________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 19 . . . . May 27, 2005


100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces.

Merna Forster.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2004.
319 pp., pbk., $24.99.
ISBN 1-55002-514-7.

Subject Headings:

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

***1/2 /4


Carrie Matilda Derick had the curious honour of being one of the few women to be listed in American Men of Science (1910) – acknowledgment of her status as a distinguished scientist. She earned international recognition for her research on heredity and became a pioneer in the study of genetics, but her impressive academic credentials weren’t enough to land the job that many felt she deserved: Chair of Botany at McGill University.

Quote by Anne Hébert: “ Poetry is no Sunday recreation. It is hunger and thirst, bread and wine.”

Despite the growth in biographical publishing in Canada, few would argue with Forster’s assertion that “[w]omen are practically invisible on the pages of Canadian history textbooks”. This volume is a welcome effort to make the achievements of women in Canadian history better known. While it is not clearly stated, all women included in this volume are no longer alive—a common criterion with major biographical works like the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

     In the introduction, Forster defines heroine broadly as “a woman noted for courage and daring action, or a woman noted for special achievement in a particular field.” Her selection of one hundred women spanning the alphabet from Maude Abbott to Marie-Marguerite d’Youville is necessarily subjective but includes many of the people one would expect to find here: artist Emily Carr, writers E. Pauline Johnson and Lucy Maud Montgomery, social reformer Nellie McClung, and the founder of the Ursuline order of nuns in New France, Marie Guyart (Marie de l’Incarnation). Forster has attempted to include women who lived in different regions of Canada, who were active in a variety of fields including the arts, medicine, education, religion and philanthropy, who represent a broad spectrum of social and racial backgrounds, and who lived in both the recent and distant past. Thus you’ll find some surprising entries such as those for Anna Mae Maloney Aquash, a Mi’kmaq activist murdered in South Dakota, Florence Deeks who unsuccessfully sued H.G. Wells for plagiarism, or Marie-Joseph Angélique, a young slave who allegedly set fire to her owner’s home in Montreal in 1734 in a failed attempt to escape to freedom with her white lover. Women who died prior to 1899 account for twenty-two entries with the earliest being that for Viking explorer Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir dated pre-1000?, forty-one entries for women who died between 1900 and 1949, thirty-three who died between 1950 and 1999, and four for women who died between 2000 and 2002, the year when both Jean Lumb and Asayo Murakami died.

     Entries vary from one to four pages in length, and all begin with a caption title, the full name of the subject, inclusive dates, a black and white portrait or photograph, and a single sentence that summarizes an important facet of achievement. For example:

A Mohawk Diplomat
Molly Brant (Gonwatsijayenni)
ca. 1736-1796
She was a bridge between two worlds – Whites and Natives.


     The bulk of the entries consist of concise, informative text featuring summaries of the subjects’ lives, with an emphasis on their most notable achievements. The writing style is not overly formal. Forster tends to note if the subject has been commemorated by Canada Post with a postage stamp, and if the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada has designated them as a national historic person. Often she includes the year of the commemoration or designation but is not consistent. Likewise, the portraits used do not always indicate the approximate date of the image. These are minor faults. For some of the lesser known subjects, Forster indicates if stage plays or operas have been mounted in recent years to bring the subjects’ life stories before modern audiences. The entries conclude with a quote by the subject or in a few cases a quote about the subject. A small percent of the entries includes a second illustration or photograph, such as a second portrait, a reproduction of a work of art, or a photograph of an entertainer in action.

     Forster has an M.A. in history and has worked for two decades with Parks Canada developing education programs both for national parks and national historic sites. This background explains her heavy use of unpublished agenda papers prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. A strength of this book is the 438 detailed endnotes (that include section headings with names of the biographees) that demonstrates the fact that Forster has used secondary AND primary sources to write this volume—no small feat. The citations in the endnotes and in the bibliography (that extends to ten pages) will give readers guidance for additional research. In most instances, the endnotes reveal that the author consulted more than one source for each subject. One small complaint about the endnotes: Forster is inconsistent in some of her citations, referring to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography in its full name once, but usually citing it as DCB, and a volume number in Roman numerals, an abbreviation that many readers may not understand. Citations for e-resources are not as complete as they should be.

     A few suggestions for making this work even more useful: provide indexes by geographic region, field of endeavour, ethnic identity, and maybe by chronological period perhaps by both year of birth and year of death. A webliography would make a nice addition to the bibliography, and it should include the url for the online edition of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Finally, if this work is reprinted, correct the name of artist Doris (not Dorothy) McCarthy quoted in the introduction. While Forster plans a second volume of dead Canadian heroines, a companion volume of living Canadian heroines is also most welcome.

     A must for all Canadian secondary schools and public libraries.

Highly Recommended.

Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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