The CHA Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History Prize
François-Marc Gagnon with Nancy Senior and Réal Ouellet, eds., The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicolas. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011In this stunningly beautiful volume F-M Gagnon and his collaborators have brought together two texts held in geographically very distant repositories, barely known even by specialists, one without a known author and the other misattributed. The first, the Histoire Naturelle des Indes Occidentales, is part of the collection of the French National library. The second,the Codex Canadensis proper, is a compendium of 180 illustrations of the people, fauna and flora of the new world in the seventeenth century held at the Gilcrease museum in Tulsa. Meticulous and erudite detective work allowed the authors to identify them as companion volumes sharing the same author, the Jesuit missionary Louis Nicolas, and produced in the first years of the eighteenth century. The two texts illuminate each other, and together, they are more than the sum of their parts.If determining provenance and authorship was a model of erudition, the scholarly apparatus that surrounds the documents reproduced and translated here is a model of contextualization. The lengthy introduction, numerous and extremely detailed notes and extensive glossary combine to locate the corpus at a pivotal moment in the evolution of scientific knowledge and of European understanding of the natural world. The depiction of the natural world in the Codex, or the description in the Histoire naturelle were not intended to be objective: instead they were constructions resting on a specific epistemological foundation that was on the brink of disappearing. They mark the transition from a view of nature as “useful” to humanity to the concept of the very “order” of nature. The analysis provides a subtle but penetrating framework from which the modern reader can access and understand these two otherwise strange documents. This book can scarcely be praised too highly. As a physical object, it is one of beauty, with design and production values of the highest order. As an act of sustained editorial ingenuity and intervention, it is impeccable. As a work of interdisciplinary research, it is simply outstanding. Finally, The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicolas reminds us that prize-worth historical scholarship extends beyond scholarly monographs.
Donica Belisle, Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada. UBC Press, 2011Retail Nation constitutes an important contribution to the history of the development of mass consumption in Canada in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. It describes the rise, flourishing and decline of three Canadian department store chains which garnered a larger share of consumer spending than their counterparts in other countries: Eaton, HBC and Simpson’s, which eventually became icons of English Canadian nationhood. Those stores were more than simply movers of goods; they were also advertisers promoting specific forms of consumptions that contributed to the construction of a form of Canadian modernity based on capitalistic consumerism. While the author acknowledge the role nostalgia has played in our image of department stores, she does not lose sight of the social and other costs such chains have exacted. The three companies were criticized, and even challenged, for driving other retailers out of business, exploiting their workers and subjecting them to petty paternalistic rules, and even for the quality of their services. Belisle explores fully and intelligently the unequal relations of class, race and gender they embodied, and an important part of the analysis deals with the gendered relations between the stores, their employees and their customers. The book is written with verve, a secure knowledge of the relevant literature and much careful research, and sets a historiographic benchmark for the study of Canadian consumer society.
Sherry Olson and Patricia A. Thornton, Peopling the North American City: Montreal 1840-1900. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011This large scale study, which grew out of the authors’ participation in the Montreal history project, seeks to understand how Montreal, and beyond it, urban centers in North America grew in the second half of the nineteenth century. Using a subpopulation of individuals bearing a dozen surnames as representative of the three communities that made up Montreal between 1840 and 1900, the authors trace their marriage and reproduction patterns as well as their social and geographic mobility in and around the city. By so doing, the authors disentangle the impact of structural and cultural factors shaping people’s life courses. Contrary to economists and demographers, who explain the demographic transition in structural terms (urbanization, industrialization, increased literacy and rising income), the authors conclude that culture played a significant role in people’s demographic choices. From the beginning to the end of the study period, French-speaking Catholics, English-speaking Protestants, and English-speaking Catholics differed in basic demographic indicators, in place of residence, in patterns of geographical and social mobility, and in the networks of association and kin in which their lives were situated, and, although none of those patterns were static, never did they become similar. Their very quantitative and structural approach does not prevent the authors from displaying a high degree of empathy towards their subject, which allows them at times to re-enact the decision-making process of individuals when confronted to the choices available to them. Combined with sensitivity to the urban environment in which the individuals in question lived, this empathy enlivens the description of the population under consideration, which would otherwise be very abstract.