CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 27. . . .March 18, 2011
Canada's Wars: An Illustrated History.
Toronto, ON: Madison Press/Scholastic Canada, 2010.
128 pp., hardcover, $24.99.
Canada-History, Military-Juvenile literature.
Canada-Armed Forces-History-Juvenile literature.
Canada-Armed Forces-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Greg Bak.
At the beginning of the war [WWII], the Royal Rifles of Canada adopted as their mascot a big Newfoundland dog. They called it Gander.
Gander liked military life. He was soon made an honorary sergeant and marched on parade with the other soldiers. When the Royal Rifles went to Hong Kong, Gander went too… In a final act of heroism, Gander gathered up a Japanese grenade just before it exploded. He was awarded the Dickin Medal posthumously. The medal recognizes "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty" by any animal serving with the British Commonwealth Forces.
Canada's Wars is a large format history book for older children and young adults, packed with illustrations and sharply edited text that tells a sprawling narrative: the story of Canadian involvement in foreign conflicts. Author Jonathan Webb provides a capsule overview of each of Canada's major wars, starting with the Boer War, through the World Wars, various peacekeeping missions and up to the present day in Afghanistan. In the process, Webb charts the evolution of Canadian nationhood from reflexive obedience to Mother Britain ("Ready, aye, ready" in the words of Sir Wilfred Laurier) through to Canada's modern role as a fully independent actor on the world stage.
Expense was not spared in the production of this book. The illustrations, presented in rich black and white or full colour, are excellent reproductions that physically surround the text while extending the narrative through meaningful illustration. Every effort is made to spike bursts of colour into the early chapters through reproductions of propaganda posters, tinted photos, paintings by war artists, and modern photos of monuments. The illustrations have been carefully chosen and thoughtfully presented, offering views of war-damaged cities and countries, full-page portraits and visually striking images of people, equipment and battles.
Given the wealth and richness of these illustrations, it may seem petulant to want even more, but the book lacks maps. The endpapers provide large-format maps of Canadian operations in the World Wars, and the only other maps in the book provide further details on Canadian operations in the World Wars. The text treats Canadian involvement all over the world – South Africa, Korea, Congo, the Persian Gulf, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan and so on – without any representation of the location of these nations on the globe, never mind the location of Canadian missions within each nation.
Although short on maps, the book does have a detailed index. There is also an inadequate, too brief glossary - a single column listing only fifteen terms - that is awkwardly placed after the Foreword. There also is a Further Reading section at the end though, when consulted, it is disappointing to find it to be less a springboard for curious kids and young adults and more a bibliography of works consulted in writing Canada's Wars. Set in tiny type, it lists books written for the adult market and offers barely a wan gesture towards resources on the Internet.
128 pages are not sufficient to provide extensive coverage of Canada's wars. Nonetheless, the author and his editor have made some smart and sometimes quite surprising decisions about what topics should be covered. While the main text provides at least a sketch of the major movements and battles of Canadian troops in the various wars, sidebars and subsections describe the roles played by a range of actors, including average soldiers as well as commanders, civilians, politicians and even animals, as in the extract quoted above. Despite the enlivening details provided in these sidebars, the text of Canada's Wars, at times, feels eviscerated - one can sense a wealth of research that has been left out from the final product - as though the editors evidently decided that it is better to provide the merest sketch of the various Canadian missions rather than get mired in the details of each conflict. The result is a rushing overview accented with fantastic illustrations and fascinating sidebars.
Canada's Wars will prove rewarding to interested readers. Though flawed, the book is admirable in its comprehensive approach to Canadian involvement in foreign conflicts and in Webb's dedication to fill out his narrative with off-beat personalities and unusual stories.
Greg Bak is an archivist with Library and Archives Canada in Gatineau, PQ.
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