- Trailblazers: The Lives and Times of Michael Ewanchuk and Muriel (Smith) Ewanchuk by John Lehr and David McDowell
In some regards it is not quite fair to review a book such as this in the pages of a scholarly journal, for while co-written by an academic (Lehr) and a professional educational consultant (McDowell), Trailblazers is clearly intended for a much broader popular audience than the typical scholarly work. Thus, it does not come with the usual accoutrements of a university press produced tome. More to the point, the better known of the two subjects of this joint biography, Michael Ewanchuk, was a self-described “amateur” historian, who had little use for the typical [End Page 374] conventions of scholarly publication and whose works were not only never peer-reviewed, but were almost always self-published. As a result, it really does not seem appropriate to utilize the normal conventions when approaching this book or its subjects.
In the broadest terms possible, Trailblazers needs to be read as a biography of two everyday people who ended up leading somewhat remarkable lives. The authors do not put it in these exact terms, but like E.P. Thompson, they are obviously seeking to rescue Michael and Muriel (although, in her case, to a much lesser extent) from “the enormous condescension of posterity.” But they are also using their life stories to show a non-academic audience how ethnicity, gender, time, and place—and, in some cases, the simple accidents of history—shape lives, but are themselves as changeable and as tentativeas any other “boundaries” of society. In this case the boundaries most often in question are the social and cultural conventions of 20th century Manitoba.
It is in this regard that Trailblazers is most successful, for the authors are at their best showing the average reader the boundaries and borderlands that this couple transgressed. That Michael and Muriel would ever become a couple was highly improbable. She came from the fairly well-established settlement frontier of western Manitoba, where her family (briefly) prospered in the almost exclusively White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant community of Mather. He was the son of Galician immigrants who were barely able to scrape by on their homestead near Gimli. As any student of Canadian history knows, the social and cultural distance of the respective upbringings was far greater than the 300 kilometers physically separating these two future life partners. However, as the authors make clear in their family and personal histories of Michael and Muriel, the determining nature of gender and ethnicity, while certainly not completely overridden (especially in the case of gender) collided with the accidents of history and conspired to bring these two together in the 1930s after their lives had seemed to be set on very different trajectories. Once together as a married couple, Muriel’s life seems to fade into the background (the authors would argue that this was a function of gender roles and expectations then current), and the narrative becomes much more about Michael’s developing career—against all odds—as a successful educational administrator, and his second career as an amateur historian and documentarian of the Ukrainian pioneer experience in Manitoba.
For those not well versed in social and ethnic history, Trailblazers will serve as more than just an interesting joint biography, it is also a useful primer on Ukrainian Canadian history, the history of western Canadian settlement, and the nature of social mobility on a frontier. (Historians will be interested in the authors’ willingness to resurrect Fredrick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, but that is another matter.) For those who are more expert in ethnic history, Trailblazers will provide some useful [End Page 375] insights into the personal life of one of the great exemplars of ethnic group historical writing at the micro or local level. However, it must be said that those expert readers may also be disappointed by the lack of analysis in certain realms. For example, the Anglo-Celtic side of this...