The Ghost Orchard: The Hidden History of the Apple in North America by Helen Humphreys HarperCollins, 268 pages, $29.99 “The past is all around us if we look carefully and can figure out a way to read it,” writes awardwinning novelist and non-fiction writer Helen Humphreys. In The Ghost Orchard: The Hidden History of the Apple in North
America she is inspired by the taste of wild apples found outside a log cabin near her home in Kingston, Ontario, to seek their largely unknown origins in terms of Indigenous peoples, women, and artists. This takes her beyond the recorded history of the apple, which, she says, “is the history of white settlement during the nineteenth century.”
In addition to gorgeous historical coloured plates created by seedcatalogue illustrators and botanical artists, the book brims with interest and captivating prose. An entire chapter is dedicated to poet Robert Frost, who planted an orchard at the age of eighty- three, perhaps in memory of his “glorious friendship” and “talkswalking” with the British poet Edward Thomas. Another chapter opens with a description of every apple variety in the recreated orchard at John A. Macdonald’s Bellevue House in Kingston. A “Glossary of Lost Apples” at the end of the book highlights varieties of First Nations or Canadian origin.
A chapter entitled “The Indian Orchard” explores Indigenous and settler involvements in the spread of the fruit, including distinct varieties produced by Indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, “Ann Jessop” tells of the Quaker preacher known as “Apple Annie” for her
distribution of diverse scions she’d carried back from Britain in the late 1700s, including the crisp, juicy White Winter Pearmain that starts Humphreys’ quest.
The beauty, fragrance, and fruit of apple trees lend poignancy to our relationship with them, as does the similarity of their lifespan to that of a person — around one hundred years at best, notes Humphreys. Her book was written as a close friend, a poet, neared death, and Humphreys’ father died soon after.
It’s a sociological and an agricultural account, detailing the reduction of over seventeen thousand varieties at their nineteenth-century peak to fewer than one hundred commercial varieties today; it’s also a moving meditation on memory and loss, friendship and family, the bequest of art and writing, and what remains in absence — sometimes with only a single tree to point us back. — Mariianne Mays Wiebe No Man’s Land: The Life and Art of Mary Riter Hamilto by Kathryn A. Young and
Sarah M. McKinnon University of Manitoba Press, 304 pages, $27.95
Even before the armistice that ended the First World War was signed, thousands of visitors made their way to the battlefields of Europe. Many made the journey in tribute to lives lost in the conflict — a pilgrimage to the places where their loved ones spent their final days. Others felt a sense of urgency to tour the front lines and to document the impact and destruction of war
In No Man’s Land: The Life and Art of
Mary Riter Hamilton, Kathryn A. Young and Sarah M. McKinnon provide a rich biography of one woman who was compelled to paint the battlefields in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.
Born in 1868 in Bruce County, Ontario, Hamilton was a Canadian artist who by the age of twenty-two had suffered her own personal tragedies with the death of her husband and a stillborn child. Without the domestic responsibilities that most women of this time faced, Hamilton was able to nurture her artistic talent, studying in European art schools, teaching, and hosting exhibitions both abroad and at home.
By 1918, Hamilton was an experienced artist and longed to return to Europe, where she had spent many years studying. She applied to the Canadian War Memorial Fund, only to have her request denied, as women were not allowed access to the front.
Undeterred, Hamilton eventually found support through the Amputation Club of British Columbia and received a commission to paint the battlefields of France and Belgium. For close to six years, she was one of few Canadian women to experience first-hand the destruction of the front lines — setting up her easel between shell holes and staying in abandoned huts on the battlefields.
As time passed, Hamilton struggled with her finances, keeping her friends back in Canada on standby to sell off her artwork as needed. Lacking proper food and housing, she went through periods of poor health.
Despite these challenges, she was determined to keep going. She wrote, “To have been able to preserve some memory of what this consecrated corner of the world looked like after the storm is a great privilege, and all the reward that an artist could hope for.” From 1919 to 1922, Hamilton produced over three hundred pieces documenting First World War battlefields; she gave most of them to Canada’s national archives in 1926.
