If Richard Gwyn’s books were published in the United States, they’d be catapulted instantly onto all the bestseller lists and remain there for a long stretch.
Serious American readers display an unquenchable thirst for biographies of their country’s founders. In recent years, biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin have graced the lists. These gentlemen, Adams excepted, had been written about repeatedly. Yet, new books about them and their times seem to hold an enduring fascination for serious Americans.
As for Abraham Lincoln, serious readers can’t get enough of him. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, about how Lincoln dealt with his cabinet members and Republican Party rivals, was a runaway success. Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in history and sold well.
In Canada, Mr. Gwyn has produced a wonderfully researched, engagingly written two-volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, beautifully presented by Random House Canada. This is history on a grand scale, with a riveting central character and a country being literally built around him.
Nation Maker is an appropriate title for the second volume. Canada came together under Macdonald’s watch, and with his care. In the same time frame, the Meiji Restoration thrust Japan into the world, Bismarck united Germany and Il Risorgimento resulted in a united Italy. Canadian modesty aside, Canada has been a good deal less disruptive of the international order than these three countries for the past century and a half. Put that way, Canadian history is something to ponder, even celebrate.
And yet, celebrate it we do not, leaving aside this federal government’s foolishness of commemorating the War of 1812 and its affection for the British monarchy. In schools, history remains an orphan, barely taught, often entirely neglected. In the media, ahistoricism reigns. Even in universities, it’s alarming to be among graduates for whom Pierre Trudeau is a vague figure, Sir Wilfrid Laurier an inconnu, and Sir John A. the man with a big nose on our currency.
To write a serious book on history, or almost any Canadian subject these days, is to enter a media/retail world of shrinking or vanished book-review pages, chain stores devoting increasing space to picture frames and gifts, and a public broadcaster gone long astray from its legislative mandate to “enlighten, inform and entertain.” So all the more power to Mr. Gwyn, and his publisher, for believing in this project of recapturing Macdonald’s immense contributions to defining Canada.
Macdonald was a man of many imperfections, which is perhaps why he expected less-than-angelic behaviour from his fellow men. He drank a great deal, went missing in action for stretches (including long vacations in England), held the Indian affairs portfolio but made egregiously wrong decisions at key moments.
Yet, he had a vision of a country with all its crinkled diversity and improbable distances. He loved the British connection, but, as Mr. Gwyn explains, always sought distance between the Mother Country and the new creation, the strategy adopted by his successors until Britain ceased to be a world power. He held the English Protestants and the French Catholics together more in a marriage of convenience than a tight embrace, despite factional tensions over language and religion. They’re still together in that distant but enduring relationship.
Canada, as it approaches the 150th anniversary of Confederation, is an old country as federations go. Only the American and Swiss federations are older. And history is littered with failed federations or multinational empires. Even today, the federation that Britain has become totters as the Scots seriously contemplate independence. What an irony it would be if Britain fell apart as a united country, but Canada didn’t.
Mr. Gwyn, a long-time journalist, proved his skill in writing biographies of Joey Smallwood and Pierre Trudeau. Now, with Nation Maker, he has demonstrated his skill again, this time as a historian. It’s a pity that his biography of Sir John A. doesn’t fall on more fertile ground.