The Author and his Books
by Lee Shedden
Grant MacEwan's achievements as a writer have often been overshadowed by his other careers. Indeed, his stature as an author is virtually inseparable from his status as a public figure. The two amplify and explain each other; more than anything, MacEwan wanted to reach out to the people of the prairies and communicate to them their own greatness, He did this by setting a personal example as a proud son of the West. And he did it by writing about the Canadian West as a land populated by men and women as noble and indomitable -- and as entertaining -- as people anywhere.
In a way he was as much a pioneer as the mighty men and sodbusters about whom he wrote. One of the first, and certainly the most prolific, of the popular prairie historians, he helped break the ground for a fertile crop of popular historical writing.' It is true, as stated by a reviewer, that "If any one writer can take the credit for saving Western Canadian history from the dusty shelves of academics... it is Grant MacEwan."
During his long career, MacEwan wrote mainly about the prairies, although more about Saskatchewan and Alberta than about Manitoba. Calgarians in particular owe him a great debt for bringing to life such colourful characters of early city history as Paddy Nolan, "Mother" Fulham, and most of all, his favourite character, Bob Edwards.
MacEwan was not, as is often thought, excoriated by reviewers. While appraisals of his style were occasionally harsh, his books were generally well received. Historians could be critical, though at the same time they often expressed the hope that his books would spur further interest in the subject. Descriptions by critics of his writing style range from "clear" and "sprightly" to "prolix» and "turgid.") He was not, and never pretended to be, a literary stylist. His style is folksy, often rough, sometimes awkward, but with a charm that grows with the reader's every encounter. He is at his best when he is writing about his passions: horses, eccentrics, and bizarre events. And the land, always the land.
Confusion exists over just how many books MacEwan authored. Recent press reports have put the number at "over 50," at 55, and at "more than 60.'" The Globe and Mail, more cautiously, numbered his "anecdotal history" books at "more than 40." 5 In fact, he published forty-nine books, including the textbooks, the Best Of, and his Journals. A handful of unpublished manuscripts are extant, and the future possibility exists of a new Best Of book, and a volume drawn from his prodigious journalism. The sheer volume of his output, so much of it closely related, makes it difficult for the reader to know where to begin. Here follows a brief chronological tour of his works, drawing heavily on contemporary reviews, as a first step toward an assessment of the "MacEwan canon."
His first four volumes were textbooks, the first two of which were co-authored with his friend and colleague, AI Ewen. All were well received. "The Science and Practice of Canadian Animal Husbandry" (1936) was "the first book of its kind dealing directly with livestock management under Canadian conditions." "General Agriculture" (1939) was written for the junior set, also coauthored with Ewen, and covering not just livestock but horticulture as well. Published just as World War Two broke out, it passed without notice in the press and remains MacEwan's hardest book to find. "The Breeds of Farm Livestock in Canada" (1941) was his first solo-authored book. Again it was "the first of its kind to be published in this country and fills a want which has been felt for many years." "Feeding Farm Animals" (1945) was written about in such ecstatic terms it makes one pity the agricultural world for its loss of MacEwan. An article in Country Life said, "It is not only the book of the year, but the book of the decade, in fact, of several decades.... [an] incomparable volume."
"The Sodbusters" (1948) was MacEwan's first book for a general audience and served as the prototype for many of his future books of biographical sketches. It was not, however, critically acclaimed, being described by one reviewer as "pretty thin." A lone voice of praise came from mentor and historian W.L. Morton, who said that MacEwan had rendered a distinct service to the history of pioneer agriculture in western Canada.
This book was followed by "Agriculture on Parade: The Story of the Fairs" and Exhibitions of Western Canada (1950) which passed with little notice in the press. Not only was its dust jacket crashingly unappealing, more important, it lacked the element which characterizes MacEwan's best work: a central character through whom the story is to be told. But it is not really an awful book and its utter neglect is somewhat surprising.
