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H.V. Nelles

The CHA Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History Prize


H.V. NellesThe Art of Nation-Building: Pageantry and Spectacle at Quebec’s Tercentenary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
This book makes a valuable contribution to the international literature on the construction of memory, with a particular focus on the Canadian experience. H.V. Nelles attacks the exceptionally complex subject of Canadian identity in the Edwardian Age. His points of entry are the historical pageants staged on the Plains of Abraham in the summer of 1908 to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of Quebec City. He then branches out into a description of the beliefs, power bases and individual quirks of those who wanted to shape the celebration. The result is a rigorous and multi-dimensional analysis of the struggle to reach consensus on a Canadian national image. H.V. Nelles takes advantage of an impressive array of scholarly work on the construction of power, modernism, secularisation and the use of public space, but opts deliberately to eschew much of the jargon of social science scholarship that might make the book impenetrable to those who are not specialists in the field. The inclusion of a First nations perspective is welcome, and the author’s treatment of the peripheral role of women is a convincing reflection of Quebec society in the early twentieth century.
The research is impressive, and the inclusion of materials from personal papers, newspapers and institutional archives, as well as of visual sources and artefacts, is skilfully woven into the text. The strongest feature of the book is its extremely engaging writing. The numerous strengths of H.V. Nelles’s work ensure that it will have an appeal far beyond academic circles.

Honourable Mentions:
Patrice GroulxPièges de la mémoire : Dollard des Ormeaux, les Amérindiens et nous. Hull, Vents d’Ouest, 1998.
Patrice Groulx’s book is an engaging and innovative study of historical memory focused on the person of Dollard des Ormeaux and the battle of the Long Sault. Both the man and the event have long occupied a prominent place in the historiography of French Canada, and the author reviews not merely the changing emphases that scholars have placed on them, but also their iconography and the various monuments and celebrations dedicated to Dollard over the years. Patrice Groulx’s extensive and rigorous research sets Dollard firmly within the context of his period at the same time as it disentangles the process by which he came to be so firmly entrenched in French Canadian myth. The book provides a salutary reminder of the many “traps” that litter the historiographical process, and demonstrates how the historical construction of both First Nations and Quebec nationalist opposition changed over time to suit developing and sometimes competing interests. The author is superb in his close analysis of texts. The chronological organisation and style allow the reader to grasp the argument clearly and fully to appreciate the complex social, intellectual and political factors that contributed to the making of Dollard des Ormeaux.

Michael BlissWilliam Osler. A Life in Medicine. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
This is a major work in the history of medicine. Following the career of William Osler, from backwoods Ontario to McGill, Philadelphia and Oxford, Michael Bliss illuminates an important phase in the history of medical science and the education of physicians. While the work covers familiar ground, it is a masterfully revisionist model of biographical writing. But it is more, too, in that it makes a much-need contribution to the place of medical science in the intellectual history of the North Atlantic triangle at the end of the nineteenth century. The book is thoroughly researched and beautifully written, providing an intensely human portrait of a medical icon, and explaining why Osler became one. Along the way, the author competently weaves into his narrative valuable background material on the medical profession, the various milieus in which Osler lived and worked, and the state of scientific enquiry generally in the late nineteenth century.