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Forging the Prairie West

Iram Khan

john Herd Thompson's Forging the Prairie West is another enjoyable volume in the six-volume series "The Illustrated History of Canada" (see Dec. 98 issue for a review of True North: The Yukon and Northwest Territories).

forging the prairie west book cover Forging the Prairie West provides readers with a critical look at history of Canada's Prairies. Covering over four centuries, Thompson introduces readers to the harsh realities of Prairie life and politics through events such as the Pemmican War and colourful characters such as Louis Riel. Thompson also does not forget the landscape and the climate in his capturing of Prairie history, as early historians did to attract settlers to this young part of Canada.

The refreshing truth that Thompson presents is particularily evident in the beautiful illustrations and photographs that accompany his text. In the introduction it is explained that many early pictures were carefully staged, racist, climate discriminate, and/or completely fake. Thus, digging through these falsehoods provided Thompson with an extra challenge in the writing of this book. Almost every illustration that he chose to include is accompanied by a commentary on how the illustration can be, sometimes conveniently, misinterpreted. For example, the famous picture of the Winnipeg General Strike where a group of strikers are tipping a streetcar, has become an icon of the strike (my apologies to those who have never seen the picture). It represents workers standing up to the authorities and demanding their rights. In actuality, if you look closely, you will see a number of well dressed women and children standing in the "angry" crowd. As Thompson states, the "women and men in the foreground could be attending a garden party - and working class men would not have brought along their wives and daughters if they anticipated or inteded violence" (102).

These critical comments extend into the oral and written history that have been provided by the people who helped shape the Prairie landscape. If we can not trust the illustrations then why should we trust the words? This type of original analysis encourages readers to practice their own critical eye and ear after reading this book.

Forging the Prairie West is an excellent introduction to the "true" history of Canada's Prairie. Even though it is recommended as a text for college or university students, any reader can gain from Thompson's clear and comprehensive and writing style.

published by oxford univ. press
ISBN 0-19-541049-1


Iram Khan is a frequent correspondent on educational issues.

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