This Canada of Ours (1929), by Maud Morrison Stone

Stone, Maud Morrison, and J.S. Morrison. This Canada of Ours: A Pictorial History (Toronto Musson, 1929).

This post is a bit academic, as I have copied it over from our Canada’s Early Women Writers project blog. Sometimes the cross over is really interesting: Maud Morrison Stone, for example, was co-author of one of the first forays into the graphic narrative format…

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Maud Morrison Stone’s great-niece, Christine Owen, a recently retired lawyer who had been sorting through her parents’ papers. She kept running across papers referring to and written by this author relative, and so began to search the internet for more information. And found us. All we had about Maud Morrison Stone at the time was a reference to one book: This Canada of Ours (1937). Now we know so much more.

About the text

The publication of This Canada of Ours has some interesting aspects to it. The first edition was actually 1929, and came in a paper slipcover with a drawing of a young boy reading on it (or some such design; Christine was not entirely sure). Christine also has another 1929 edition, from which I have scanned a few pages, which is likely a second printing, as it includes no slipcover. You can note on the cover, though, that the book is credited first to J.S. Morrison, Maud’s brother John Stuart, who illustrated the book. While this might seem odd, or even male chauvinist, it is in fact the remnant of the book’s first life as a graphic narrative, serialized from 2 May 1925 through 23 May 1929 in a number of Canadian periodicals (Border Cities Star (Windsor, ON), Brantford Expositor, Calgary Herald, Cowichan Leader (Duncan, BC), Edmonton Journal, Lethbridge Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Journal, Canadian Observer (Sarnia, ON), Saskatoon Star, St. Catharines Standard, The Times Journal (St. Thomas, ON), Sydney Post, Vancouver Province, Victoria Colonist, Winnipeg Tribune). So in the first iteration, J.S. Morrison was far more than just the illustrator. (For a better discussion of early North American educational comics as a genre, see John Adcock’s post of 22 October 2012 on Yesterday’s Papers.)

While the serialized graphic narrative and the 1929 edition were intended as an educational tool for school children, in 1937 a revised and expanded edition was published, intended for a more adult audience. This edition included 63 chapters, and covered much more of Canadian history than the earlier edition’s 29 chapters, which ended with Count Frontenac. It is interesting to note, though, that the final page of the 1929 edition reads “The End of Volume One,” more than suggesting that the remainder of the story, included in the 1937 edition, was originally intended as a second volume in the more juvenile format. Reviews of the 1929 edition are almost exclusively positive, heralding it as a fine example of this innovative narrative form for educating young readers; it would be interesting to know why the second volume was never produced. (I see an academic paper topic in the comparison of the serialized version with the two published editions, for any graduate students out there looking for something to focus on…)

About the story

It was interesting how strongly the content of This Canada of Ours corresponds to what I was taught in the early 1970s about our country, in contrast to the far more culturally balanced history taught today. The story of the naming of Canada, for example, is exactly as I remember it; I have included it here because it brings back to me another story from my youth.

In 1982, I was in Jyväskylä, Finland, as a Rotary Exchange student. The instructor of the Grade 11 English class I attended told a version of the story popular in Europe at the time. When the Spanish came up the west coast of Canada (he told the class), they saw the vast stretches of forest and mountain and pronounced: “aquí nada,” which became Ca-nada. And hence the country was defined in its vast nothingness (yes, he did add that last part). He was some not impressed when I, in my youthful egoism, pointed out the error of his position. After all, Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) founded the city of Quebec in 1608, while Captain James Cook (1728-1779) reached the west coast of Canada in 1778; both were much later than the name of Canada was in use. Wikipedia will tell you that in fact Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) was the first to use the name, which (as This is Our Canada also tells us) almost certainly comes from “kanata,” the Iroquois word for “village.” The Spanish-language story (which is a not-unknown alternate etymological explanation, Wikipedia again tells us) refers to Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue (1492) and discovering the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. But the Portuguese and Spanish stuck to depleting the cod population and didn’t go up the St. Lawrence at all, so I stand with Maud Morrison Stone on this one.

The rest of the story

The book is dedicated “To the memory of Adam Morrison and Mary McLeod Morrison, U.E.L., our father and mother, who taught us to love Canada.” A more patriotic beginning would be hard to find. The authors are obviously sincere in their appreciation of Canada and Canadian history: they begin with “The story of Canada is one of absorbing interest,” and we grow to believe them. The writing is far more engaging than the history books I read, certainly, but the sheer level of detail must have been daunting to any school-aged reader. The historical information is about 60% running text, scattered through with illustrations separate from the graphic narrative panels. Interspersed as well are snippets of poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Raleigh, and even our own Jean Blewett. More than just J.S. Morrison’s illustrations as a method of engaging readers’ interest, Maud Morrison Stone tells stories of the men (and a very few women) who helped settle North America. The authors are thorough in their understanding of the politics of settlement, including the histories of all the regions of the eastern seaboard as integral to the development of the Canadian nation.

