the kind of book that deserves a place on any Canadian history buff’s bookshelf.

Even better is Gold Diggers, by Charlotte Gray, also available at the EPL. One of Canada’s premiere popular historians (as opposed to academic historians), Gray paints a fascinating and colorful portrait of the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s by focussing on a number of extraordinary characters who populated the original Canadian boomtown of Dawson City. There’s saintly Father Judge, who provided a moral compass for an immoral town. The amazing businesswoman Belinda Mulrooney, who almost deserves a book of her own. And of course, there’s Sam Steele, the man who, more an any individual, created the myth of the Mounties.

Gray has written a number of Canadian history books, none of which, I confess, I have read. (A bio of Mackenzie King’s mother just doesn’t appeal to me.) But I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Canadian history. It’s a corker, as they might have said in the old days.