Explaining the Extraordinary
When JOHN RALSTON SAUL, BA’69, DLitt’97, agreed to edit Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians, a new series of biographies about particularly significant Canucks, he had something bigger in mind than simply telling a few life stories. “I wanted to explore the creation of modern Canada.”
According to Saul, the 20 people showcased in the books—among them, women’s rights activist Nellie McClung, media studies pioneer Marshall McLuhan and prime ministers Lester B. Pearson and Wilfrid Laurier, BCL1864, LLD1898 —all played key roles in fashioning the country we know today.
In his introduction to the books, he writes, “Each one of these people has changed you. They changed how each of us sees what surrounds us, how minorities are treated, how we think of immigrants, how we look after each other, how we imagine ourselves through what are now our stories.”
The books are modest in length— generally 200 pages or less. Saul has little enthusiasm for “great big suitcase-sized biographies. They tend to give you an awful lot of information without being terribly revealing.”
The aim of Extraordinary Canadians is not so much to pore over the minutiae of their subjects’ lives, as it is to give readers a sense of their major accomplishments, their motivations and how they each had a lasting impact on a young, evolving country.
One of Saul’s chief tasks as series editor was to select the books’ authors. For the most part, he steered clear of writers best known for biographies (one notable exception is Nellie McClung writer Charlotte Gray), choosing instead some of Canada’s best-known fiction writers, including Nino Ricci (Pierre Elliott Trudeau), David Adams Richards (Lord Beaverbrook), M.G. Vassanji (Mordecai Richler) and Jane Urquhart (L.M. Montgomery).
“I’ve always had problems with the notion that non-fiction is factual while fiction is something that’s just made up,” says Saul, a prize-winning writer himself for both fiction and non-fiction. “There is a reason why great novels live for hundreds of years. A talented novelist explores the truth in a way that most [non-fiction writers] can’t.”
One of the writers Saul approached was Margaret MacMillan, the author of Paris 1919 and Nixon in China, both of them best-selling accounts of major turning points in world history. Given her track record, Saul thought MacMillan would be ideal for a biography he had in mind about a major statesman. Instead, she surprised him by asking to write about Stephen Leacock, the McGill economist and political scientist who earned worldwide fame for his satirical works.
“I was attracted to Leacock as a subject because I have always enjoyed his humorous writings, some of which I think are absolute classics,” MacMillan explains.“What surprised me [about Leacock] was how well-known he had been and how he was a public intellectual.” Leacock’s admirers included Charlie Chaplin and F. Scott Fitzgerald and his new works were eagerly anticipated by readers in the U.S. and the U.K. “He was a major figure in Canadian public debates,” MacMillan adds, “over how to deal with the gaps between the rich and the poor, for instance, and Canada’s place in the British Empire and the world.”
Saul himself penned one of the books in the series—an upcoming joint biography of 19th-century political reformers Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin.
“They were practically children when they came into power,” says Saul, and they only wielded that power for a handful of years. “What they accomplished in that brief period is stunning. The laws they passed provided the underpinnings for the country we now live in—our system of municipal democracy, our civil service, our railroads, our public universities, our post office.” Extraordinary Canadians indeed.
DANIEL MCCabe, BA’89
by Colin McAdam, BA’93Colin McAdam spent his childhood bouncing around the globe as a diplomat’s son. The author draws heavily on his nomadic experiences in Fall, the follow-up to his acclaimed 2004 debut Some Great Thing, a Governor General’s Literary Award finalist.
The new book follows two unlikely roommates and their relationship with the prettiest girl in school, Fall. Julius is handsome, athletic and popular and Fall soon gravitates toward him. Noel, introverted and obsessive, occupies a peripheral position in their romance, and yet grows increasingly certain that one day she will be his. With such polar opposites obsessing over the same prize, confrontation proves inevitable.
The strength of Fall lies in McAdam’s stream-of-consciousness approach. While some readers may wince at the notion of eavesdropping on two 18-year-old minds (both Julius and Noel act as narrators), the author’s sensitive portraits of his protagonists make the steady stream of pimples, locker-room torment and awkward sex scenes worthwhile.
Growing up is a nasty business, and McAdam conducts a ruthlessly honest examination of what Noel calls “the pugilism of life.”
BRETT HOOTON, BA’02, MA’05
BITTER ROOTS, TENDER SHOOTS: THE UNCERTAIN FATE OF AFGHANISTAN’S WOMEN
by Sally Armstrong, BEd’66, DLitt’02The cover of Sally Armstrong’s new book shows a runner, photographed in Afghanistan as she trained for the Beijing Olympics. She never made it. Her life was threatened by fundamentalists for anti-Islamic behaviour and she fled to Norway a few weeks before the Games. Millions of Afghan women facing similar danger have no hope of escape.
Armstrong’s 2002 book, Veiled Threat, documented life under the brutal Taliban regime. She went back last year to see if conditions had improved for women since the Taliban’s ouster. What she found were “tender shoots” of progress in human rights, health care and education for women. But brutal tribal laws still hold sway. Young girls are traded to settle debts or disputes. Women are imprisoned or killed for having been raped. They can’t be treated by male doctors, but without education, women can’t become doctors themselves.
Armstrong’s book is a must-read for anyone who doubts the importance of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The stories of personal courage Armstrong tells are poignant and inspiring. Women risk¬—and sometimes lose—their lives for speaking out. For their sakes, she says, and for Afghanistan, the world cannot afford to back away.
DIANA GRIER AYTON
THAT GOOD NIGHT: ETHICISTS, EUTHANASIA AND END-OF-LIFE CARE
by Tim Falconer, BA’81Medical advances are keeping a lot of us alive for longer periods of time —in some cases, though, just barely alive. Two-thirds of Canadians can expect to die in a medical facility equipped with the sorts of technologies that can keep us going when we can’t keep ourselves going without them. As bioethicist Kerry Bowman puts it in Tim Falconer’s thoughtful new book, That Good Night, “death—for the first time in history—is now a negotiated event.”
According to Falconer, our society has yet to figure out how to approach those negotiations. Risk-averse politicians avoid dealing with these issues and the public lets them get away with it. Who wants to think about dying, after all?
Falconer approaches the thorny issues surrounding end-of-life care with sensitivity. He has one powerful piece of advice to dispense. Think carefully about the things that could go terribly, terribly wrong and consider the circumstances in which you would want to carry on living. Make sure your loved ones know how you feel.
Otherwise, someone else might be making that decision for you.
DANIEL MCCabe, BA’89