I HAVE BEEN assigned this small pile of picture-books at a time when the nation's unification seems more threatened than ever, when university students are graduating into a depression economy that holds no job offerings, when the extension of a free-trade "deal" to include Mexico is predicted to suck even more blue-collar employment opportunities out of this country than the US arrangement effected, when bankruptcies and taxes continue to climb, when we are told to stay out of the sun at high noon. Perhaps I can be pardoned for finding much to be gloomy about in these pretty books.
In Canadian Sunset (Trans-Anglo Books, 112 pages, $44.95 cloth), Adolf Hungry Wolf eulogizes the passing train in a most specific manner. This resident of the Kootenay region of British Columbia, who has written some 40 books on railroading, Native culture, and the outdoor life, has collected 142 colour photographs of the "Canadian," the CN train that, from 1955 to 1989, clacked for four days and three nights back and forth between Montreal and Vancouver. A major artery carrying Canadians to visit relatives, to move their lives toward new dreams, to flee, to do business, and to see their country, the "Canadian" was another unifying agent of national self-interest debilitated by the current government in Ottawa. Its route truncated, the train now runs as an expensive holiday option for foreign tourists. (On its last run through Ottawa, the "Canadian" was greeted by a coffin carried by members of Transport 2000.) Wolf's pictures depend too heavily on CN file photos of engines gleaming in stations or rows of passenger cars winding over mountain trestles but he has written captions nicely indicative of his own youthful love of trains: "As the two trains passed with a combined speed of over 150 mph, only seconds went by before we lost sight of each other. A brief instant of whooshing sounds echoed in our ears as the images of speeding silver cars blurred into swirling clouds of snow." Basically a portfolio for the rail fanatic, Canadian Sunset has been titled with a distinctly ironic intention.
Ron Brow's The Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More (Broadview, 220 pages, $29.95 cloth) strikes an even more ominous note of a nation being cut off from its folk roots. On the one hand, Brow simply furnishes a compendium of old photographs of small-town railroad stations, and in the process provides a valuable architectural history of a special-function structural form. Most of the stations (now closed, boarded up, or turned into gift shops) are well documented in Brow's avid but precise prose. On the other hand, Brow bemoans the passing of these stations, understanding that the closing of a train station often means entropy for a community. He points out that "in just two short decades the railway stations of Canada had gone from being the most important institution in town to the status of a hole in the ground." Brow has produced a fascinating, well-researched, dolorous book.
Harvest (Fifth House, 128 pages, $34.95 cloth) portrays the bringing in of the sheaves on a Saskatchewan farm. Todd Korol's colour photographs are somewhat matter-of-fact in content and composition, but nevertheless luminous, and Sharon Butala, in prose redolent of Prairie flatness, annotates the toils and pleasures of family farm life, the struggle against insurmountable economic odds, and the political insensitivity to the central importance of rural life. (How paradoxical that the population of the second largest country in the world, and a country known to excel in "communications," increasingly huddles in a dozen or more urban centres.) Although "unseen and nebulous forces from around the world seem to be banding together to destroy" them, farmers persevere; "harvest goes on, year after year, with its tensions, its long hours, its worries, and its hard work."
If he had not been so entrenched in urban life, C. H. Gervais would have painted Canada's farm workers. Gervais was a Canadian artist totally out of the mainstream of the art world's strongest currents - which is to say an artist interested neither in modernist theories nor in the cult of Jungian self-analysis. He even avoided landscapes: "Landscapes! The country's been landscape-painted to death. A foreigner could go into a Canadian art gallery and think Canada was just a land of beautiful lakes and forests and scenery, and would leave knowing nothing about the people. Without the people it's nothing but a piece of topography." just look at Lorraine Monk's Canada with Love/Canada avec amour (Firefly, 112 pages, $29.95 cloth), a photographic tribute to nationhood first published in 1982 and recently reissued. Of the 50 colour calendar photos of this land, only one includes a human being (and her back is turned to the viewer). Gervais was interested in people and especially in those economically or socially disadvantaged ("marginalized and alone"), in their mundane lives, and in the ways that their travails wore them down. Always sensitive to the political dimensions lurking above and below the plight of working folk, Gervais never abandoned the pursuit of transforming his convictions and his commiserations into visual documents. Thus his work was, and remains, unfashionably representational, a fervent form of illustration (ooooh ... that nasty word to the artiste). In People in Struggle (Penumbra, 144 pages, $24.95 paper), W. J. Stapleton contributes a retrospective of Gervais's art, a biography of his life (constructed around interviews with the artist), and a modest social history of a brand of metropolitan life too often excluded by prevailing cultural tastes.
If these books all sound too subliminally morbid, you can always choose to flip through Summer Cottages (Stoddart/Boston Mills, 158 pages, $50 cloth), by John de Visser and Judy Ross. This well-produced paean to the "essence of summer cottage style" (the colour plates, printed in Singapore, are especially fine) will dispense a double dose of Librium and Halcyon for those who just love to "get away from it all." Here are some of the best-appointed Canadian dachas, quite devoid of their inhabitants, but not the sachet of their money. I mean, I don't begrudge anyone a retreat, but why are there no pictures of the battle to get there, or of rainy-day doldrums; and why is the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the office of the Secretary of State funding a book on interior-decorating ideas for country cottages? John de Visser took the excellent photographs and Judy Ross wrote the captions: "Dapple sunlight and white impatiens against the blue-gray exterior of a Lake Joseph cottage. The board-and-batten addition blends seamlessly with the old stone-pillared cottage." There's not one smelly sweat sock on the floor, or one spot of mildew on the walls. Who is selling what to whom in this book?
Though the most politically correct might argue the point, I can't say that there are social or economic shadows hanging over Dorothy K. Burnham's To Please the Caribou (Royal Ontario Museum, 304 pages, $35 paper); but an important academic criticism must be voiced. Burnham has been associated with the ROM since 1929 and has served there as curator of the textile department. In her latest publication, subtitled Painted Caribou-Skin Coats Worn by the Naskapi, Montagnais, and Cree Hunters of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula, this senior scholar has carefully catalogued 60 caribou-skin coats, dating between 1700 and 1930, which were ritually worn to honour and to placate the quarry before the hunt. For pursuing her project through North American and European collections, and for the assiduousness of her detailed descriptive annotations as well, Burnham is to be congratulated. But therein lies the problem: her taxonomies of design motifs, which comprise the bulk of her catalogue, totally lack any theoretical exegesis or rationale. Burnham seems oblivious to current writing (especially that of the American art historian J. Abramson) that relates the design patterns she describes not only to similar design systems in (for example) Shang bronzes and New Guinea shields, but also to deeply embedded grammatical rules of form that operate throughout these motif pattern systems and, even more intriguingly, within the informing cultures themselves. There is a dimension of intellectual understanding of, and debate about, her primary material that is absent from Burnham's descriptive catalogue.