Wednesday 30 November 2011

The Tapping Keys on the Smith-Corona

When I was growing up I was fascinated with American History.  I saw the Boston Monument, the Mayflower II, The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.  I was immersed in Americana.  In high school, I became fascinated with the Kennedy family as my love for American history continued.  In university, I minored in History, taking several American History courses. 

Then it was time to apply to Teachers' College:  I listed French, my major, as my first teachable, and History, my minor, as my second teachable.  I had more than enough History credits, but I had no Canadian History credit, and therefore, I could not make it a teachable.  Fortunately, I had enough English credits to make it my teachable.  However, as an afterthought, I decided to take an introductory course to Canadian History.  My professor was an excellent story teller and from that moment on I was hooked.  I realized that Canadians are just as interesting as Americans.  Yes, our history is shorter than that of our neighbours.  But we do have a history; it just needs to be told.

Enter Pierre Berton.  According to his publicist Elsa Franklin, "Pierre was a human dynamo in his effort to tell the stories of Canada, converting the power of his Smith-Corona [typewriter] into a highly successful popularization of Canadian history." (Toronto Star, December 8, 2004.) 

I remember seeing many of Mr. Berton's books on my Grandad's bookshelf when I used to visit him.  The Last Spike, describing the building of the world's longest railroad at the time, the CPR, was one of my Grandad's favourite titles (see my blog post dated August 27).  Flames Across the Border talks about the War of 1812, told from the point of view of the soldiers, with a captivating naval battle on Lake Erie.   I particularly liked reading The Dionne Years:  A Thirties Melodrama about the Dionne Quintuplets and their childhood years where they were put "on display" for long line ups of Canadian tourists each day.  The Great Depression covered the Dirty Thirties and how 1.5 million Canadians were on relief and 70,000 hoboes rode the rails.  My Dad particularly liked The Arctic Grail about the scores of explorers who searched for the Northwest Passage, a link between the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Sir John Franklin, the most recognized of these exploreres, disappeared in his quest.  We hear about the stories of crews succumbing to scurvy and the elements.  Lady Franklin later paid for an expedition led by Sir John Ross to find her missing husband.  Pierre's work Niagara is a superbly written tale about Niagara Falls, mixing history, geography, science, art and politics.  Mr. Berton even penned a book called The Joy of Writing with practical, inspirational tips for budding writers.

Thank you to the McMaster University professor that lit a spark in me.  If every teacher could bring Canadian history to life the way author Pierre Berton has, it would be the most popular subject on the curriculum.   Although the keys on Mr. Berton's Smith-Corona stopped tapping on November 30, 2004, his stories will endure for generations to come.

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