Next came "Between the Red and the Rockies" (1952) which launched MacEwan into the public eye as an author of note. It was more widely reviewed, in eastern papers as well as western, than any of his other books. The comments were generally positive, and a few were glowing ones. However, academics agreed that, though it would "undoubtedly find many receptive readers" it could "hardly fail to be a disappointment to the serious student." It remained in print into the 1980s and upon its reissue in 1979, Douglas Francis summed it up as "anecdotal history, well told and witty.... This book remains one of the few available on the history of agriculture in Western Canada, a much neglected subject in Canadian history'"
By the 1950s, Albertans had become hungry to read about their own history, and MacEwan firmly established himself as one of the region's leading authors with the publication of 'Eye Opener Bob' (1957). Time magazine announced that, 'Bookstores in Calgary and Edmonton have a hot new best-seller in their racks, and it is home-grown.' Praise for 'Eye Opener Bob' was unanimous. Hugh Dempsey in the Alberta Historical Review hailed it as "masterful... clear and interesting... MacEwan has done justice to his subject and, for the general public, his book is about the best historical work that has come out of Alberta for some time." Cleo Mowers, an Albertan reviewer, said it was "three books in one: the most authoritative history of adolescent Calgary that has ever been written; a full-length portrait of this city's most famous (in some circles infamous) citizen; and biographical literature of above-average quality." "Eye Opener Bob" was MacEwan's first "hit" book and had at least eight printings.
A year later came "Fifty Mighty Men" (1958), easily MacEwan's most famous title. It grew out of a series of columns he wrote for the Western Producer and was the first of twenty-nine books he published with their subsidiary, Prairie Books. It consisted of a series of biographical sketches of western Canadian pioneers and personalities. Many of the sketches, such as those on John Ware, Tatanga Mani, Stanley Harrison, and Pat Burns, later became full-length books. Others, such as that of Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration director George Spence, remain the only pieces written about these figures. Still others, such as Louis Riel, are well known even to those with little historical knowledge. If any of MacEwan's books are "uneven" it is this one. Yet it was his best seller and by 1972 it had sold 12,000 copies and continued to sell. It went through eight hardcover printings and three paperback editions.
Also in 1958 came "Calgary Cavalcade" "the first full-size hardcover book on Calgary's history." It was, of course, an anecdotal rather than a comprehensive history, "a collection of tales...very readable and colorful." It was reprinted three times before being reissued for Calgary's 1975 centennial. It has since lost "classic" status, mainly because it has been superseded by a cavalcade of other books on Calgary's history.
"John Ware's Cow Country" (1960) is an odd classic, the first and only book on this African-American cowboy and "as close as we'll get" to him. Since the advent of civil rights and post-colonial theory, though, it is hard to read MacEwan's portrait -particularly the accented dialogue attributed to him - without wincing. Reviewers differed starkly on the book's merits. It received some enthusiastic receptions and one publication praised it as both a biography and a history of ranching in southern Alberta. But Barry Broadfoot called it "uneven, tedious and often fuzzy... MacEwan inflicts on John Ware a Southern darky style of mumbled, fractured speech which serves to make Ware into a caricature... Not only is it an insult to Ware's memory, but an insult to the readers' intelligence." But the ranchers MacEwan interviewed for the book are now long-dead, making this book the sole repository for their recollections of Ware. It remains in print, and popular; there have been numerous attempts to make it into a movie.
MacEwan's next book, "Blazing the Old Cattle Trail" (1962), began as a series of articles in the Western Producer. At the time, this collection of thirty-six colourful stories about early livestock drives was hailed as MacEwan's best book yet. One of his more successful books, it went into at least eight printings, remained in print into the 1980s, and was recently reissued.
The publishers decided not to break the mould with "Hoofprints and Hitchingposts" (1964), a collection of horse history and lore which had originally appeared in the Western Producer. At times hampered by a lack of colourful personalities through whom to tell the stories, MacEwan is in form when he allows himself free rein to tell the stories of individual horses and horsemen of the West. "Hoofprints and Hitchingposts" contained enough vintage MacEwan to go through at least four printings.
