Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Post for History Nuts


You have to be a real history nut to enjoy reading Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography with its minute descriptions of every battle he fought in the American Civil War. Well that history nut is me.  My husband, the late Captain Marc Baril of the Royal Canadian Signal Corps loved to read and discuss military strategy and tactics and so I picked up a love for this historical niche. I can understand very well why some adults play with toy soldiers or why a friend travelled from Kingston to Dakota to walk the field of Custer’s Last Stand.

That said, Grant’s autobiography is a model of clear, simple and elegant prose and is often listed as one of the best ever written.

But only a double history nut would tackle the Victorian curlicues of  The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, the grandson of one American president and the great grandson of another.  Adams was writing about the same time as Grant but you would never know it. Adams pushed out the most complicated sentences I have ever encountered. As a young man, he travelled in Europe and during the civil war was secretary to his father, the American ambassador. I got very sick of Adams. He never calls a spade a spade; he just lets you guess it is there. I tossed him aside half way through, good history or not.

But then along came our Charlotte Gray, lolling in book form in a second hand book shop on Duckworth Street in St. John’s.  The book, Canada: A Portrait in Letters is a collection from the earliest years through the First World War, the Depression, the Second World War and on to the near present.  The letters record triumphs, hardships, battles, love affairs, loneliness, rough times and good times. Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King writes to a little girl, a prairie wife in the depression writes for help for her husband, a soldier in the trenches writes his last letter home. This is history at its finest. Thanks Charlotte.

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