The selection of stories seems inclusive to me, but then I was raised with this as the fundamental narrative of our nation. No matter what content was taught 40 years ago, though, it is impossible now to avoid a colonial blindness to or elision of the First Nations’ perspective. This is not the forum for intense consideration of this topic, but even more than an investigation of the textual production of This Canada of Ours, I would love to see an analysis of the colonial discourse included herein. The First Nations are included in seemingly positive or at worst neutral ways—better by far than the blatant racism of some early versions of Canadian exploration and settling—but there is an underlying feeling of important issues being mentioned then glossed over. I might not give this text to my children as a resource, but then again, I might: with the right guiding hand, the stories Maud Morrison Stone tells, however strongly embedded in the Eurocentric discourse of its time, could still today give rise to productive discussion of the real history of our nation.

(I leave you with the harrowing tale of Henry Hudson, set adrift with his young son to die on the icy Bay that afterward bore his name, Betrayed by a mutinous crew led by his first-mate, Joel, “a gutter-snipe ‘pressed’ from the streets of Bristol.” What can one expect from a starving, disheartened crew and a first-mate kidnapped and pressed into service against his will, one might ask, but the author’s sympathies are unquestionably with Hudson here.)

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Two White Rabbits (2015) by Jairo Buitrago

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 21.1.

Two White Rabbits

Illustrated by Rafael Yockteng

Buitrago - RabbitsThis review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume xxx

“The little girl in this story is travelling with her father, but she doesn’t know where they are going,” begins the dust-jacket description. As a premise, it is “moving and timely,” but the story we are given mostly confuses. A child reader, encountering the first few pages, will view it as a counting book. “When we travel, I count what I see…” are the first words the narrator gives us. The next 6 page-spreads are about counting: animals, birds, “people who live by the tracks,” the clouds… But as a counting book, it is disappointing. First, the narrator counts the animals in the barnyard: four hens, five cows, and the dog who travels with them, but she misses the seven chicks watched over by the hens; second, there are 42 birds in the sky, not the 50 she claims to count. Small things, perhaps, but the sort of detail young readers often grab on to and would find frustrating.

The destination-less travel, combined with the expressive illustrations of migrant workers, creates a powerful sense of unease (obviously intentional) and manages to synthesize very successfully the child’s experience of trust in her father with the insecurity of their flight. The soldiers that appear in both the text and illustrations, though, bring up questions that would perhaps be better to have answered. With neither a “whither” nor a (perhaps more important) “why” to the journey, there is too great a sense of troubling confusion. The father and daughter spend some time with a boy and his grandmother, who give the girl two white rabbits along with pitying glances as they leave. So in the end, the girl has “two white rabbits” to count… and we are no closer to knowing anything about their story.

The Two Trees (2015), by Sally Meadows

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 21.2.

The Two Trees

Meadows - TreesI’m not really aware of all that is out there in picture-book-land dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); most of it seems to be aimed prescriptively at children who are actually on the spectrum. The increased incidence of ASD seems to warrant more representation, especially in books that focus on the experiences of siblings and friends of children on the spectrum.

The Two Trees is the story of Jaxon, who brings home two seedlings to plant: “One was for me. One was for my older brother.” Planted close together, Jaxon’s tree grows while Syd’s does not, until it is moved into its own space. The metaphor is not actually this obvious, although it is one of the “Questions for Readers” at the end of the book. As the story progresses, Syd’s behaviour becomes increasing possible to identify as ASD, but initially it feels too much like just bad manners. That is undoubtedly part of the point, but it could be confusing to younger readers. Syd’s ASD characteristics, and Jaxon’s responses to them, are presented in simple, understandable ways for younger readers, but I think that The Two Trees needs to be introduced as being about ASD for the story to have a successful impact.

Rereading the book after I knew Syd had ASD made it a lot easier to understand, and the complexity of the relationship between the brothers took on new meaning. These complexities are part of what initially made me question the book as suitable for younger readers, but without them it could not be an honest portrayal of ASD. Overall, Meadows does an admirable job of representing a very difficult narrative space. Syd’s characteristic rigidity is balanced by Jaxon’s learning to better interpret Syd’s behaviours and comments. The final moment, when we see that Syd’s tree has grown as tall as Jaxon’s, and Jaxon giving Syd an unsolicited (of course) hug, shows how far Jaxon has come. It is, after all, his story.

Trip to the Moon (2013), by Vera Evic

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.2.

Evic - MoonTrip to the Moon tells of three Inuit boys enjoying their world in the fashion of boys everywhere: they ride their bikes, skip stones in the water, and go poking in the dirt. What Kevin, Jacob, and Michael find, though, is an old oil drum, situating them in a rural environment as much as does mention of their town: Pagnirtung, Nunavut. The simple story in English is repeated below by the same story (I assume) in Inuktitut. The drawings are simple—in differing and mixed media—with the sky a seeming homage to Emily Carr.

The oil drum, it turns out, is magic, and transports the boys to the moon, where they meet a race of little people and explore the moon’s environment much as they explored back home. When their stomachs rumble, they begin their return flight, only to have Michael slip off the drum and … “he landed—on the floor, next to his bed” (20), conforming to the “all just a dream” motif.

The story is simple, almost clichéd; the language is plain and uninspired, containing no poetic rhythm or language, no echo of oral story-telling. The drawings are acceptable, but what makes this book special is the parallel English and Inuktitut, providing a story of their culture, in their language, to young readers in Nunavut. “Inuktitut books for children” is a very slowly growing library: any addition is greatly to be welcomed.