"One book I must do sooner or later," wrote MacEwan in 1961 to Thomas Melville-Ness, publisher of the Western Producer, is "a general treatment of Conservation in Canada. The subject comes closer and closer to my heart." That book appeared in 1966 as 'Entrusted to My Care'. Maxwell Foran, MacEwan's son-in-law, and Rob Sanders, his publisher (first at Prairie Books and now at Greystone Books), have both stated that this book comes closest to the core of MacEwan's thinking. Frank Moher said it "presents the author at his best, which is to say his most passionate." It was one of the first nonacademic books in Canada on conservation, the first of its kind in almost a decade, and the very first book of its kind on the prairies. Reviewed well but sparsely, it didn't receive the national attention it merited, and had only one printing each in its original 1966 edition and the revised 1986 edition. Nonetheless it remains a definitive statement of MacEwan's values and was pivotal in establishing his reputation as a conservationist and forward-thinker, not just a chronicler of the past.
Later that same year came a lighter-hearted detour from MacEwan's customary agricultural and historical topics. As a statement of the new Lieutenant Governor's beliefs Poking into Politics shows a strong concern for democracy, integrity in politics and journalism, and a liberal dose of his trademark humour. Part one follows the evolution of democracy from ancient Athens to Social Credit. Part two is mainly amusing anecdotes from his time in politics. Until the publication of Journals, it was the closest thing to a MacEwan autobiography.
"West to the Sea" (1968) was written with Max Foran for students from grades 5 to 7. It covered much of the same ground as Between the Red and the Rockies, with additional material on British Columbia, though with less romance and an obvious reliance on curricular needs. It went through three printings as a paperback for the general reader under the title A Short History of Western Canada.
"Tatanga Mani: Walking Buffalo of the Stonies" (1969) was the first of MacEwan's books about Aboriginal Canadians and marked yet another turning point in his writing. If his previous writing had relied on "cowboys and Indians" stereotyping, here he displayed a genuine, if romanticized, interest in Native history and culture. The book received many favourable reviews, appearing at a time when public interest in Canada's aboriginal inhabitants was at a peak. Few at the time complained29 but a reader is now likely to find the book far too thin on its subject and too thick on the speculative history of nations unrelated to the Stoneys.
"Harvest of Bread", released later that same year, was eclipsed by "Tatanga Mani". Compared to the drama of an Indian prophet finding his spiritual path, the history of wheat in the West was spectacularly un-sexy. The publisher's assertion that "the story of wheat, in its own right, is moving and exciting" was not taken to heart by readers. It is a decent book, but lacks MacEwan's essential elements of colourful personalities and curious anecdotes.
Early 1971 saw the first of MacEwan's oversized, illustrated books, "Power for Prairie Plows", a history of the evolution of farm power. With illustrations on every two-page spread, it was an attractive package. It sold well and remained in print until 1986.
In the same year came "Portraits from the Plains" (1971), conceived as a "fifty mighty men" volume on the Plains Indians. Thankfully, the publisher overruled MacEwan's original title, "Mighty Men in Moccasins." Warmly received as "a book for these times, when the native peoples are pressing for greater autonomy,"30 it shows MacEwan writing in an area of strength brief biographical sketches of colourful characters.
Then came "Sifting Bull: The Years in Canada" (1973) which was extensively reviewed and was loved by the popular press. The Edmonton Journal said it was "by any standards, a masterpiece." Academics questioned MacEwan's interpretation of facts and his use of questionable material; typical is the comment, "MacEwan has certainly told a good story in this book, although it is not necessarily good history."
"This is Calgary" (1973) is a MacEwan curiosity, a promotional photo book published for the Calgary Real Estate Board Co-operative. The text which accompanied Tony Rankin's photos of the city and its environs is rather dull, and MacEwan is not credited anywhere except on the rear dust jacket flap.
In 1975, three more of MacEwan's books were published. These included an updated edition of "Calgary Cavalcade" which appeared in the spring, along with Battle for the Bay, a history of the Hudson Bay railroad and the Port of Churchill, and the book ..."And Mighty Women Too: Sketches of Notable Pioneer Women". The title of the latter book, chosen by the publisher, sounded like an afterthought, and to clarify the point MacEwan wrote in his introduction that "It was always my intention that Fifty Mighty Men would have a companion volume." It was reprinted often, and is still available under the perhaps more appropriate title of Mighty Women.
