- Canadian Historical Writing: Reading the Remains by Renée Hulan
There is a casual tendency to assume that historical fiction lacks the methodological rigour and academic perspective required to substantively contribute to discussions about the past. As Renée Hulan demonstrates from the outset in Canadian Historical Writing: Reading the Remains, professional or public histories are not immune from the flawed or misleading interpretations that actively shape our understanding of the past. Using an interdisciplinary approach, Hulan analyses how contemporary historical fiction interacts with, and contributes to, Canadian historiography. Themes of nation, interpretation, evidence, and time are examined as contributors to the formulation of historical consciousness.
The early canon of Canadian historiography produced nation-building narratives concentrated on colonial settlement, war, and political history, to the considerable exclusion of all else. Toward the end of the twentieth century a perceived crisis in Canadian historical education emerged as a growing focus on social and cultural historical analysis was argued to diminish Canadians’ understanding of nationalist historical narratives. Coincidentally, this reorientation toward a more socio-cultural historiography occurred as works of historical fiction were topping bestseller lists. While this crisis in historical education caused some to mourn the loss of the historical grand narrative, historical fiction embraced a non-traditional preoccupation with national history and themes of exploration, emigration and settlement, and war.
With reference to the work of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Hulan explains how historical fiction is differentiated from historical analysis. While historical fiction writers and historians both translate the experience of people, places, and events from the documentary and oral records, the fiction writer has the freedom to translate historical consciousness into literary form. Before the full embrace of the renewed narrative genre, a postmodern period contributed to the growing relevance of historical fiction in Canada. Hulan uses Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words and The Wars as examples of “historiographic metafiction” that challenge [End Page 357] traditional understandings of authoritative historical knowledge. World War II provided Findley with the opportunity to explore power and fascism through postmodern techniques of quotation, parody, doubled structures, language games, self-reflexivity, and gender ambiguity.
In comparison, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace was applauded for the accuracy with which it created a fictional reconstruction of nineteenth-century lives. Atwood’s historical novel relied on an archival source base and narrative structure to portray the experiences of working-class women, effectively making visible lives that have traditionally been elusive in historiography. This archival emphasis is accompanied by an exploration of contradictory expectations of accuracy and authenticity placed on works of fiction. Speaking to the broader debate within literary analysis, Hulan explains that historical fiction has the ability to engage meaningfully with the past and elevate contested histories.
The disregard of Aboriginal and First Nations history is a common and problematic trend within Canadian historiography. Hulan provides an important focus on the ways historical fiction has added excluded voices to Canada’s historical consciousness. Writing from a First Nations perspective, Joseph Boyden uses the narrative genre to tell the neglected story of Aboriginal soldiers serving with the Canadian Army during World War I. Revisiting the recognizable details of novels and movies describing trench warfare, Boyden inserts the Aboriginal presence into a popular nationalist narrative. Armand Gamet Ruffo’s poetic narrative Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney uses written documents in conjunction with oral sources to capture the historical conditions imposed on First Nations by colonization. Other writers stress a desire to assert the Aboriginal experience on their own terms. The perspective of author Thomas King is provided to explain the desire of some Aboriginal and First Nations writers to preserve their artistic sovereignty by not writing about the past.
The interdisciplinary perspective provided by Hulan articulates a clear and important role for historical fiction within Canada’s broader historiography. The methodological collaboration practised by certain historical fiction writers remains a helpful model for navigating the debate between the strictly narrative and more socio-culturally directed academic concentrations. While Hulan does use “English Canada” as a disclaimer, omitting Quebec and French Canada from this analysis represents...