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Newman, Peter C.

Markham (Ont.), Viking, c1985. 413pp, cloth, $25.00, ISBN 0-670-80379-0. Distributed by Penguin Canada. CIP

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Robin Lewis

Volume 14 Number 2
1986 March

Peter Newman, former editor of the Toronto Star and Maclean 's, is best known for his The Canadian Establishment (McClelland and Stewart, 1975 and 1981) and other studies of power in Canadian society. The Hudson Bay Company once controlled the world's fourth largest empire, and has been one of the most enduring, if not endearing, private business ventures. As such it is an appropriate subject for Newman's investigative talent.

This, the first volume in a projected series, covers HBC history from about 1600 to 1800. Appendices contain the original HBC charter, a list of company governors, footnotes, brief biographies of early investors, and a useful chronology. Antique maps have lost detail and appeal due to the decrease in size, but the two bold modern maps are useful. An index and a sixteen-page bibliography are given. Newman is honest and generous' in crediting his research assistants, and lists over a hundred people whom he interviewed.

The variety of materials consulted and the meticulous detail will make this a standard reference text. But Newman himself has understood the risk of thoroughness. He wanted to "popularize the legend" and to spin the storyteller's tale accurately without getting tangled in a web of detail. He has occasionally found this difficult. The commonplace that early traders were often bearded does not merit a discursive footnote on the pirate Blackbeard. Much told here is familiar to students of Canadian history and geography, and is more vividly recounted in the (more lengthy) original sources. Occasional jumps in chronology are distracting. Newman goes from the Precambrian era to Samuel Hearne's time, to World War II, and one must reread in order to follow the train of logic unifying three seemingly disparate periods. More often, detail is justified. The brief comments on York boats, relate their design to their use, and the availability of building materials. The background of Orkney-men explains their value as HBC employees. Newman also makes use of recent work, such as the mutual dependency theory of Francis and Morantz presented in Partners in Furs. *

Chapter content varies greatly. Sections of the book deal with themes (beaver, trade), groups (Indians, Nor'westers) or conflict (naval war on the bay). Biographical material appears regularly. The account of Prince Rupert is instructive and entertaining. Newman is a fine writer with a pleasant style and a sharp eye for a memorable quote. Many of his own phrases from this book are certain to become familiar Canadian quotations. Only occasionally does Newman let his sense of humour override accuracy. The Indians who went to England in 1848 definitely suffered from the change of climate and diet. It is flippant to say that they perished from pneumonia and English cooking. This reviewer has had seventeen years of lovingly prepared English cooking and has suffered neither from indigestion nor the cold.

Robin Lewis, Riverdale H.S., Pierrefonds, Que.

*Reviewed vol. XI/4 July 1983 p. 163.

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