When MacEwan's J977 book "Cornerstone Colony" was published, reviews concluded that even if he brought forth little new research, it was a well-told tale of an important chapter in western history. The book, said a reviewer, attempts to present Lord Selkirk as western Canada's "Founding Farmer," which "strained interpretation" gave him "an opportunity to re-tell the story of the trials and tribulations, the small victories and the tragedies of the painful establishment of the Red River community."
If there hadn't been a MacEwan best seller since "Power for Prairie Plows", "Memory Meadows" (1977) made up for it. To this day his thirty-seven sketches of "some famous and some not so famous Canadian horses" remains a popular favourite. Freed from any attempts to claim historical significance for its subjects, MacEwan's passion for horses infuses this book. This was the first of his books to be released as a paperback original, and an expanded edition appeared in 1985.
MacEwan's next book, "The Rhyming Horseman of the Qu'Appelle" (1978) dealt with the career of Stanley Harrison, a close friend who shared a mutual obsessive love of horses. To flesh out Harrison's own story, MacEwan includes information on "the early exploration of the Qu'Appelle Valley, English immigration to the prairies, and the history of horse breeding and thoroughbred racing." MacEwan's granddaughter, Fiona Foran, says that, along with "Marie Anne" (1984), it was his personal favourite of his books.
When "Pat Burns: Cattle King" was published in 1979, it had a mixed reception. Either this biography of the meat packing magnate was "one of MacEwan's better efforts" or "the poorest book MacEwan has ever written." Whatever its merits as a tale, it is important historically for its inclusion of information that MacEwan collected from Burns' contemporaries and relatives soon after the man's death in 1936.
"Grant MacEwan's illustrated History of Western Canadian Agriculture" (1980) was another large-format book, with many illustrations supporting an extensive text. A reviewer for Books in Canada thought it "dull," but others disagreed. The' Lethbridge Herald called it "a history book written for people who dislike history," neatly confirming MacEwan's mission as a writer. It sold slowly, going out of print in July 1985.
"Métis Makers of History" (1981) could have been called "Eighteen Mighty Métis," though MacEwan here considered "Métis" a racial, rather than a cultural, appellation. It was a solid book, and if some reviewers charged MacEwan with stereotyping,' O it received generally positive reviews and prompted Dorine Thomas, then manager of Pemmican Publications, to write, "You are giving a sense of pride to the Métis and a positive view of our culture to the nonnative reader. Thank you."
"Alberta Landscapes", a coffee table book with photographs by Rusty Macdonald, appeared in 1982. The text serves to illustrate the pictures and is generally unremarkable, though there appears an occasional MacEwan quirk, such as his call for Waterton Park to be renamed "Kootenai" Brown National Park. This was followed by "The Best of Grant MacEwan" (1982) published to mark the author's 80th birthday. It contains excerpts from most of his books to "Alberta Landscapes" except the textbooks and "This is Calgary".
By this time, MacEwan was writing so much that his publisher, Prairie Books, could not keep pace with him. When they decided to move ahead with "The Best of Grant MacEwan" and his biography of Charles Noble. He took his latest work, "Highlights of Shorthorn History" (1982) the Canadian Shorthorn Association to publish. They were not a book publisher, though, and the handsome volume was not widely distributed.
Meanwhile, Prairie Books published "Charles Noble: Guardian of the Soil" (1983) which was greeted respectfully, although Noble lacked the spark of roguery that brought MacEwan s subjects to life on the page. Said one reviewer, it was "dry as the land [Noble] worked so diligently to preserve." Some criticized MacEwan's interpretation,'3 but Prairie Forum deemed it "a good discussion piece....richer than its detractors will claim. The author's attempt to bring our agricultural past to light and life is a worthy and under emphasized task."
Perhaps MacEwan realized that farmer heroes were too stolid, so the subject of his next book, Wildhorse Jack: The Legend of Jack Morton (1983) combined, in MacEwan's words, "the best characteristics of saints and sinners' in the rollicking story of an early Stampede hero. It was ecstatically, if not widely, reviewed. "What a great TV series this would be!" one reviewer wrote. "How wonderful for Canadian children to have a real cowboy hero of their own. "45 Despite such enthusiasm, Morton's prior lack of fame, and the fact that the book was "not packaged as reverently by Prairie Books as it ought to be," 46 scuttled sales and Wildhorse Jack went quietly out of print by 1989.
