Aritha van Herk, Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta.
IN THE INTRODUCTION to the book, van Herk issues a disclaimer. As a professor of Canadian literature and creative writing in the Department of English at the University of Calgary, van Herk readily admits she has "no historical training" (xi) and as a result she cannot provide a historical perspective to the history of Alberta. Instead, she proudly announces that her goal is to tell the story of the province from her "idiosyncratic and biased point of view." (xi) And tell it she does: but does she tell it well is a matter of opinion.
Much like students writing essays in first year university history courses, van Herk tires to entice the reader with the addition of two words, mavericks and incorrigible, into a rather catchy title Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta. According to van Herk, Albertans are mavericks because they step outside the box as it were, refuse to do what they are told, are risk takers, display loud laughter when they fall flat on their faces, and then get up to proceed undaunted. But surely there are mavericks everywhere in Canada's past from Nova Scotia to Manitoba to British Columbia. Being a maverick is not limited to an Albertan! And the selection of the word incorrigible is rather curious since its context is left to the reader's imagination. Could it then mean that the history of Alberta is depraved, delinquent, and/or uncontrollable? Perhaps the lack of definition is warranted since incorrigible can now mean different things to different readers.
The book itself is divided into 14 chapters, more specifically vignettes, that can be read independently from each other. This format allows the reader the freedom to pick and chose a chapter by topic and/or area of interest. Chapter headings range from the traditional "First Peoples" and "Settlers" to the rather creative "Aggravating, Awful, Awkward, Awesome Alberta" to the downright bizarre "Bread and Circuses, Culture and Bigotry." But by far the most odd chapter is the last one, titled "Buffalo and Beaver, Bluster and Blood." Arranged in alphabetical order like entries in an encyclopedia, Chapter 14 reads like an afterthought of 'and now for a word about' people (Eric Harvie), places (Lac Ste. Anne) and things (gophers and rats). Although there is no concluding chapter to reinforce the mavericks theme laid out in the introduction, this should be no surprise. Van Herk asserts that "history is a plot" (382) and thus Alberta's history is a work in progress with no end in sight.
While Mavericks is not academic history, one wonders if it is even good popular history. Surely a certain level of research, methodology, analysis, and referencing is to be expected. After 25 years of grading history papers, I found myself constantly frustrated with van Herk's lack of even basic referencing to source material used in the book. And the inclusion of a selected bibliography just does not cut it. Neither does the name dropping of J. G. MacGregor, Grant MacEwan, and Hugh Dempsey with the comment that they are fine historians. So what! Even first year students know when you are using direct quotations from newspapers, it is simply not enough to put down the year. The day, the month and the year must be given in order to put the statement into context much like name, rank, and serial number in the military. For example, on page 345 in four separate instances only the year of the newspaper article was given. This is not acceptable. The same comment can also be made with regards to captions for the pictures in the book. Why have a picture of the Hop Wo Laundry being moved and say it took place in the 1920s? (346) The most obvious question is: did the move take ten years? And on page 190, two males appear to be doing chores outside a building and the caption reads, "Bachelors enjoying domestic chores." How on earth can we know that with any level of certainty? More detail is needed on such matters and once over lightly will not do as then it becomes difficult for the. reader to get a sense of time and place.
Admittedly there is much to be said about writing history without being trained in the discipline. It allows the individual to make broad sweeping generalizations without concern and in the words of Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series, to 'boldly go where no man has gone before.' For example, in Chapter 13, "Ladies, Women and Broads," van Herk confidently asserts that Canada's early feminists came from Alberta. Emily Stowe must be rolling over in her grave! Even a cursory glance of works in Canadian women's history would indicate that such is not the case. And how can one comment about the exploitation of the West, the building of the railway,' and prairie settlement in Chapter 8, "Settlers," without having a basic understanding of John A. Macdonald's National Policy of the 1870s?
This is not to say that Mavericks is a bad book or bad history. In fact, at times, it is quite entertaining, informative (in an odd way), fun, and even humorous. Ralph Klein is characterized as "a likeable Dumbo-faced maverick" (227) while R. B. Bennett "was another carpet-bagging Easterner." (238) And the picture of the Northwest Mounted Police on page 156 with the caption "NWMP, ready to ride, not always sure where they were" is sure to bring a smile to the face of even the most serious reader of the book. Van Herk proves that history need not be dull and boring despite the perception of works produced by academically trained historians.
Writing in a more conversational style, van Herk provides the reader with her personal history, anecdotes, and observations at the beginning of each chapter. In addition, her use of contractions, the first person narrative, and ordinary vocabulary highlights the story of Alberta's history in this work that received the 2002 Grant MacEwan Author's Award. It is an easy read once you leave your PhD at the door. Her discussion of the Calgary-Edmonton rivalry in Chapter 11, "Urban Rivals: Cities of the Plain" is worthy of any game seven in the Battle of Alberta between the Flames and the Oilers.
As a home-grown Albertan, van Herk has attempted to answer two questions: what is an Albertan, and why are Albertans the way they are? She suggests that western grumbling is part of the Alberta psyche and Albertans quite like it. The 1885 Riel Rebellion serves as an example of the West pursuing its autonomy. As true mavericks, Albertans have and will continue to display " a collective resistance to being caught, owned, herded, taxed, or identified." (394) But when all is said and done, van Herk says in order to truly understand Alberta one must live there. On a personal note, I have lived in Alberta since 1969 and I still do not get it. But I was born and brought up in Ontario. Need I say more?
Overall Mavericks is a welcome addition to Canadian history in general and Alberta history in particular. Is it academic history? No, of course not and it was not intended to be. Is it popular history? Well that is a matter of opinion. But let's face it, any time a book on the history of Alberta becomes a national best seller, gets people talking about and excited about history in this country and province is great! There is nothing wrong with popular history just as there is nothing wrong with academic history. The key is to blend the two forms. If van Herk ventures into the world of history again it is hoped that she will incorporate the best of the popular and academic history to become comfortable in both worlds.
TERRY L. CHAPMAN
Medicine Hat College
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|Author:||Chapman, Terry L.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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