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HUMANITIES 373 Gerald Friesen. River Road: Essays on Manitoba and Prairie History University of Manitoba Press 1996. xii, 246. $19.95 River Road is a miscellany - a mixture and something of a medley. It combines both scholarly and popular writing in an insightful brew, and it is analytical while at the same time evocative of the prairie experience. In short, it is an excellent book- and far more than the sum of its parts. Gerald Friesen, long-time professor of history at the University of Manitoba, is best known for his masterful synthesis The Canadian Prairies: A History, published in 1984. That well-melded combination of narrative and analysis set a new standard for mterpretive regional history in this country. This new collection might be thought of as a series of extensive notes, additions, sometimes corrections and reassessments of that earlier work. Certainly, taken together, the two volumes represent, for this reviewer, the best introduction a contemporary reader could find for the history of Manitoba and the other prairie provinces. Friesen's particular interest here is to explore the place of local culture in contemporary society. He echoes Eric Hobsbawm's fear that we have not much sense of a past any more, that we live in a kind of insulated 'permanent present' that lacks 'any organic relation to the public past of the times [we] live in.' The historian's task must be to join past and present. How else, Friesen asks, can local conunnnity have meaning in a multiplex wiredup world? Historians cannot conduct a one-way conversation (or, worse, mumble among themselves)- they require an engaged public. To achieve this the local story has to be linked to the wider world and be related 'in terms and concepts that make plain its intrinsic interest and worth.' That's a challenge, but one the author addresses well. That's not to say every essay is a triwnph. Some are too slight -like his slender musings on La Verendrye and the French fact in the west; others, like his piece on 'Labour History and the Metis,' to me seem to overreach themselves. Most, however, are powerful and compelling, even when you don't agree with the author. For example, in his reviewI analysis of the massive five-volume Collected Writings ofLouis Riel, he reminds us that no single tag satisfactorily explains the entire career of this complex man. Riel's own voluminous writing reveals a man of dimensions, both marvel and mad, highly intelligent, misguided and at times quite insane. All judgments (and Friesen is gentler to Riel than most) must wait until this large archive is chewed and digested. Friesen also writes of the benefits and real pitfalls of comparative history and uses as an example that of Canada and Australia plus a fruitful comparison of the Canadian prairies to Argentina's pampas. Here is the global context, the reference to the wider world for the local, made clear. 374 LETTERS IN CANADA 1997 Two other themes are much explored: aboriginal culture, by itself, and the nature of its complex clash (and no little intermixing) with European ideas and values. The implications of past policies are evident in the challenges of today, as Friesen shows with good analysis of the prairie reception of Meech Lake and other constitutional matters. There are also a couple of what might be called conventional biographical accounts: one of J.H. Riddell, principal of Wesley College, and another of Bob Russell, Manitoba labour icon. Both these essays are mini-biography at its best and well portray the links between the local and a larger world. The last essay should be read by anyone engaged in university affairs. It's entitled, based on the conunon query heard when encountering one's graduates, 'Still Teaching the Same Stuff?' The correct answer is always ambiguous- yes and no, or, as Friesen puts it, 'History- stories about our common past- the same old stuff expressed in new ways- is an essential part of our being.' Right, but, sadly, there aren't many storytellers as able and thoughtful as Friesen. (ROGER HALL) Patrick Grant. Personalism and the Politics ofC11Iture Macmillan and StMartin's Press rgg6. x, 2.12...


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