Building on the work of their late colleague Angela Davis, Young and McKinnon have written a rich biography that is deserving tribute to Mary Riter Hamilton. Their research is thorough and uses a variety of sources — including Hamilton’s artwork, official and personal correspondence, newspaper articles, and exhibit reviews and critiques — to piece together her life. The book includes colour prints of some of Hamilton’s best-known work.
No Man’s Land is a fascinating read and an important contribution to our understanding of war and commemoration, the professionalization of female artists, and, more broadly, the experiences of women in the early twentieth century. — Joanna Dawson
This Colossal Project: Building the Welland Ship Canal, 1913–1932
by Roberta M. Styran and Robert R. Taylor McGill-Queen’s University Press,
368 pages, $44.95
This Colossal Project captures the fascinating story behind construction of the Welland Ship Canal. Known as the “great ditch,” this waterway connects Lake Ontario with Lake Erie, enabling ships to bypass Niagara Falls. Constructed over two decades, the canal is one of “the great engineering triumphs of modern times,” write authors Roberta M. Styran and Robert R. Taylor.
My great- uncle Paul Moroz and grandfather William Moroz were labourers on the project. With Paul’s encouragement, my grandfather, also known as “Gido,” moved from Manitoba to Thorold, Ontario, with his wife and four children. Given the uncertainty of wartime and the Great Depression, he was relieved to find any job.
The work was dangerous and harsh, with smallpox outbreaks, accidents, inadequate wages and long hours. Nearly 140 souls perished during construction, often from fractured skulls or drowning. Greatuncle Paul nearly died when a wagon filled with rocks tipped over. It was a time when steel-toed boots and safety helmets were non-existent and language barriers hindered communication. When labourers — many of whom were immigrants and
illiterate — tried to improve conditions, they encountered hostility and prejudice.
In a book that is well-researched, with numerous maps and photos, the authors succeeded in transporting me back a century. Dedicated to “those thousands of unsung heroes who worked on the ground,” This Colossal Project provided insight into my own family’s history — which in turn resonates with some of the challenges immigrants still face in seeking a better tomorrow. — Beverley Sawchuk
Montreal, City of Water
by Michèle Dagenais translated by Peter Feldstein UBC Press, 254 pages, $29.95 Modern Montrealers know that they live on an island, but they may fail to perceive how ubiquitous water is in their daily lives. “The water is very much there, under the concrete and asphalt,” writes Michèle Dagenais, a professor of history at the Université de Montréal.
In Montreal, City of Water, Dagenais unveils a grand narrative where water itself becomes a historical actor. It’s a struggle between nature and the humans that try to tame, profit, enjoy, and understand it.
A pattern quickly emerges: As soon as a new technology or scientific idea takes hold, either the environment circumvents it or understandings change. This was most poignantly seen in the mid-1800s, with the installation of running water and a sewage system, amid fears of a sanitation crisis, plus changes to the Port of Montreal, in an attempt to turn the St. Lawrence River into both a “dumping ground” and an “engine of prosperity.”
Instead, rising harbour sludge and dangerous seasonal flooding served as a reminder that the natural world can be rebelliously uncooperative with human objectives. In Dagenais’s book, we witness waves of engineers, doctors, industrialists, politicians, and, finally, environmentalists negotiate the relationship with nature as Montreal grows and modernizes.
Smartly illustrated with maps and photographs, Montreal, City of
Water is more technical than narrative- driven. Yet Dagenais nonetheless presents a compelling argument, demonstrating that, ultimately, there is no separation between the island city and the water that gives it life. –– Sharon Hanna
Strange New Country:
The Fraser River Salmon Strikes of 1900–1901 and the Birth of Modern British Columbia
by Geoff Meggs
Harbour Publishing, 236 pages, $22.95 Organizing a strike in British Columbia’s salmon industry might have seemed like an almost impossible goal, in particular given tight timelines and the need to create an effective coalition across ethnic lines. Yet two strikes
were launched more than a century ago, and the fishermen fought together, more or less, to bring about better compensation for their work.
