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Canada: A Portrait in Letters, 1800-2000

by Charlotte Gray

I can imagine Charlotte Gray’s fascinating Canada: A Portrait in Letters, 1800-2000 sitting on a small table next to the toilet in a second floor bathroom. A brass floor lamp is arranged so its circle of light will fall over the shoulder of anyone reading in the tub while a porcelain wall sconce lamp hangs just next to the toilet. Why? Because although Gray has worked hard to winnow mountains of correspondence down to 217 historically representative letters, her book is really just elegant bathroom reading.

Libraries and history buffs should certainly buy it. Few books offer as broad an overview of what people were thinking at different moments in our national life. From the first letter, written in January 1800, which tells of the death in a duel of a Mr. White over a slight to his wife, to the last, a November 1999 e-mail from a Canadian servicewoman serving with NATO forces during the bombing of Kosovo, the reader is given intimate glimpses of national and personal tragedy and comedy.

Gray has written three excellent biographies for the general reader, each demonstrating her thorough research and writing skills. Here she provides short essays about the country’s history at the beginning of each section – “A Surge of Settlers, 1800-1850,” “A Nation Takes Shape, 1850-1900,” “A Half Century of Battles, 1900-1950,” and “Hurtling Towards the Millennium, 1950-2000.” She also frequently explains where her correspondents fit into the larger historical picture. Sources for each letter are given in an easy-to-read format at the end of the book, telling the reader where to go to read more from a particularly interesting voice.

The letters themselves are touching, funny, stirring, and horrifying by turns. Some of my favourites include Dr. Norman Bethune writing in 1939 from Mao’s army in China. “I don’t mind the conventional hardship – heat and bitter cold, dirt, lice, unvaried unfamiliar food, walking in the mountains, no stoves, bed or baths.” But he adds, “I dream of coffee, of rare roast beef, of apple pie and ice cream. Books – are books still being written? Do women still love to be loved?” Particularly touching is a young Saskatchewan mother writing to birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger in 1923: “If you could only tell me how to prevent conception you would make me the happiest woman in the world. Must I go on and lose all that is sweet in life and bring into the world a big family which I could not take the proper care of?”

But the reader who tries to plow through the book from start to finish will find the going tough. The cacophony of different voices and the multitude of points of view are enough to make you dizzy. Better to take it slowly. Take a bath and read only until the water cools off. Be glad you’re not with Jessie McLean, a clergyman’s daughter who wrote a friend in England from the Saskatchewan prairie, where there were no bathrooms, no privacy. “You can imagine how hard it was to get away unobserved sometimes,” she euphemistically wrote in 1884. “The night we camped on the Salt Plain, which is 40 miles across, we had to walk about five miles to get out of sight.” There wasn’t much reading done that night, I imagine.