The Concise Historical Atlas of Canada

228 pages,
ISBN: 0802042031

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Mapping Our Story
by Phyllis Reeve

When I was presented with Volume 1 of the Historical Atlas of Canada in 1987, I didn't read the book, I experienced it. Every atlas maps space; but this atlas maps space and time in a multidimensional continuum that is all about us-our space and our time. I and about 25,000 other Canadians began clamouring for more. I suffered somewhat when Volume 3 came out before Volume 2, and I had to wait until 1993 for the atlas covering my specific interests in the nineteenth century. Never mind: the other volumes provided happy revelations in the interval, and the completed set more than fulfilled expectations.

Now the University of Toronto Press has produced the Concise Historical Atlas of Canada, a one-volume distillation aimed at households of general readers and at high-school history and geography classes. At less than one-third the price of the three-volume set, this edition becomes accessible on straitened budgets.

Sixty-seven plates, selected from 200, "summarize Canadian history from prehistoric times through the European experience, starting with the Norse, a thousand years ago, to the 1960's". Each plate is a double-page spread of maps, graphics, legends, and texts constituting a single theme, and accompanied by a bibliographical note at the end of the volume. The editors sought "to create an intellectually satisfying and comprehensive overview of the life of Canada's ordinary people"-and they have succeeded.

We can follow the yearly round on a Maritime farm: clearing and cutting wood in January, making marsh hay in February and March, mending fences in April and June, then on to ploughing and sowing, calving and lambing, cod fishing, hay harvesting, etcetera. Details from the farmer's journal translate into a circular graphic, the shape being a pun on the yearly round. On other graphics and maps, we can see what his house looked like, where his ancestors and neighbours came from, where ships arrived from and set sail to, and what cargoes they carried. And we learn that, in 1784, Philis's wharf in Halifax was located at the foot of a street leading to both Anglican and Dissenting churches.

We can accompany the Acadian census taker along the shores of the Rivière au Dauphin in 1707, paying a visit to Jean Beliveau, Nicolas Barbineau, and the widow of Laurent Granter.

We can walk the main streets of Okotoks, Boucherville or Yarmouth as they appeared in 1891. A hundred years earlier, we can land our cod at the "stages" and beaches of Trois Iles, Newfoundland, and, after processing the catch, wander up to the brewery.

We can join Nelson Thibault on his trek in search of work during the Depression. And we can locate the offices of corporate presidents in 1913 Toronto.

Always the small focus contributes to a large concept. The number of schools with blackboards in 1856, 1861, and 1866 exemplifies the quest for universal schooling; and the number of farms with tractors is an indicator for farming from 1941 to 1961. Now I understand why my husband, who spent his childhood in Alberta, had a toy tractor while my brother in Quebec did not.

Unlike a conventional sequential narrative, which can present only one event at a time, the Atlas can lay out the whole story at once, sometimes, as in Plate 42: The Second World War, with considerable emotional impact. The Wars of 1756, 1812, and 1914 are also spread before us. Unfortunately, the editors omitted the unrest of 1837-38, one of my few quarrels with their choices.

Their re-organization of the material is problematic. The editors chose to abandon the chronology of the three volumes in favour of three thematic divisions: "National Perspectives", "Defining Episodes", and "Regional Patterns". Losing its continuity with its chronology, the Concise Atlas jolts us from Plate 23, which discusses airlines in 1960, to Plate 24, which returns us to the seventeenth century and close encounters with captains of specific cargo ships. Plate 47 shows us an Acadian marshland settlement, many pages after the Acadians were dispersed in Plate 36. Subdivisions within the three major sections, logical enough in the table of contents, are marked only by a change in running title, and another sudden jolt in idea set.

The suggestion that this volume might serve as a guide to the complete edition will not work. Plates and notes are reproduced with almost no change except in numbering, but without cross-referencing. The only way to ascertain that Plate 3 is taken from Volume 1, Plate 8, and that Plate 4 corresponds to Volume 2, Plate 69, is to scour the tables of contents. Thus, while each plate creates a rich internal context, it has been separated from its own larger source context.

If the Concise Historical Atlas cannot operate as a guide to the Historical Atlas of Canada, it can stand on its own as a reference work. However, the student and householders who use it will long for a glossary, not having been born knowing the definitions of "isotherm", "isohyet" or "geomorphic", or the distinction among first, second, and third prairie levels. They may find the introductions to the three sections cursory, but they will enjoy the occasional quip (for instance, that during the Great Depression, "there surely was no depression in the record-keeping offices").

The publisher hints at a forthcoming index, and I wish for an updated supplement that pays attention to Alberta and British Columbia. But I wish for more only because of the excellence that this atlas offers: exemplary and imaginative scholarship, informative content and accessibility, aesthetic appeal and fun. 

Phyllis Reeve is a librarian who lives on Gabriola Island, B.C.


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