Tag Archives: canadian history

The Madman and the Butcher: Better Butcher than Madman


Tim Cook’s popular history, The Madman and the Butcher tackles the biographies of Canadian WWI figures, Sir Sam Hughes and Sir Arthur Curries, respectively. For those of you not up-and-up on your Canadian history, Sam Hughes worked as the Minister of Militia and MP before/during/after WW1, and Arthur Currie served first in the war as a brigadier general and eventually as the Lieutenant General of the Canadian Corp (the first Canadian, rather than a British soldier, to command a corp of Canadian soldiers).

While Cook’s history purports to be about balancing the historical record in terms of the “reputations” of each man — Hughes and Currie, have both at various points between 1914 and the present been libeled as the titular ‘madman’ and ‘butcher’ respectively — it is tilted much in favour of redeeming, and in some respects resurrecting the fading history of, Arthur Currie.

I am not at all opposed to this move on the part of Cook, I just wondered whether the book might have benefited (a great deal) from making Currie the explicit focus, rather than including the oftentimes strained and repetitive chapters on Hughes. While I appreciate the desire to set up an opposition between the two men (an opposition mirrored by Hughes’s eventual and aapparent hatred of Currie), the chapters on Currie are by far the more engaging (particularly the section on the famous libel trial).

I admired Cook’s efforts to refract growing Canadian nationalism and the successes of the Canadian corps through biography. I’m not sure the effort was successful in the case of Hughes, as his nationalist vigour to mount an impressive Canadian civilian-soldier army is tempered by his imperialist vision and the relatively minor impact he played after 1916. In the case of Currie, however, Cook does well to demonstrate the parallel struggle of Currie to establish his individual authority and the Canadian Corps’s growing recognition both home and abroad as an identifiable (and formidable) unit.

I am less impressed by the repetition in the middle section of the book, in particular, (as mentioned) with reference to Sam Hughes’s ego, lies and slander. I do think that rather than describe each battle the Canadian corps participated in, Cook might have done better to select several battles that represented key points in Currie-cum-Canada’s development, rather than the (sometimes exhausting) description of each movement of artillery.

The last third of the book that deals with the libel trial is engaging and engrossing, and does a terrific job of getting at Cook’s purported intent of addressing the “war of reputations.” Again, this “war” has nothing to do with Hughes, and everything to do with Currie. Hence, a book that is far better at dealing with the butcher, than the madman.


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The Trade: Dressing up colonialism


Fred Stenson’s 2000 novel The Trade was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which I think is pretty neat considering the novel focuses on the fur trade, and as you might well imagine, the fur trade is not usually a sexy or glamorous topic. I say “usually” because Stenson does include some sexy-glam, but not nearly enough to titillate a Giller jury (though maybe I’m projecting here, as the Giller has recognized a fair number of novelists writing historical fiction: Margaret Atwood, Michael Crummey, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Anne Michaels, Wayne Johnston, Jane Urquhart, John Bemrose, Elizabeth Hay, and most recently, Joseph Boyden). So maybe my point is less that historical fiction is unpopular and unrecognized, and more that it is a triumph of the Canadian h.f. novelist. In this case Stenson takes what grade seven history turned into a mind-numbingly-dull exercise in remembering that the NorthWest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company merged in 1822, and turns it into a fascinating and engaging narrative of deceit, violence, betrayal and madness. 

My favourite part? When a cat adopts orphaned bunnies only to watch while the bunnies get eaten. A microcosm for the rest of the narrative that sees (somewhat unconvincingly innocent) good-hearted and sincere men turned violent, or become objects of extreme and disproportionate violence. Stenson ultimately lays the blame for the violence of the fur trade at the hands of “colonialism,” but does so by personifying the ruthless economy of colonialism in the HBCo governor. This sleight, whereby colonialism is not blamed for the devastation of the land, the buffalo and indigenous people, but rather the governor is, remains a problem for me.

That said, Stenson does well to draw attention to the complexity and pervasiveness of colonial violence by including a missionary and an artist-in-the-field-reporter (I should say that the epistolary narratives of the missionary and artist are distracting and awkward inclusions at the end of a narrative that has otherwise been third-person omniscient) as a way of gesturing to the ways colonialism, Christianity and archival “truth” (in the form of paintings and written histories) sustain one another.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Historical Fiction

Kanata: the lisping Nobel bow-tie nancy

Don Gillmor presents Kanata as something of an epic; scratch that, he presents it as the Canadian epic, noting in his author’s remarks that “chief among the many challenges of historical fiction is finding a way to condense a huge volume of material into a coherent narrative” (447).

It isn’t a coherent narrative; he hasn’t condensed a huge volume of material. Instead the novel picks and chooses choice moments and figures from Canadian history (all men, all either politicians or military heroes) and goes about narrating these moments – the narrator is a history teacher speaking to a boy in a coma (because of course the only way someone would listen to this kind of rambling history lesson is if they were comatose and unable to flee the room).

The patchwork “map” – the novel is overly fixated on the metaphor of the map in forming the nation. I say overly fixated because every second page references a map, even if it’s only “the lines on her face form a rough map – of historical events and characters might be tolerable if not for the heavy-handed exploitation of the protagonist as the Metis hero – the man who brings together the divided nation (at last!) and understands the complexities and compromises necessary to do so. What Gilmor fails to realizes is that the compromises he has made to “condense” the history and find some kind of politically correct indigenous inclusion is to cast all indigenous peoples as either drunk or complicit in their own subjugation. Indeed a triumph of Canadian nationalism.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Worst Books