Roderick Benns, The Legends of Lake on the Mountain: An Early Adventure of John A. Macdonald, foreword by Brian Mulroney (Fireside Publishing: 2011).
“It’s a dangerous thing to let just any common man have enough power to make decisions without a sober educated voice of reason.” [said the colonel] “Sometimes the common man doesn’t know what’s good for him.”
“Why does change have to happen all at once?” asked John. “Just because I’m a British subject and I’ll die a British subject some day, doesn’t mean we can’t grow. Not everything happens overnight.”
– excerpts from The Legends of Lake on the Mountain
Canadians, particularly young Canadians, do not know much about Canada’s past. Such has been the cry coming from the likes of the Historica-Dominion Institute’s frequent surveys of Canadians’ knowledge of history, seen as well through the Conservative government’s recent attempt to rectify gaps in our historical knowledge through a rather controversial re-vamping of the Canadian immigration guide, Discover Canada: the Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship (with a youth version published jointly with a youth history magazine, Kayak). Roderick Benns, Senior Writer with the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat of the Ontario Ministry of Education, has attempted to contribute to these and other efforts to raise the profile of a particularly nationalist strain of history in Canadian public life as the series editor and author of the first two instalments of the new Leaders and Legacies series.
Curious about the series’ approach of taking Canadian Prime Ministers and putting them in classic adventure novel plot settings as child-heroes, I recently picked up the second instalment in the series, The Legends of Lake on the Mountain: An Early Adventure of John A. Macdonald. The novel is set during Macdonald’s brief childhood stay in Stone Mills (present-day Glenora, Ontario) in the late 1820s. The reader is introduced to John spending a “typical” 1820s summer, who is home from school and is working at his father’s mill and hanging out with his best buddy George Cloutier (who, Benns openly admits in an afterword, is meant to evoke Macdonald’s later political alliance with George-Etienne Cartier) while avoiding the town bully through his wit and pluck. Their summer, however, is interrupted by the discovery of an ancient treasure map, the arrival of a charming man with subversive ideas about government in the colonies and tales of a serpent-monster which is terrorizing area farmers on nearby Lake on the Mountain. John, along with his younger sisters and George, sets out to solve the mystery of the serpent and the map, and in the process gets tied up in an American plot to attack Upper Canada. Some of the pedagogical content of the novel – such as revealing a young Macdonald already favouring political incrementalism linked to British institutions as opposed to drastic American-style change, or the less than subtle message about French-English relations exemplified by John and George’s friendship (cultural stereotypes included) – can come across as heavy-handed at times. Benns does, however, do a commendable job of placing the story in a local context. His descriptions of life in Stone Mills, and conditions of the day, are well-researched and smoothly incorporated into his narrative. His exploration of the conflicted feelings young John must have endured after witnessing the death of his brother are also evocative and sensitively done.
The larger question of whether a plot device such as placing young Prime Ministers-to-be in the middle of fictional action stories will help address Canadian ignorance of the past remains, to me, unanswered. Are young readers more apt to remember that John A. Macdonald was Canada’s first Prime Minister because they read a fictional story of derring-do involving lake serpents and American mavericks? Do the political and ideological messages in such stories stick for very long? More importantly, do such narratives invite the kind of critical thinking about the complexity of the past that is so critical to understanding the varieties of Canadian historical experience, both political and social? Finally, do they make for interesting and compelling stories for young readers? Why not just write the same story, but without clumsily attempting to remind us that this particular young hero is destined “for greater things” than this?
Children’s literature scholar Perry Nodelman recently argued that adults with an interest in children’s literature too often read and write these texts as “experts” and therefore place themselves on the other side of a conceptual “border” from the “inexpert” child, whose own assessment and understanding of a work may be very different than our own. Some of the novels I loved as a child now seem incredibly didactic and moralistic from my adult eyes, but there was something about them I enjoyed that is now inscrutable to me as I cannot, no matter how hard I try, see the world as a child does. After reading Benns’ story of a young John A. Macdonald, I am left wondering if the novel’s targeted reader would have really been all that interested in the intricacies of colonial government or if they would remember that the protagonist became Canada’s first Prime Minister. Would they simply remember the serpent, treasure and adventure? However, the ultimate judgement lies with the child reader, and I look forward to seeing if the book becomes popular with its target audience.
Nodelman, Perry. “Reading across the border” The Horn Book Magazine. 80(3), 2004, pp. 235-243.
Historical fiction is good as long as it’s not grossly wrong about facts. I remember that as a teenager I fell in love with English kings and queens because of some series where I learned about the war of the two roses, the Tudor dynasty and so on. Later on, I became a (true) historian and related my findings to more “serious” books. So? Give the kids a well-written text and they’ll grasp whatever is there to grasp.
Here’s an idea: more historians should write more kids books. After all, not only they’re the most able to tell the truth (??) but they might find again the joy of writing and teaching the younger generations (and don’t be ready to jump, you know what I’m talking about).
I’m looking forward to read Benns’ legends myself, thanks for the review. Still, I don’t think the cover does it much good: boys will never read a purple book. Trust me, I’m a mother of one.
Mr. Trepanier, thank you for the thoughtful review of The Legends of Lake on the Mountain: An Early Adventure of John A. Macdonald. I sincerely appreciate the time you took to consider what it is we are hoping to achieve with the Leaders & Legacies series.
You are correct when you question just how interested our target reader is with aspects of colonial government or other historical matters. Our target ‘buyers’, however, are parents and teachers who will see an opportunity to pass along nuggets from our past in a format that might be palatable to their sons and daughters. With teachers and parents inclined to offer increasingly far greater choice in reading (and with more experimentation in teaching/learning modalities) putting our leading historical figures in adventures offers another unique tool.
As ‘Zee’ comments afterwards, if our only success is that of igniting an interest in our leaders or in other aspects of Canada’s past that young people will later choose to explore, then that will be success indeed.