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Cross-Country by Hugh MacLennan


by Hugh MacLennan

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Cross-Country was published after Hugh MacLennan's first three novels had won him great acclaim (Two Solitudes and The Precipice winning him his first and second Governor General's Awards). It's a collection of essays that touch on themes he discusses in his novels: about half the collection discusses the idea of the Canadian identity and his country's place in the world, especially in relation to the United States.

Even without having read (yet) MacLennan's GG-Award-winning novels, I found a lot to like about this collection. His writing is very smooth and elegant, and not without a touch of wit. (From his essay on the 1948 Republican convention: "A speech by Governor Duff followed and it might have been interesting if the speaker himself had been interested in what he was saying.") He readily admits when his observations are drawn merely from personal experience, especially in the title essay, which discusses his impressions of the United States from a road trip he and his wife, Dorothy, took to California one winter. And while he does prefer Canada, he is prepared to point out its weak points and where other countries do better; for example, he discusses the "brain drain", especially in the teaching profession at that time, with talented young Canadians fleeing to the States because they are not being given reasons to stay (other than the powers that be saying it's their "duty" -- as MacLennan says, "What do they think Canada is, a mission-field?").

The great thing about this collection, or potentially a point of despair, is that so much of what MacLennan says still resonates today. In his essay "On Discovering Who We Are", he compares Canada and the US in terms of entertainment, noting that many Canadians are tuned in to the World Series and that plenty of US magazines are available in Canadian convenience stores. He asks, how many Americans would be glued to the Canadian universities' football championship? How many US convenience stores would stock magazines such as Maclean's and Chatelaine? The debate continues today on Canadian content quotas and regulations, as well as the extent of American influence on Canadian culture. He also talks about the difficulties of selling Canada as a nation containing things other than Mounties, trappers and husky dogs.

I also liked his essays about his childhood, notably Christmases 1916 and 1917, both of which featured explosions. The 1917 event was the famous Halifax Explosion, also chronicled to great effect in Barometer Rising, while the 1916 event was his family's "own private explosion", caused by gas that had leaked from the city mains into the basement, and his father apparently went down with a lighted match to investigate. (His father subsequently denied this, because the news coverage that said as much made him look kind of stupid; embarrassing for a distinguished doctor.)

If you have read and enjoyed any of MacLennan's work, you will probably like these essays. One thing I should point out is that the first essay in particular is very much a "white guy in the late 1940s" sort of perspective; he compares Canada to a "good wife" and when discussing the founding of Canada he focuses more on the English, French and Scots (the First Nations don't get much of a look-in). But it's not written that way to be mean-spirited; it's just his worldview at that time and did not detract much from my enjoyment of the work. Indeed, I found occasion to quote one of his essays in a conversation with my grandparents, and they were suitably impressed. MacLennan is well worth reading and savouring if you're interested in the Canadian perspective from the mid-20th century. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Aug 6, 2012 |
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