CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 19 . . . . May 26, 2006
The Dreadful Truth: Building the Railway is Ted Staunton's second attempt to make Canadian history seem Thrilling! and Crazy! and Hilarious! and Important! His previous book in this series is Dreadful Truth: Confederation.
It's a puzzle to imagine just whom this book is for. Is it for young teenagers who:
1. Read poorly but love to read about Canadian history?
2. Would read Canadian history more, especially about the railway, if only it were “a big nutty story”?
3. Are reluctant readers required to research Canadian history, who will find themselves consumed in history nonetheless because this book contains funny cartoons and frequent amusements, such as calling John A. Macdonald “Sir John Eh,” calling Bank of Montreal president George Stephen “an all-round dull guy,” and then adding a “nutty” reference to his “Scots thrift”?
Number three seems the most likely, despite the fact it is hard to imagine such an audience actually exists.
For an example of Staunton 's careless use of words and poor historic research, just look at the paragraph quoted at the top of this review. Is it possible that any historian or sixth grader today would accept that in the mid-19th century “only a few people even knew what was beyond the Great Lakes? Staunton 's vague statement compels several questions about basic historic facts. What about First Nations who lived beyond the Great Lakes? What about the Fur Trade? Didn't the trappers and traders go past the Great Lakes? What about les voyageurs? What about the French and British explorers companioned with First Nations guides and team members? The North West Company was in Athabasca . Simon Fraser found the mouth of the Fraser River in 1811. All of the formal exploration provided maps and journals: a tremendous volume of available information. If a student picked up this book and knew nothing yet of the historic events about which Staunton writes, he or she could be forgiven for believing, erroneously, that in the mid-19 th century in Ontario “only a few people even knew what was beyond the Great Lakes.”
This book is an embarrassment. It is not history, but a flamboyantly told story that uses names and dates from Canadian history, lavishly illustrated with cartoons (by Brian Goff) designed to make events look funny. This approach treats anticipated readers (whoever they may be) like idiots. No respect is shown for the reader of history.
Staunton's treatment of Louis Riel alone should give every teacher and librarian pause before ever using (or purchasing) this book. What figure in our history is subject to more debate than Riel? Surely no respectable historian would fail to note that the story of Riel is highly contested and that there can be no definitive statement regarding a justification or explanation of his choices. Staunton 's introduction to Riel describes him as “young, charismatic, violent – and a Catholic mystic to boot.” Apparently this is a very dangerous combination. Staunton describes an episode where Riel, living in Montana, is invited to return to Manitoba to help lead the Metis fight for land they had been promised. “Riel, broke and teaching school in Sun River, Montana, was happy to oblige. Unhappily, he wasn't quite the same Louis Riel. Since sneaking in to sign the Parliamentary register in 1874, he'd also signed the register in a couple of insane asylums. By now he was having visions and saying he was a prophet. This did not make him a calming influence…” Staunton's Metis leader is insane yet readying for battle: what a ridiculous sight.
The same episode recounted by The Canadian Encyclopedia Online does not call Riel “insane.” It lists the mental asylums he stayed at, but does not suggest whether or not he belonged in them by today's mental health standards. In the Encyclopedia, Riel returns to Saskatchewan, not Manitoba. It further states Riel led the 1885 battle on Batoche, which is in Saskatchewan, “convinced that God was directing him, and seeing himself as the ‘Prophet of the New World.'” George Bush has said he sees himself this way (if not in exactly these words), and what of Joan of Arc? The Canadian Encyclopedia makes no case for sanity or insanity. So who is “an award-winning children's author and entertainer” to be so glib and certain? It forces you to question the accuracy of all the book's glib statements.
Imagine your pride as a teacher or librarian when you see a student of his or her own initiative pick up a Canadian history book and read it out of interest. Or imagine a reluctant reader considers the book's first page and ends up reading the whole book. The book says or clearly implies that First Nations people are not relevant to Canadian History, Metis are not relevant to Canadian History, Scottish people are cheap, Catholic mystics are dangerous, the “insane” are potentially dangerous. Then imagine that a First Nations child, or Metis child, or Scottish child, or Catholic child, or child whose parent has a mental illness asks you if what the book says (about them and their family) is true. Or worse: Imagine the child simply assumes the book is true and says nothing at all to anyone.
The book is not indexed. It has no bibliography, but a list of suggested readings including Pierre Berton's The Last Spike.
Michael Groberman is a library studies student at the University of British Columbia with a special interest in children's literature.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.