April 6, 2008 / 4:40 AM / 10 years ago

Book series gives history lesson to Canadians

TORONTO (Reuters) - In what they admit may be a tough sell for a famously modest nation, 18 top Canadian writers are bringing out books about their country’s best-known individuals in a series entitled “Extraordinary Canadians.”

The 20-book series, which Penguin Canada launched this week, describes the lives of Canadians such as mid 20th century media baron Lord Beaverbrook, eccentric classical pianist Glenn Gould and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

“I think what will come out of this series is it’s not just 18 famous writers and 20 famous dead people,” author John Ralston Saul said at the party to launch the series.

“It’s like a crisscross pattern of Canada, and you have rediscovered the nature of our past, but you have actually rediscovered the nature of the country today.”

But a quiz of a dozen people in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a downtown shopping mall that is one of the city’s top tourist attractions, found nobody who recognized all the people named on the list, and others with only distant memories of who they might be.

“I know Lester B. Pearson from the airport, and wasn’t he prime minister too?” 37-year-old Niki Nikas said of the former prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his role in solving the Suez crisis. Toronto’s international airport is named after Pearson.

“But whether I remember who they are or just their names, is a different story,” she said.

That view was shared by University of Toronto student Adam Virani, 23. “Some of them are familiar, but I don’t know much about them and it’s probably from high school,” he said. “We really have declined in our patriotic sense.”

Charlotte Gray, whose book about women’s rights activist, Nellie McClung was one of the first in the series, said the books aim to pose larger questions about change.

“As Canadians, we are terrible about our history and sort of what’s no longer in living memory disappears,” she said.

“I just felt, she (McClung) absolutely deserved to be rescued from the dusty attics of history and at the same time, rescued in a way that would made her relevant to Canadians.”

Saul, who is editing the series and writing two of the biographies, told Reuters he hoped the books will make readers more self-confident by helping them find out about their history.

“Canadian history is important to me, as history is important to anyone,” he said. “There is a saying ‘if you don’t know your history, you are condemned to be a child forever’. Life goes on. Things keep happening.”

Reporting by Natasha Elkington; editing by Janet Guttsman

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