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reflections

Reading History

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I’ve been thinking about history lately. It started with a rousing conversation with my son as he worked out three reasons why history is never completed, a school assignment that certainly eclipses anything I did in history class. His ideas ghosted me when I was reading through the heated conversation about Ken Burns’ Jazz series on George Colligan’s blog. Also in a wonderful radio interview with the writer Joseph Boyden about his new biography of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont.

History, my son suggests, is as much about story as it is about facts. Though the history teachers in my childhood would have disputed that, I think he’s onto something. History allows us to look back with the full privilege of hindsight, and we tell a story that gives significance to certain moments and connects them into a narrative. Depending on the person doing the looking, and the details that have been held in collective memory, those narratives can be wildly divergent. The blog chatter about Ken Burns bears that out!

Joseph Boyden laughs about his naivete at the beginning of the Riel-Dumont project. Fresh off his wildly successful novel, Three Day Road, he was eager to write about figures who had such an impact on both Canada and the Métis people. After several years of muscling a tangle of personality and circumstance into a mere two hundred pages of prose, Boyden has a deeper understanding of these men and their legacy, but also of the demands history places on the imagination.

Boyden’s book is part of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series. John Ralston Saul, the general editor of the series and one of this country’s intellectual heavyweights, points out that almost all of the twenty biographies have been written by novelists rather than historians. That was an intentional decision, he says, because novelists “tell the truth.”

It’s an intriguing claim. For a long time, we’ve been taught that fiction writers make things up—what they do is a long way from history. By choosing novelists, Ralston Saul is implying that history should be entrusted to people who have a talent for creating and developing character, and for exploring the range of human motivation, from the most lofty to the most debased. History rests on story, and storytellers are reaching for the deepest levels of truth.

Ralston Saul observes that contemporary culture is obsessed with celebrity, when really it is character which holds our attention. His series is interested in extraordinary Canadians, he points out, not famous ones. I like that distinction. Because celebrity traffics in the surface of people’s lives, it is insubstantial and ephemeral, even when it feels intense. Character, on the other hand, is at the core of us. It allows us to empathize with one another, even across huge gaps of time or experience or values.

When we have a chance to encounter a figure as complex and enigmatic as Riel, we’re also reminded that human nature is never fully comprehensible—not even from the inside.


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