Review: Conrad Black’s Rise to Greatness

Companion volumes?

By Jonathan Chevreau

With Christmas just a week and a half away, the burning question about Conrad Black’s new Rise to Greatness is this: Would you like a family member to buy you a copy and place it under the tree? Alternatively, is there someone in your circle who would appreciate such a gift?

With a suggested retail price of $50, this is more than you’d spend on most books. On the other hand, once wrapped it will have an impressive bulk. Weighing in at 1,106 pages it’s at least two-and-a-half inches thick (I measured it).

And as you can see from the photo, there is a close connection between this massive book and a dictionary. If you really want to benefit from Black’s Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present, you need to have a dictionary at hand, as I did. The pair of volumes pictured sat together on the living room floor for the better part of three weeks.

Since I borrowed a copy from the library and expected popular demand would preclude any renewal after the normal three-week holding period, I set myself a schedule of reading 50 pages a day. Even if you subtract the index and bibliography, it still clocks in at 1,020 pages. When you’re on that kind of schedule, stopping every time you come across unfamiliar words like ultramontaine or tocsin can really slow you down. The advantage of getting the e-book version of this is that it’s a lot easier to look up a word on e-books, merely by clicking on the word in question.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for the publishing conversations about vocabulary and the book’s heft. If I were the publisher, I’m pretty sure I would have begged for it to be cut by at least 30 pages just so they could disarm critics by saying the meat of the book was “under” 1,000 pages. As for the vocabulary, would it have hurt that much to include a glossary or append footnotes to provide definitions for some of the more obscure words?

Still, I did enjoy reading the book and can only admire the dedication and perseverance required to research and write such an opus. It’s one thing to carp about reading such a lengthy work, I can’t even imagine writing it. The bibliography alone is 25 pages long and in very small type.

World history through a Canadian prism

I’d like to think the potential audience for this book is well beyond North America. Clearly, Black has thoroughly read all of world history and some of the best passages are about the American revolution and the world wars with some European perspective. Yes, he views these events through a Canadian prism and takes pains to return to his main theme of Canada’s rise to greatness on the world stage but it’s clear he’s capable of writing a similarly ambitious history of the World. Perhaps that day will come and no doubt our vocabularies will be further enriched if that occurs.

Personally, I’ve long been interested in the colonization of North America: both the United States and Canada, and for that matter Latin America. If you’re a history buff, a fan of Conrad himself, or have a particular interest in the prime ministers of Canada, then there’s still time to drop hints to a loved one to put this under the tree for you this Christmas.

While the rest of the world tends to view Canada as a dull, stable place protected from all harm by its powerful neighbour to the south, Black does manage to bring a sense of excitement to the tale of this nation’s birth. Throughout there are the tensions between Britain, France and the United States. As the dust-jacket flap says, just to come into existence, Canada had to be French to avoid being assimilated by the American colonists, then British, to avoid being subsumed by the newborn United States.

Little wonder that the central preoccupation for Canada in the 20th century was the problem of Quebec and its ever-present threats to separate.

Lines on Trudeau alone worth the price

That leads naturally to a discussion of how the federal Liberals dominated as the ruling party, since it was best able to handle the Quebec issue. As I said last week on Twitter, Black’s lines on Pierre Trudeau are priceless. From page 834: “Trudeau, forty-six, had been a flippant, underemployed poseur…”

Or pages 871-872: “Trudeau is frequently billed by his supporters as a philosopher king, but he had a very unoriginal mind … His answer to everything was to throw public sector money at it with the cavalier disregard for the origins of that money of someone who has never had to earn much himself.”

There’s much more, including a couple of references to Margaret Trudeau. I noticed only a single reference to Justin Trudeau, on page 1002: “… dogged by suggestions that he might be intellectually thin for the position. But he carried a name that with time was somewhat magic, was a better looking and less combative man than his father, and was less dogmatically fixed in a social-democratic time warp.”

Admirable restraint on Jean Chretien

Despite the author’s well publicized spats with Jean Chretien, Black manages to remain relatively objective about the long-serving Liberal prime minister. At one point, Black describes Chretien as “generally unimaginative, often small-minded, suspicious …,” but gives him credit for being “an important, and on balance a good and successful, prime minister, who governed sensibly and in a long career earned the respect and gratitude of Canada.”

As for the current prime minister, Stephen Harper, he is on the whole approving, albeit sometimes doling out thin praise, as in this passage from page 1006: “ … however long he lasts, Stephen Harper will likely be an accomplished and capable prime minister.”

While you might think that Black himself would deserve a few mentions in such a book if the historian were anyone else, he is remarkably restrained when it comes to any personal references. There are a handful of places where he makes observations based on his actual encounters or conversations with living persons, but these are usually only footnoted.

Whether the book finds a place in our schools’ history curricula remains to be seen. Certainly I expect it to be taking up considerable space under many Christmas trees  this holiday season. I apologize in advance for spoiling the surprise for recipients by having singled out its telltale bulk.


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