After reading Away, I was thrilled to receive an advanced reader copy of A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects by Jane Urquhart. This literary celebration of Canadian history will be released in time to honour Canada’s 150th birthday! Urquhart’s narrative is combined with detailed illustrations drawn by Scott McKowen who also contributed by providing his own suggestions for the 50 things.
An overall theme of gratitude and appreciation was shared for the indigenous people who first inhabitated this beautiful land. Themes of resilience, perseverance and hard work, represented the challenges of building a life in Canada. Although the items became the titles and the pictures, the descriptions meandered and ended up describing other Canadian objects within the original story. For example, the chapter on Rope described Louis Riel who was charged with treason and hung to death in 1885 yet is now widely “regarded as both a hero and that found of that province” (Manitoba). The chapter Samplers told the story of a specific piece of needlework being passed through generations to Canada’s own winner of a Nobel Prize in literature, Alice Munroe. Each story is packed with history and appreciation for Canada!
It was surprising to learn, in the chapter Cowcatcher, that Prime Minster Sir John A. MacDonald had a spirited wife who chose to ride the “cowcatcher” of a train during their trip to the West Coast. Looking for excitement and a better view, she shocked the conductor by asking to ride the final 600 miles on the front of the train. Sir John A declined to share this trip and could only be persuaded to join her for 30 of those miles. Following the trip, The Yoho and Glacier national parks were created to preserve the beautiful terrain.
The Cherry Tree represented the terrible internment of Japanese Canadians during WW2 (referenced Joyce Kogowa, author of Obasan which is a book on the CBC’s 100 Novels That Make You Proud to Be Canadian list that also includes Urquhart’s novel Away). The history and pride for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was described by the Horse chapter, telling the tale of Nero, a challenging equine that was described as fierce, yet beloved and who remains preserved at the RCMP heritage centre in Saskatchewan. I also enjoyed reading about the history of Stratford and the building of a hub for Shakespeare, in the chapter Memorial, along with the reference to the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie who provided financial support for their library (and many other’s across Canada). Somehow, I had missed learning about the history of Lester B. Pearson who had helped create the first Peacekeeping force of the United Nations leading to his Nobel Peace Prize and appreciated reading this in the Medal chapter.
Urquhart incorporated her own family history in these 50 things which provides more insight into her Irish-Canadian heritage. The beauty of the 50 Things is that it inspires the reader to consider Urquhart’s choices. Would the reader choose the same items? What would they describe? What is meaningful to their own history of Canada? There are no “right or wrong” answers and the author challenges Canadian’s to research their own list of 50 unique items with a goal of having a greater understanding of our wonderful country!
This is a fantastic walk through Canadian history and would be a great book to keep close at hand to discuss, chapter by chapter, interesting facts at the dinner table. I found myself reading sections aloud and sharing details with my own family and realizing how important it is for Canadians to continue their knowledge of this great country beyond what is learned in highschool history classes. It would have made a much bigger book but I find myself wishing that there were 150 items representative of 150 years!
Urquhart shared that “Canada is always under revision and probably will remain a work-in-progress as long as it exists”.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for sending this free copy in exchange for a review.