Last month Roch Carrier, the renowned Quebecois storyteller, visited Hamilton as part of the International Festival of Authors. After the event the 77-year-old award-winning author, playwright, former director of the Canada Council for the Arts, ex-national librarian of Canada, Officer of the Order of Canada, and pretty much the definition of a cultural treasure, was handed a small photograph of a father and his young son skating on a local ice rink. (The boy, sacré bleu, was not wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey.) Says Carrier: "On the back it was written: 'Mr. Carrier, your book has been with us since my son was born. Look at his feet: That's the result of me reading it to him."
"Almost every day there is something very nice happening to me because of that story," says Carrier, sitting in the lobby of a Toronto hotel the following afternoon. "I'm surprised every day."
That story, of course, is The Hockey Sweater, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary as one of Canada's literary touchstones. Not only is it Carrier's best-loved book (and his bibliography consists of many well-loved books, including La Guerre, Yes Sir! and Prayers of a Very Wise Child) it was, for many years, something almost all Canadians literally carried with them, as the book's opening lines were printed on the five-dollar bill until 2013. (An anniversary edition of the book, which includes a DVD of the animated short film plus other bonus material, was recently published by Tundra Books.)
While he was more than happy to reminisce about The Hockey Sweater, Carrier was actually in town to discuss his latest book, Montcalm and Wolfe: Two Men Who Forever Changed the Course of History, a deeply-researched examination of one of the most significant events in Canadian history.
Growing up in a small village in rural Quebec, Carrier admits he once held a decidedly skewed view of the two men who commanded rival forces during the battle for the Plains of Abraham. It was simple, he says. Wolfe was a villain. "In school, what do we learn? Wolfe is a bandit, is a pirate, belonging to a group of people called the English. They came and they took our country. They stole our country from us."
As a young writer living in France, Carrier even made a pilgrimage to Montcalm's house in Candiac where, he writes, "I might pay homage to ... our history's greatest hero, who had been unable to save my country." Yet, he now says, he had trouble reconciling the fact that "my big hero was a loser." He also came to the realization that the version of Canadian history he learned at school might have been one-sided. "During that visit I said, 'One day I will have time and I will try to understand what happened.'"
Fast forward to a decade ago, when Jim Gifford, a senior editor at HarperCollins Canada, contacted Carrier and asked if he'd be interested in writing that very same book.
"This was a book nearly 10 years in the making," writes Gifford in an e-mail. "Over the course of his research he dredged up a lot of material on early Quebec, which he wrote up as background to the Wolfe and Montcalm story, but that didn't fit into a dual biography. With the research completed, he turned his focus fully on Wolfe and Montcalm, informed by the incredible depth of his research. The result is a highly detailed portrait of two men brought together by history. For his part, Roch says he doesn't regret one second of his work on the book..."
What strikes a reader are the similarities, rather than the differences, between these two military leaders. "They would have gotten along – after the battle," thinks Carrier, had it not been, alas, for the fact they were both killed within 24 hours of one another.
Carrier now even professes admiration for Wolfe, something that would have been impossible in his younger days. He leans in and raps his knuckles on the table in front of him: "I would like to have [Wolfe] here, sitting in this chair, with a Quebec beer!"
He's not sure all Quebeckers feel the same way. Montcalm and Wolfe was published in his home province a few weeks before it was available in English Canada, and he was curious about its reception back home.
"Many people don't want to face the story," he says. "It was a defeat. We lost. And they cannot face that. You have to find an excuse. You don't accept that. You don't forgive that. But life goes on, and you have to live. It's not only about the past, it's about the future."