Manitoba History: Reviews: Frances Russell, Mistehay Sakahegan: The Great Lake, the Beauty and Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and Jake Macdonald (editor), The Lake: An Illustrated History of Manitoba’s Cottage Country
by Jim Blanchard
After years of feeling someone should write about the lake life of Manitobans, I was delighted last year to see, not one, but two wonderful books come out. And wonderful they are, filled with exquisite photographs and interesting tales about our inland waters.
The two books are very different. The Lake, edited by Jake Macdonald claims in its subtitle to be an “Illustrated History of Manitobans Cottage Country.” It is not really that, but, as Mr. Macdonald admits in his preface, rather a collection of stories such as you might hear at “a party at the cottage.” The “lake dwelling writers” invited by Mr. Macdonald and the publisher, Gregg Shilliday, to tell their lake stories, approach their task from many different angles. But they all share the deep emotional attachment that brings so many Manitobans back to the “lake” summer after summer.
The book contains articles that are of considerable historical interest because of who the authora are. Both Christopher Dafoe and Charles Gordon allow glimpses into the cottage life of their illustrious grandfathers, J.W. Dafoe of the Free Press and Charles Gordon, the Winnipeg clergyman who wrote many novels under the pseudonym Ralph Connor. Most of the other writers also write about their families, for the cottage experience is primarily a family affair.
Frances Russell’s book, Mistehay Sakahegan: The Great Lake, takes on a much larger and more ambitious task and is much more like a conventional illustrated history, leading us in the skillful way of a fine writer, on a journey from the time of Lake Aggasiz to the present. But Ms. Russell too loves the lake: at times her book reads like a tender love song.
Many of the writers involved in these two projects spend time theorizing about this love people feel for the lake. In writing about summer cottages — places devoted entirely to ease and the pleasures of swimming, fishing and visiting — it is not that difficult to define what it is that makes people value the lake experience. Fresh air, the special kind of socializing that only seems to happen at the cottage, and the timeless sense that your children are experiencing the same things you once did and that perhaps your parents did before you, are all components of the lake experience that are commented on by Mr. Macdonald and his friends.
Frances Russell relates other, perhaps more profound, reasons. She tells us, for example, that the Cree have lived around the lake for at least 2000 years and that it is therefore as much a part of their culture and belief systems as, perhaps, the Dead Sea is for Christians and Jews. The sheer beauty of Lake Winnipeg also inspires Russell to writepassages like this: “For all its impetuous, sometimes savage character, Lake Winnipeg is often ‘an immense sheet of tender blue,” as Gabrielle Roy put it. But, as she confesses in her acknowledgments, her interest in the lake can be traced back to childhood summers at Victoria Beach, and she writes that “I feel fortunate that my husband and I were able to give our son Geoffrey the opportunity to build his own Lake Winnipeg memories.”
Frances Russell’s book shares one feature with other Heartland Publishers titles — exquisite illustrations. Many interesting historical photos and artworks grace its pages, along with the colour photos of a number of contemporary photographers.
I have some small reservations about these two books, although they do not prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending them both. Frances Russell’s book is printed in a landscape format, for what reason I cannot imagine. This makes the book difficult to hold and read, at the beach or at home by the fire. It also makes the book hard to put on the shelf — it sticks out.
Jake Macdonald’s book is also an odd shape but it is a hard cover so it is at least easier to hold. In its case, though, I have a problem with the way in which the book is laid out. There are chapters for each of the cottage areas with major essays by Jake Macdonald, C. J. Conway, Dawn Goss and Christopher Dafoe. These longer pieces are abruptly interrupted by other, shorter stories, sometimes printed on different coloured paper. While trying to read Christopher Dafoe’s interesting lake memories, for example, we have to flip around trying to pick up the thread without the customary helps such as footers that tellus the piece will continue on page so and so. This layout gives the book the feel of a magazine, and while I imagine the technique was used to try and please the channel flipping, internet surfing modern reader, I find it merely annoying.
This is not to say that the shorter accounts are not good — they are. It is especially nice to see two pieces written by Carol Preston who has been the brains behind so much historical writing in Manitoba over the past 20 or 30 years.
With the exception of these minor beefs, I enjoyed both books. I too love lakes and am glad to see these two specifically Manitoba additions to the list of Canadiana on this topic. I predict that very soon there will not be many cottages in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario without one or both of these books on the home made book shelves by the fireplace.
Page revised: 1 February 2020