Three MacEwan books appeared in 1984. The first was 100 Years of Smoke, Sweat and Tears. This history of the Calgary Fire Department was written, famously for the fee of one jar of peanut butter. Distributed mainly through fire department channels rather than bookstores, it is devilishly hard to find a copy of nowadays. The second book that year was French in the West/Les Franco-Canadiens dan.s ['Ouest (1984), a brief, biographically-based survey barely a hundred pages long. As French-language publishers have their own channels of distribution in Canada, it is rarely found in English-language bookstores, but remains in print. The final 1984 book was Marie Anne: The Frontier Adventures of Marie Anne Lagimodiere, which was a favourite of the author. However, it was problematic for many reviewers; due to lack of solid evidence about Lagimodiere's life, MacEwan resorted to pure invention for parts of her story. Reaction was mixed but generally positive. A reviewer in The Canadian Book Review Annual said that whether a work of history or an historical novel, "it espouses MacEwan's views of the early West - a view that should not be taken lightly."
MacEwan's next book was an attempt to resurrect the reputation of Frederick Haultain, "who is usually relegated to a footnote."48 In this, he was reasonably successful and the man's stature has certainly increased since the appearance of Frederick Haultain: Frontier Statesman of the Calladian West (1985). Many reviewers across the country lauded the but historians were critical. George Hoffman asserted that "the need for a fuller study remains. MacEwan's book is not a true measure of Haultain's role in the development of the West."51 This challenge to historians has gone unanswered; MacEwan's book remains the only monograph on Sir Frederick.
As a substitute for the autobiography he would never write, MacEwan allowed Max Foran to edit for publication his diaries which he had kept with regularity since 1914. Grant MacEwan's Journals appeared from Lone Pine Publishing in the spring of 1986. Though MacEwan was too private a man to allow the core of himself through, his stellar sense of humour is found here in abundance, and the minutiae (such as the revelation of the identity of the "Unknown Sodbuster") can be rewardiJlg for the MacEwanologist.
Later that year, a large-format illustrated book along the lines of Power for Prairie Plows returned to MacEwan's equine passion. Heavy Horses: Highlights of their History received a popular reception and was awarded the 1986 Alberta Culture Non-Fiction Award. It went through two printings in its original edition and one by an American publisher - the first and only time a MacEwan book has been published outside Canada. A new edition is scheduled forfall of 2001.
Next followed a biography of Paddy Nolan, the good friend and confidant of Bob Edwards. He Left Them Laughing When He Said Goodbye: The Life and Times of Frontier Lawyer Paddy Nolan (1987) was funny, the reviews were good, and sales were brisk. Nolan had left no personal records, so the book was a combination of newspaper editors' and reporters' views of Nolan, plus MacEwan's pure inventions, again treading the fine line between history and fiction. The object, however, was to entertain, and on that measure the book succeeded admirably.
MacEwan's next book was to be his last full-length biography. "Colonel James Walker: Mall of the Western Frontier" (1989) was lightly praised in some quarters but in others it was scorned like no other book of his had been since the very early days. To some reviewers it was "a sure winner," "a great story ...of an important period in the history of Western Canada and of one man's share in it." To others it was "popular history at its weakest," an historical mystery, "the mystery being why it was ever published." In trying to mythologize Walker, MacEwan had turned him into a plaster saint. Not good history, Colonel James Walker was unfortunately not a good story either.
Perhaps realizing that some of their cheap packaging had hurt sales, Prairie Books went all-out for what was to be their last MacEwan book, "Grant MacEwan's West: Sketches From the Past" (1990). It was a handsome hardcover volume dedicated to "all Canadians who find their history more fascinating than hockey." A select group indeed, and perhaps not an apt dedication, for the book is a perfect one to convert those who are more fascinated with hockey than history. It consists of a series of brief recountings of significant or interesting events in the Canadian Northwest. It has all the elements of MacEwan's classic popular histories: brevity, humour, colour, and an abiding concern for the land. It is one of his best books, the summation of a long career in historical storytelling.
