The Oxford Companion to Canadian History

by Gerald Ed. Hallowell
ISBN: 0195415590

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A Review of: The Oxford Companion To Canadian History
by Clara Thomas

The publication of Norah Story's Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature in 1967 was a great event, one of many in that Confederation Centennial year. Miss Story, after a career in the National Archives, had given up her position to work full-time on the project, instigated by I.M. Owen, Canadian manager of the Press and assisted by the enormous and enthusiastic labour of William Toye, its editor. We who were teaching Canadian Literature, a very few at that time, were delighted at its inclusion of Literature. In Toronto, at Glendon College of the newly founded York University, I was able to have Miss Story speak to my students, to share her own boundless enthusiasm and equally boundless industry in the service of the massive project. Now, forty years on, we have had Oxford Companions to Canadian Literature in 1983 and 1997, still largely fuelled by the energy of William Toye. Gerald Hallowell, in his editorship of the present ultra-large volume, is heir to Story's enterprise and though the introductory remarks state that, "It is in no way related to Norah Story's pioneer volume," it occupies a prime place in a distinguished continuum.
In his brief Preface, Hallowell thanks his 527 contributors speculating, rightly I'm sure, that they were all frustrated by the necessity of pared-down brevity. Hallowell's aptitude for his job, developed over years of experience at the University of Toronto Press, is demonstrated throughout the volume by the combined liveliness and clarity of the finished articles. The work is a browser's delight, with that quality of intriguing interest that tempts a reader into extended excursions into the text. Contributors are listed at the beginning, and there are many useful appendices: Maps, Monarchs, Governors General, Prime Ministers, provincial premiers, national anthems and, best of all, a fine index.
Reviewing a work in this encyclopaedic genre, it is conventional to decry the omission of certain entries while giving a grudging approval to the entire work. It is very odd, for instance, to find no reference to The Literary History of Canada, or to Carl Klinck, its editor. It was published in 1965, two years before Story's Oxford Companion and remains the most important landmark we have in Canadian Literature studies. I was also ready to deplore the omission of Doris Anderson's name-until I found it in a very good article on Chatelaine magazine. Similarly, one could complain that the articles on Pierre Trudeau and John A. Macdonald are longer than those on Tommy Douglas, Rene Lvesque or Lester Pearson. This volume's entries include many individual women as both writers and subjects, as well as fine articles on feminism by Veronica Strong-Boag and Deborah Gorham, two senior historians in the field. I believe that the terms "first-wave" and "second-wave" used to place historically the feminist movements still provide handy categories for discussion, but they are out-dated now. There is a widespread recognition that the movement has been far too dispersed and usually far too individualized for such catch-all phrases. However, to quarrel with the judgment calls made by the editor about length or inclusion/exclusion is ultimately useless and childish, a reviewer's clich in fact.
There is a very high level of excellence in general articles on such subjects as "leisure", "national disasters" and "racism" that is unusual in such a volume. To pin down these topics and to write well and inclusively about them is triumph indeed! Nor are our writers neglected: certainly many whose works are woven into the fabric of our history are included-Charles Gordon (Ralph Connor), Stephen Leacock, Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence among them. Certain key publications in our Literary history are included as well-L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and Sinclair Ross's As For Me and My House, for instance. Taken all in all, this edition of The Oxford Companion to Canadian History is a major publishing event and a triumph of its kind. It provides an accessible and impressively weighty volume that should be mandatory for every library in the country. Its range is enormous. Applaud and enjoy.

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