A quintessentially Canadian book by any measure, A Number of Things counts out 50 objects to represent Canadian experience and history in celebration of the country’s 150th birthday.
The objects range from the rope used to hang the treasonous Louis Riel (a now-honoured Métis leader who led a resistance to the Canadian government when they encroached on Métis land), to the cherry tree which represents the internment of Japanese people in Canada during WW2, to leggings used to wrap a Beothuk child’s body at a time when there would have been too few Beothuk left to make a traditional box-and-skin body bag.
The objects are rife with sadness and mistreatment, and shine an unexpected light on a not-so-nice Canadian history. Novelist and poet Jane Urquhart, for the most part, sees these objects as celebrations of stories that need to be told.
A Number of Things was commissioned by Patrick Crean Editions, an imprint of HarperCollins, to mark Canada’s 2017 sesquicentennial, to mark stories representing each province and territory. She tackles the objects with warmth and charm. Even the lowly birdfeeder is raised up to an almost spiritual plane:
Canadians believe in the miracle of birds.
Each of the chapters is short – between 1 and 4 pages. It’s difficult to connect to some of the stories unless you already know Canadian history. Urquhart’s piece titled Neon, about the Five Roses sign in Montreal, means nothing if you aren’t already aware of the effect of the language laws of Quebec.
It’s a charming book, but not compelling, a companion more than a compendium. A weekend read.