In 1991 the Alberta Sheep and Wool Commission brought out "Highlights of Sheep History in the Canadian West," a book MacEwan had written around 1987 but publication of which had been delayed. Like the Shorthorn history it was distributed mainly through the Commission's channels and today it is nearly impossible to find a copy.
Later that year, Western Producer sold its book-publishing arm, Prairie Books, to Douglas & McIntyre, a Vancouver-based independent publisher, ending an era of regional publishing. In many minds, MacEwan was synonymous with the Saskatoon-based publisher; he had published more books with them than with all other publishers combined. Douglas & McIntyre took over Prairie Books' backlist and reissued "Fifty Mighty Men", "Mighty Women", and "John Ware" in 1995, and "Memory Meadows" in 1997.
With Prairie Books gone, MacEwan found a Calgary-based publisher for his next book, "Coyote Music and Other Humorous Tales of the Early West" (1993). MacEwan had been collecting bits of prairie humour for most of his life, many of which ended up between the covers of this book. His publisher, Rocky Mountain Books, chose the best bits from a sprawling manuscript, organized them loosely into chapters, and presented the public with what has become one of MacEwan's best-loved books.
MacEwan's penultimate book had been completed as early as 1992 but turmoil in the book industry, a flagging market for local-interest books, and MacEwan's declining reputation as an author of importance, made a publisher difficult to find. Eventually the Alberta Sport, Recreation, Parks & Wildlife Foundation secured funding from Syncrude, which had been involved in a bison recovery program, to produce and publish "Buffalo: Sacred and Sacrificed" (1995). It was a handsome hardcover, slightly oversized, illustrated, and lavishly produced volume. An ambitious work, it dealt harshly with Man's folly in nearly exterminating the buffalo.
Grant MacEwan had always been without an agent or even a secretary, and now that he was almost completely deaf and confined to his bed after a series of falls, he was having trouble finding a publisher for what was to become his last book. Ultimately, it was accepted by NeWest Press of Edmonton and was published as "Watershed: Reflections on Water" (2000). Soon after the contracts were signed, the author had another serious fall and died on June 15, 2000. Like Entrusted to My Care, his last book was both a hymn to its subject of water and a plea for Canadians to be aware of its fragility. Described as "a worthy read," it is not so somber a piece as Buffalo. Its essays range from pioneer travail with water wells to O.B. Lassiter's scheme to tow icebergs to California. The conclusion brings MacEwan full circle: a personal account of his 1931 rafting trip down the South Saskatchewan River with Al Ewen, the dedicatee of this, his final book, and the coauthor of his first.
What are Grant MacEwan's achievements as a writer? First, he played a large part in creating an awareness of western Canadian history among the people of the West. Second, he rescued from neglect - and sometimes successfully mythologized, as in the case of John Ware - otherwise forgotten figures. "[I]f it were not for authors like MacEwan," said one reviewer," much of our history would be left unwritten." Third, he contributed greatly to agricultural history; much that he recorded no one else did and his agricultural writings are the most likely to transcend the geographical limitations of his subjects. Finally, he did what any writer outside academia has to: he entertained his readers.
Will future generations read Grant MacEwan's books? It is hard to tell. Had he merely been a pioneer, he would have a place in the literary history of the Canadian West. But because of his unique contributions his vision of a gently ribald and proudly heroic West, and even his slightly awkward but endearing prose style he certainly deserves a place on bookshelves of the land.
Grant MacEwan was simultaneously limited and granted a wide and enthusiastic readership by his fondness for the captivating anecdote. For him the romance of the prairie West was exemplified by such colourful but historically inconsequential figures as John Ware, Jack Morton, Stanley Harrison, and Paddy Nolan. As Hilda Neatby wrote early on in his career, "his gift is for simple anecdote, and for short and colorful descriptions." She meant it disapprovingly, but MacEwan turned it into his greatest strength. With that gift he brought to untold thousands of prairie people what they never knew they were missing: their own history.
Lee Shedden, a resident of Calgary, is a writer, editor, and publisher. He is a regular contributor to FFWD magazine.