Holiday Reading

Katherine Jane Ellice, The Drawing Room at the Seigneury House, Beauharnois, Lower Canada (1838), Library & Archives Canada

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CBC does it, Canada’s History does it, the New York Times does it…. Now NiCHE has year-end recommendations for books-you-would-like-to-give-or-receive: things we’ve read and loved, things we want to read and love. There’s an Icelandic tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve, so: be like Iceland.

Add your own recommendations in the comments!


MacEachern photo, 2014Alan MacEachern, Western University

First, Tom Griffiths’ The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft. It explores Australian historical writing since 1945 through chapter-length portraits of fourteen historians and their ways of working. I recommend the book for a whole bunch of reasons. For one, Griffiths is simply a great writer – if you call yourself a historian and haven’t read Slicing the Silence, you’re an idiot. Griffiths is also one of the most generous historians I know, the kind that would never call a fellow historian an idiot. Reading The Art of Time Travel, I took to underlining the constant appearance of words such as “supportive” and “encouraging.” As much as it’s a book that suggests how historians might write and teach, it also suggests how they might live. What’s more, it – like Australian history generally – is so suffused with consideration of the environment and indigenous people that it offers Canadian historians, Canadian people an alternative vision of what telling our history and understanding our place might have looked like, what it might still look like.

Second, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. ‘Tis the season for cutting down a tree so that you can admire it before throwing it to the curb, so what better time to read a sprawling 700-plus pages about the indiscriminate decimation of forests across northeastern North America over the past 300-plus years. And it’s a novel! There’s a lot I love about this book by the author of The Shipping News, but it’s particularly useful for folks like us, interested in environment and history and how to write about them. I love how Proulx allows for the happenstance nature of events, to the point of even violating the Chekhov’s gun plot device. I love that characters you’re getting to know die off suddenly, and not just for dramatic purposes, a la Ned Stark (retroactive spoiler alert), but because people, you know, die off. I love that you get to know the woods setting intimately, yet sometimes without knowing what side of the international border you’re on. And I love how Proulx writes about nature (“the beetle-browed forest,” “a waterfall no wider than three fingers”) and people (“They wanted to love these unknown relatives”). I just wish I could figure out on what basis she uses “barkskin” as a synonym for logger or lumberman; I can find no historical reference to the term. But maybe it’s appropriate that Proulx’s book leaves me prepared to wander into a dense etymological thicket, content even about the possibility of losing my way.


Tina Adcock, NiCHE Editor

Tina Adcock, Simon Fraser University

This holiday season, I’d like to read more literary non-fiction on environmental themes, especially given the renaissance underway in the genre of nature writing. Topping my list are Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland, both of which I received last Christmas and still haven’t cracked. (Macfarlane’s earlier book The Old Ways meditates on coming to know landscapes on foot; it’s a treat for environmental historians and historical geographers alike.) I’m also increasingly drawn to literary non-fiction about the Arctic. Among the best of recent travelogues is Kathleen Winter’s Boundless, which dwells learnedly and lyrically on human and natural histories of the North. Ideally I’d pair her book with Adrian Howkins’ The Polar Regions: An Environmental History, a slim volume which I’ve been saving for a wintry day. I suppose we’re in the right part of the year, now.

Ahead of participating in a roundtable on hope and environmental history at ASEH 2017, I’m looking forward to revisiting Lesley Head’s Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene. I find the small, but growing interdisciplinary literature that cuts environment with emotion wonderfully thought-provoking. I’ve also been putting aside a handful of sure-to-be-excellent monographs by colleagues and friends until I have time to savour them properly, in slow professorial vein. These include Emilie Cameron’s Far Off Metal River and John Thistle’s Resettling the Range; they’ll soon be joined by Jonathan Peyton’s Unbuilt Environments and, a little farther down the road—literally—Ben Bradley’s British Columbia by the Road.

Moving from the page to the screen, there are three environmentally-relevant movies released within the past year or so that I’d really like to see: Guardians of Eternity, on the toxic legacy left behind by Yellowknife’s Giant Mine; Konelīne, Nettie Wild’s beautiful, complex portrait of human engagements with the landscapes of northwestern British Columbia; and Angry Inuk, a masterclass on Inuit seal hunting for southern audiences.


CampbellClaire Campbell, Bucknell University

Not having been on sabbatical last year (*cough* Alan) my recommendation is briefer, looks less like reading for fun, and comes from a seminar I taught for the first time this past fall, on the environmental history of islands and coastlines in the north Atlantic. I’ve been casting about for a good example of environmental history to share with a faculty reading group, and I think I’m going to suggest Chris Pastore’s Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England. It’s extremely readable, and moves through a whole range of elements of history (colonization, science, industry, war) refracted through environmental concerns and conditions. His chapter on the American Revolution was the most interesting take on the bleepin’ thing that I’ve read since moving here. The book also recognizes the littoral quality of coastal space better than many. And it’s set right where we’re holding the next meeting of NEAR-EH, the transnational east-coast environmental history group, in May, so reading about Narragansett Bay makes a certain amount of sense.

What I want, Santa, if you’re listening: my own copy of the Historical Atlas of Maine by Stephen Hornsby and Richard Judd, which we’re using in a team-taught class on mapping history next year.

And while I cannot for the life of me convince Jeffers Lennox (or Stephen Hornsby, for that matter) that he writes environmental history, I’d really like to read his Homelands & Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763 when it comes out next year. A transnational study of mapping and land use in aboriginal/imperial relations, by another Canadian transplanted to New England? Yes, please.

But clearly, I should be reading more …

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.


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