This summer, expat Craig Taylor is rediscovering his homeland through the Canadiana collection of the Abbey Bookshop in Paris’s Latin Quarter.
What is a “cottage book,” and, more importantly, from which dark materials are such books forged? Where do they come from? They seem eternal; what hand first placed them on the shelves? Not everyone has access to a cottage, but most have glimpsed or heard about these books, which might grow straight from the walls. Left behind for the winter months on the banks of groaning lakes and frozen rivers, their provenance remains mysterious.
The books on the shelves of my grandmother’s small cottage seemed to have taken shape back when Lake Simcoe was still called Ouentironk (“Beautiful Water”) by the Huron. They formed a backdrop, and even now the memory of them provokes a synesthetic reaction – one red spine brings the taste of sun-warmed mayo on bologna. Because the Reader’s Digest collections on the top shelf were Condensed Books, I remember thinking they’d somehow be sweeter.
There were a few Pierre Berton books on the cottage shelves, as Berton was for me the designated grandparental author. His books were linked with pensions and seriousness; they were heavy, clothbound and it seemed there was one dedicated to each era: Canada: Its Birth; Canada: Its Puberty; Canada: Will It Ask Janine To the Prom?
On the other side of my family, I remember my grandfather’s copy of Berton’s Vimy Ridge, which was less a book and more a visual reminder, placed in the living room, that war and its legacy was present but lay unspoken, even in this calm house in Qualicum Beach, B.C. His own experiences in the Second World War in Italy and Holland were shut and off limits, just like that heavy book with its green, unforgettable spine. With all this baggage and meaning, how could a person even approach a Berton?
Opening these bricks is important; they’re not what they seem. During those childhood summers on the edge of Lake Simcoe, I was sometimes taken with my cousin Michael to a used bookstore in Barrie, Ont., where a few floor fans purred against the summer air. We chose books packed with non-Berton excitement – Pet Sematary, It, Cujo, Christine, The Shining – contraband that needed to be smuggled back to the cottage. Little did I know at the time, but I could have picked up a Berton from the shelf instead. The Last Spike, his account of the drive to construct a railway across prairie and mountain, is, upon rereading it in 2013, actually a Stephen King story.
How so? There is a force, a dark, unstoppable force, known by three initials, sweeping across the land, leaving an irrevocable change in its wake. Historians might still be frustrated by Berton’s galumphing pop histories and his allergy to footnotes, but, recast as horror, The Last Spike succeeds. It’s 1881 and the Canadian Pacific Railway presses across the prairie armed with nearly supernatural powers. It could dictate shape and more: “The company could, and did, change the centre of gravity by the simple act of shifting the location of the railway station.” Growth and stagnation; life and death; the CPR fought landsharks squatting the banks of the Assiniboine. All-powerful and definitely scarier than a dog like Cujo, it could conjure “scores of raw communities which would erupt from the naked prairie.”
If a settler dared ask for more money for his land, scenes of dread unfolded: the CPR would simply move the town two miles down the road. In its wake, the unlucky settlement of Grand Valley “was a living corpse.” Its few remaining buildings, according to one of Berton’s sources “made a noise like a death rattle.” The results are sensual and boisterous. Brandon, the CPR’s town, comes “alive with the incense of fresh lumber.”
I liked Berton’s omnivorous appetite, but I was thankful for the books I found next. After The Last Spike, I read the panels of desolate beauty in Chester Brown’s Louis Riel. For all his pleasurable verbosity, Berton cannot touch what Brown shows with his artwork. While rereading this graphic novel, I thought, “Why is this book not given to every schoolchild in Canada?” I would never ask a student to pick up a Berton (back pain; lawsuits), but has Canadian history ever been portrayed with more lyrical space, beauty, complexity and drama than Brown’s Riel?
After the clamour of the railway expansion, perhaps it was fitting that poets filed in behind Berton and Brown. The bustle, the land booms, the rebellions, even the great facial whiskers abated. When “the road” was finished, Berton moved on to the next great Canadian chapter with his uninhibited style. I was left to read Robert Kroetsch, whose poem Seed Catalogue examines a prairie not even the great CPR’s powers could ever change: “This is a prairie road/ The road is the shortest distance/ between nowhere and nowhere/ This road is a poem.”
In that same work, Kroetsch writes with what I thought was a sense of reclamation, long after spikes are driven and the great men of history move on: “No trees/ crowd the house/ Only the wind./ Only the January snow./ Only the summer sun.”