CHARLOTTE GRAY, THE SESQUICENTENNIAL, AND SASKATOON BERRIES

I’d like to recommend a fine new book, one that should appeal to anyone who enjoys this blog. The book is THE PROMISE OF CANADA by Charlotte Gray.  The sub-title ties it very clearly to our 1867-2017 Sesquicentennial. “150 Years — People And Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country”.

You may already know the book, because it has been widely and enthusiastically reviewed, and has become a best-seller, getting a head start on the many Sesquicentennial books that will mark 2017. That flying start reflects well on its publisher . It’s brought out by Phyllis Bruce Editions at Simon & Schuster Canada, another example of the success that thoughtful editorial imprints can bring to a publishing  world that often seems overly obsessed with shallow marketing of shallow books. It also reflects the respect that readers and reviewers have for Charlotte Gray, the author of nine previous  books.

I met Charlotte soon after she came to Canada in 1979. She had known my brother Peter in Britain, and he had told her to look up his big brother, who ran Macmillan’s publishing programme in Toronto, and might have useful advice for a young writer newly arrived in mysterious Canada. I remember our chat, where I advised her to write for Bob Fulford’s “Saturday Night”, and encouraged her in a general way. I wish I could claim that she owes her success to me…and I wish even more fervently that I had been smart enough to sign her up for the books that she was soon producing with great success.

As an immigrant to Canada Charlotte soon became aware of what a remarkable place we’ve inherited. One of her early books (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill) hints at her own experience as an English newcomer. Over time, as her knowledge grew, with fascinating months in Dawson City enlivening her Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike, she became a Canadian enthusiast, as every page of the new book shows.

A personal note: the very first page of The Promise of Canada, the end-papers, shows the start of the 1967 canoe race in the wake of the voyageurs, east from Alberta’s Rocky Mountain House all  the way to the finish line at Expo in Montreal. Paddling in the stern of the Manitoba canoe is none other than Don Starkell. That’s my friend Don , the author of both Paddle To The Amazon and then Paddle To The Arctic.

As you’d expect, Don’s Manitoba crew won the race, arriving in Montreal 104 days later, amidst cheers and sirens and fireworks. But there is a sad footnote, recorded in Paddle To The Amazon. Don had a sales job in Winnipeg, and knew that he would need time off  to paddle across the country in this national celebration. In his words:

“I asked for a leave of absence, and it was flatly denied.

“Why?” I remember asking my supervisor.

“We just can’t do that,” he said, and that was that.”

So Don quit his job , although money was tight. Oh yes, the name of his employer, so uninterested in this piece of unfolding Canadian history that it wouldn’t give a salesman a leave of absence to take part in it? The Canadian Pacific Railway.

 

And Saskatoon berries? My last blog attracted some attention by talking about the role of Saskatoon berries in the making of pemmican, the well-preserved, light, portable, food that fuelled the fur trade. What many people don’t realise is that the Saskatoon berry ( formally Amelanchier alnifolia,) includes 15 related species, and is found right across Canada. I once won an argument with a dismissive Albertan at a publishing event in Toronto, where “you don’t have any saskatoon berries ”  by nipping out and picking a few serviceberries on Bloor Street. The party-goers enjoyed them when I returned, even the surprised Albertan.

I’ve found them , and eaten them, in every province. Sometimes they’re “serviceberries”. Sometimes they’re “June-berries” in tribute to their early arrival. In his superb book about Nature in Nova Scotia, Dancing on the Shore, Harold Horwood waxes indignantly lyrical about them:

“How much better is the Newfoundland name chuckly pear! Serviceberry indeed! And how much uglier the American name, shadbush! But whatever you call them, their blooming is a high point of the year. At Annapolis there are several species, some of them small shrubs, others growing into trees twenty-five feet tall. When they bloom in mid-May the woods on every side are dressed in great veils of pink and white, for though all the flowers are white, some species have pink sepals, and leaves that are red when they first unfold. The great drift of blossoms fill every dark space along the edges of the woods. I have never seen any forest anywhere more beautiful with bloom than the Annapolis woodlands during the brief flowering of the chuckly pears.

“Later, the children will gather the fruit, almost live on it while it is at its peak, and perhaps I’ll even turn a gallon or so of the purple berries into wine….”

It’s notable that the very first English-speaking explorer of the Prairies noted the crunchy Saskatoon berry with approval. In June, 1690 Henry Kelsey left York Factory and headed West with some indigenous traders. In the words of The Canadian Encyclopedia, he “wintered at The Pas, Manitoba, before striking out on foot across the prairie, possibly as far as the Red Deer River.”

Incredibly, Kelsey wrote a large part of his report to his Hudson Bay Company superiors IN VERSE. Here he is in, we think, Eastern Saskatchewan:

” So far I have spoken concerning of the spoil

And now will accot. (give an account ) of that same Countrye soile

Which hither part is very thick of wood

Affords small nuts with little cherryes very good…”

And there you have it, a literary discovery! The very first review of the eating delights of the Saskatoon berry, from 1691. You read it here first.