- Exploring the Everyday:Three Books about the Objects and Practices of the Canadian Past
When I first came to Edmonton, I would gaze in wonder at the prairie sky, marveling at the pink, blue, and purple colours. I would look and look at cloud formations, amazed that I could see the bottoms of so many clouds. I would be astonished by midnight twilight and the fact that I could make out clouds at night. Time has passed and, while I still love Alberta skies, I do not notice them as I did when they were new and strange. This is what often happens with the things that surround us on a daily basis. They may be beautiful; they may be ingenious and marvelous, but we fail to notice them because of their familiarity. Attention to the objects and practices of daily life is a relatively new phenomenon in scholarship, and all of the books under review make their contribution to helping us appreciate the everyday. Sometimes even professionals need to distance themselves from the phenomenon they study in order to see it more clearly, and all three books look back in time, describing life gone by. Fodchuk draws our attention to the tools, especially the woodworking tools, of the Ukrainian pioneers. Fleming and Rowan provide photos of a wide variety of objects: tools, furniture, toys, and the sort of artwork that is typically displayed in the home rather than in museums. Mucz, also drawing on the experience of Ukrainians, shows us how substances in the environment—plants, honey, and even dirt—were once used for medicinal purposes.
Fodchuk’s is the oldest of the three books. It is entitled Zhorna, or millstone, [End Page 351] precisely to help us better appreciate the aesthetics of the seemingly ordinary. A millstone is a utilitarian object, not typically associated with beauty. Yet, even if we look at it with fresh eyes, we can marvel at the skill required to make grooves in unyielding stone to just the right depth and at just the right intervals; we can admire the symmetry and the proportions of so weighty an item transformed by human hands. Although Fodchuk chose the millstone as his symbol of the aesthetics of pioneer material culture, his greatest admiration is for tools used in woodworking and tools made of wood. His description evokes the shape and the patina of planes, carding combs, spindles, churns, ladles, and a myriad of other objects. The descriptions are supplemented by marvelous drawings taken from the sketches he made while working as a district agriculturalist for the province of Alberta, and then rendered in professional form. We see page upon page of every conceivable type of carpenter’s plane, washboard, oil press, churn, clamp, hinge, and so forth. Some illustrations give us the multiforms of a tool; others illustrate traditional work step-by-step. For the thatching process, Fodchuk shows us how the straw is combed, cut, tied, and placed upon the roof frame, and he shows us the results. One page consists of just the types of corner joints possible in log building construction. The drawings are supplemented by photographs, most made when old crafts were resurrected in the construction of the Ukrainian Heritage Village Museum outside Edmonton.
In addition to showing us tools, Fodchuk provides background information. He describes Ukrainian pioneers leaving their homeland and arriving in Canada. He gives settlement maps and charts that position the stores and services available in rapidly growing Ukrainian Canadian towns. There are descriptions of the clothing worn in Ukraine and descriptions and drawings of the ornate chests, or skryni, used...