Get to know the Top 40: History


Some of Canada's most thrilling and defining stories can be found in our history books. 

Today, a look at the books on the Canada Reads: True Stories Top 40 list that explore some important historical aspects of the people and things that have made our society what it is today, like Ken Dryden's definitive book about hockey, Jane Jacobs' influential book about city planning, Charlotte Gray's fascinating biography of Isabel Mackenzie King, mother of this country's longest-serving prime minister, Chester Brown's comic book history of Louis Riel, and Pierre Berton on the completion of Canada's cross-country railway system.

The Book: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs


What's it about? It's the late, great, patron saint of Toronto Jane Jacobs' 1961 treatise on urban planning. Though 50 years old, The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains a hugely influential book in city design. Jacobs advocated for mixed-use space (as in, residential and commercial spaces side by side) and urban density as the characteristics of a successful city, and argued that the modernist methods of city planning (where residential, commercial and industrial areas are isolated from one another) destroyed communities.

Did the critics like it? Jacobs' book was immediately recognized as a significant contribution to the urban theory canon. Her principles are still held up by advocates for vibrant city spaces.

What else do I need to know? If you're a Torontonian, you should know that you have Jane Jacobs to thank for the fact that the Annex, Kensington Market and Chinatown are as bustling as they are: she led the campaign against building an expressway down Spadina back in the 1970s, a plan that would have effectively ruined the city we live in today.


The Book: The Game by Ken Dryden


What's it about? Dryden's 1983 insider's look at Canada's favourite sport is still held up as one of the defining books about hockey, even 30 years later. Dryden, a former hockey goalie, chronicles his 1979 season with the Montreal Canadiens.

Did the critics like it? Yes, and they still do  The Game remains one of the most popular and acclaimed books about hockey ever written.

What else do I need to know? For an icy blast from the past, watch this clip of a CBC Telescope profile of Dryden made in 1972 here.


The Book: The Last Spike by Pierre Berton


What's it about? Trains in Canada! Canada's favourite historian Pierre Berton details the characters, intrigues, tragedies and triumphs that led to the completion of the Canadian railroad in 1885 in his 1971 follow-up to The National Dream.

Did the critics like it? Oh yes. Berton was praised for presenting a moment of Canadian history more exciting than any novel.

What else do I need to know? Berton brought history to life so effectively that CBC filmed a miniseries about the railroad based on his books in 1974.


The Book: Louis Riel by Chester Brown


What's it about? Chester Brown's 2004 comic biography of Louis Riel, the crusader for Métis rights and leader of the Red River Rebellion isn't comic in the humorous sense (although it has its moments), but in its format: Brown is a comic-book artist who has turned his inimitable style to a compelling moment in Canadian history. Not a graphic novel so much as a graphic history book, and one that transforms history into legend.

Did the critics like it? Yes. Brown's ambitious and original work was widely praised both in Canada and the U.S.

What else do I need to know? Chester Brown is one of the first Canadian alternative comic artists to find mainstream success, but he continues to push boundaries. His most recent book is a graphic memoir called Paying For It, which details his experiences hiring prostitutes.

The Book: Mrs. King by Charlotte Gray


What's it about? Women frequently get short shrift in the history books, but fortunately Canada has acclaimed historian Charlotte Gray to shine a light on a fascinating woman who might otherwise be overshadowed by the more famous men in her life. Isabel King was the daughter of William Lyon Mackenzie (Toronto's first mayor) and the mother of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the prime minister who guided Canada through the Second World War. Gray explores the very close relationship between mother and son, and examines domestic life in the early part of the 20th century.

Did the critics like it? Yes. The Globe and Mail compared it to "the most entertaining fiction," and the book was shortlisted for the two most prestigious non-fiction prizes in the country, the Governor General's Award and the Writer's Trust Award.

What else do I need to know? Charlotte Gray is an award-winning historian whose other books include Sisters in the Wilderness, about Catharine Parr Traill and Susannah Moodie, and Reluctant Genius, about Alexander Graham Bell. Her most recent book is Gold Diggers, which is about the Klondike gold rush. She is a member of the Order of Canada.

You can vote for these titles (or any of the other 35 books) in our Canada Reads: True Stories vote for the Top 10 contest! To cast your vote, head over to the poll. You can vote for up to five titles. Doing so will help these books move one step closer to being officially entered in this year's battle of the books.

The Canada Reads: True Stories Top 10 will be revealed on Tuesday, November 1, on Q and right here on CBC Books.

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