Stone Country

By George Bowering

Stone Country is a fast, breezy history of Canada by current poet laureate and “unauthorized” national historian George Bowering. Placing himself somewhere between Desmond Morton and Charlie Farquharson, Bowering surveys Canadian history from the time before the coming of the Europeans to the present “nothings” (the first decade of the twenty-first century).

A successful general history depends on the character and voice of its author. We don’t read books like this to learn anything new. There isn’t time to cover any aspect of Canada’s history in depth. What we look for is the ability to generalize and come up with unifying themes, and to do it all with style.

Bowering doesn’t pull it off. While highly readable, Stone Country fails to offer a valuable new perspective on Canadian history. That the “main narrative in the story of Canada is its growing independence from Britain and then its growing subservience to the United States” is familiar stuff. It’s why our national identity has so often been defined in negative terms, of what we are not rather than what we are.

Bowering’s pet theme in Stone Country is racism. He sees racism as being with us right from the beginning, describing the theory of the Siberian-Alaskan land bridge as an invention of archaeologists meant to “shuck the guilt” of taking away native lands. After all, if Native Americans were not truly native but really just “earlier immigrants,” then it wouldn’t seem so bad. From here he never misses a chance to point out examples of how bad the ruling whites have been, from their treatment of the Metis to the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. A running commentary on the life of Tom Longboat apparently has something to say about the treatment of native people. But while most of this criticism is fair enough, it is also erratic. Oka gets a lot of attention, but there is no mention of Nunavut anywhere in the book.

Stone Country isn’t so much an unauthorized history as a quirky, personal one that throws a lot of random darts. Bowering insists on calling residents of the United States “USAmericans” (as in “USAmericans always tell each other that all other people wish they were USAmericans”). The 1960s are named “the most honourable years of the twentieth century.” The Metis of the Red River Rebellion are likened to Palestinians. The main difference between American and Canadian literature is said to be that while US literature is about great sailing expeditions, Canadian literature is about ships that sank.

A more consistent effort along these lines would have made for a better book. Unfortunately, Bowering is too often simply cute in his critiques and only glancing in his analysis (there is little explanation, for example, of any of the remarks in the previous paragraph). A scattering of wit over several centuries does not a history make.

Review first published June 14, 2003.

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