In Strange New Country, Geoff Meggs argues that the strikes in 1900 and 1901 marked a turning point in the province’s history. While he doesn’t provide strong evidence to back up his statement, there is no doubt that the strikes were significant events both for the fishermen based in Steveston, south of Vancouver, and for the industrial elite in their mansions in the city.
Work on the fishing boats was not easy, given the need for speed during the salmon run every summer, as the fish returned to freshwater spawning grounds. Fishermen had to deal with nets up to four hundred metres long and had little protection from the elements in their twelve-metre boats.
Tensions rise when people are working hard, and there were many extra reasons for stress during the salmon runs. Indigenous fishermen were struggling to retain their right to the fish, while Japanese fishermen were looking for equality with whites, and everybody was looking for better pay for their work.
Meggs introduces us to the leaders of each group, something that helps to put a human touch on this fascinating, well- researched account of two challenging summers on the Pacific coast. –– Dave Obee
Following the River: Traces of Red River Women
by Lorri Neilsen Glenn Wolsak & Wynn, 335 pages, $22 After discovering that her great- grandmother died in a tragic fire on Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg, Lorri Neilsen Glenn sets out to learn her story. Digging into local and family history, she traces several generations back to York Factory and the Red River Settlement. Along the way, she discovers how difficult it is to find details of the lives of her female ancestors and their contemporaries.
Glenn is a poet, an essayist, a professor emerita at Mount Saint Vincent University, and a former Halifax poet laureate, and Following the River: Traces
of Red River Women is written in a mix of prose and poetry that is presented alongside fragments of material found in newspaper reports and museums. Readers follow her journey of discovery as we see these women’s stories slowly come to life.
Glenn’s search takes her through the current-day Red River region and illustrates how much the area has changed since her great- grandmother’s time. Her book offers an amazing glimpse into the research process as well as into the lives of Indigenous women in the Red River region. –– Danielle Chartier Snacks: A Canadian Food History by Janice Thiessen University of Manitoba Press, 352 pages, $27.95
Janice Thiessen’s book Snacks: A Canadian Food
History is an excellent oral history that delves into the nostalgic and wonderful world of favourite Canadian brands. The book covers the history of independent manufactures of snack foods that include “potato chip makers Old Dutch, Hardbite, and Covered Bridge; Cheezie manufacturer W.T. Hawkins; chocolate makers Paulins, Moirs, and Ganong; and candy makers Robertson’s Cavalier, Purity, Browning Harvey, and Scott-Bathgate (Nutty Club).”
Thiessen tells their stories via her research into the snacking industry and, perhaps most importantly, through sixty- one interviews conducted with “business owners, managers, workers, union leaders, and snack food consumers.” The oral histories that form the core of the book bring out all aspects of the snack food industry in Canada, from the labour and techniques required to prepare these foods to the tastes and smells that made them so memorable to many Canadians.
Many food writers and journalists have pointed to snacks and junk food as the roots of obesity and of a host of social problems. However, Thiessen hopes to spark a more thoughtful history of food and how it is prepared. She reminds readers that, despite the packaging and cheap prices, there are always people behind the food we eat. So find a bowl of your favourite snack food, and dig into this book for some entertaining history. –– Joel Ralph
AMBITIOUS NEWCOMERS Settlers camp with a team of oxen and an overturned wagon in 1906 just outside of Saskatoon. They would have found it beneficial to be living close to the city and itsamenities, which by then included a hotel, a mounted police barracks, a dozen homes, and a rail line passing through. In The Homesteaders (University of Regina Press, 192 pages, $39.95) Sandra Rollings-Magnusson tells of the voyages made by immigrants to Saskatchewan, the hardships and labour they faced upon arrival, and the ways they built their homes and communities.