Song of a Nation: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Calixa Lavallée, the Man Who Wrote ‘O Canada’, by Robert Harris

Nine stars

Uniting by definition, a country’s national anthem can bring a people together under a single tune. Robert Harris takes time not only to explore Canada’s national anthem, but also provides the reader with a comprehensive biographical piece on the song’s creator, Calixa Lavallée. Born Calixe Paquet dit Lavallée in 1842, he had a penchant for all things musical from an early age. Calixe’s father was a talented musician and fostered that love in his son, who took up the piano while living in rural Quebec. Harris explores the life that awaited Lavallée in the big city of Montreal when he had exhausted all that he could do at home. It was there that music and the world of the arts came together for Lavallée. Harris explores Lavallée’s discovery of life in a minstrel group—yes, he wore blackface—and the role that sort of entertainment held for both those in the Canadian colonies as well as the perceptions in the United States. When the Civil War broke out, Lavallée went to join the troops, though his placement was both surprising and yet completely to be expected. Harris explores not only the importance of the Civil War on Lavallée’s future, but also on its impact for the Canadian colonies, who would soon enter a unification oddly called ‘confederation’. This lit a flame inside Lavallée, whose passion for Quebec saw him push back and flee Canada soon thereafter. When he made a name for himself in Boston, Lavallée continued work in minstrel shows, but also honed his skills of composition. Harris delves into the new and exciting world that Lavallée discovered, though knew that his name and homeland might impede his ability to make an impact. By this time, Canada was looking for a song that might unite its people. Many pieces of writing were being considered and Lavallée was asked to pen a song for the occasion. However, he chose something that might appear somewhat peculiar to Canadians today; he wrote a nationalistic piece—words and music alike—that promoted a strong Quebec within the larger Canada. Harris examines the nationalistic sentiment in the song, as well as the tune and rhythms, in order to help readers understand how brilliant it ended up being. While Lavallée continued his music work in the United States, he was becoming a beloved entity in his home province of Quebec, so much so that his name is imprinted all over the province to this day. Harris continues the narrative to explore how Canada got its first set of English lyrics to the piece—while I should have known this, growing up singing both English and French versions, they are not translations of one another—and the fight to get ‘just the right’ sentiment flowing through the melody. From there, Harris ties off the discussion with the long and arduous task of getting Canada to formally acknowledge O Canada as the national anthem through means of parliamentary debate. A masterful biographical piece, Harris takes on not only a piece of Canadian history, but a massive chunk that will forever live in the heart of those who rise and hear the opening bars of the tune. Recommended for those who love stories of patriotism without the need for nationalistic isolation, perfect for anyone who feels a sense of pride in their homeland.

Harris has undertaken a wonderful exploration of a highly sensitive subject with this piece. Hoping not only to explore the life of Calixa Lavallée, Harris weaves together the life of this man who did so much for Canada, while also showing just how little many (English) Canadians likely know about the man. The biography of Lavallée throughout this piece is an essential part to better understanding not only the song—rich in its symbolism—but also the struggles that could be found within the precarious union of two distinct peoples before and after formal confederation of Canada. Harris does not shy away from the clashes or issues between English and French Canada, nor does not seek to smooth it over. While reading this, I did learn a great deal, but also felt that Harris presents his information in such a way that many outside of Canada could enjoy this piece while learning much about our history. How Lavallée was so connected to the United States was shocking, as well as some of the activities he undertook to make a living, things that would be scandalous and likely scrubbed from history texts today. Harris refuses to leave the politics out of the story, for they are essential to understanding what went on, including some of the more painful memories of how Canada almost tore itself apart. Harris is blunt in his depiction of the national anthem being highly divisive and how its very words drive wedges between parts of the country. How one song, meant to unite a country in times of pride, can be so divisive and politically scandalous was one thing that I had never considered. Harris’s exploration of getting the Government of Canada to formally make O Canada our national anthem is quite interesting, pointing out how the Americans and British also struggled with formal national anthem recognition. How a book that is so brief could pack such a punch, I will never know. I cannot say enough about this book and the impact it had on me, as a Canadian, as well as fuelling my passion for all things political and history-based. As many of my country folk will understand, I think of beer commercials from days of old…. I AM CANADIAN!

Kudos, Mr. Harris, for this masterful piece. You show how Canadians can have pride in their country without the need to offend others—though you surely make a case for how Canada is not as peaceful within its own borders—while telling this masterful story about Calixa Lavallée. I will look to see what else you may have penned to whet my appetite.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

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Munich, by Robert Harris

Nine stars

Robert Harris offers up another wonderful novel that weaves together the events of history with some background fiction that only serves to accentuate the dramatic effect. It is 1938 and Europe is on the precipice of another war. Adolf Hitler has begun acquiring areas of neighbouring countries, citing their Germanic history, in order to build a stronger homeland. All the while, the world looks on, centred in London, where U.K. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is weighing his options. Surrounded by policy makers and some sycophants, Chamberlain has Hugh Legat as one of his private secretaries. Legat can see that the PM wants nothing more than peace, though may be blinded by the diplomatic approach many leaders take to problem solving. On the other side, Paul Hartmann is deeply embedded into the Nazi regime, though he is less than pleased with the way things are going. Hartmann knows that his Fuhrer wants nothing more than war and will connive to ensure that he gets it. These two men, Legat and Hartmann, share a pre-war history as friends in Oxford, though neither makes a great deal of that to their peers. With a last-ditch peace conference to save Czechoslovakia from the German carving board, Legat and Hartmann find themselves in Munich, ready to do whatever they can. The British have their allies France at the table, while Hitler has his devoted Italian fascist Mussolini to stroke his ego. Words are exchanged and a document is signed. However, before the ink is dry, Legat learns of Germany’s true intentions. Pulled in numerous directions, Legat must not only decipher where the truth ends and propaganda begins, but how to convince Europe’s preeminent leader what is actually going on. Harris balances the world opinion that Neville Chamberlain scored political points by bringing home the peace accord with the naiveté that both sides would adhere to it once hindsight could be applied. A strong piece that fleshes out some of the ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ aspects of this final salvo before Europe (and the world) turned back to the bloodbath that defined them. History buffs and those with a penchant for fast-paced thrillers will enjoy this story in equal measure.

I have read some of Harris’s work in the past and never been disappointed. He is clear to use a perspective and stick to it throughout, though always offers a strong foundation on which the entire story can rest. Hugh Legat is a highly likeable character as he tries to sift through all the information that has been presented to him, in an attempt to choose what needs selling up the line. The perspective is strong and the struggles to parse through the news is not lost on the attentive reader. Paul Hartmann, on the other hand, is quite mysterious and knows what he wants, though is caught up in such a deceptive political situation that there is little hope of anything clear and forthright coming from the German camp. Hindered with an anti-Nazi sentiment, Hartmann much choose how to fight against his own countrymen without being caught, sure that any deception would mean a trip to the concentration camps, or worse. As Harris adds numerous other characters, both fictitious and historical, to the mix, the plot thickens and the depths to which both sides are pushing for their own outcome becomes a little clearer. The plot of the story is one torn from the history books, but by adding dialogue and some ‘behind the curtain’ backstory enriches the reader’s experience. Told in a four-day narrative that compartmentalises the events and shows just how intense things got in short order. While the world applauded Chamberlain for his peace treaty with Hitler, it was hindsight (and perhaps some of this narrative) that helped to show just how blind the British were and what the world would accept at face value. Hitler was not a strong leader with a few odd tendencies, but rather a megalomaniacal being who had nothing but his own interests in mind. Harris provides the reader with one of the more intriguing and interesting accounts of that 1938 build-up to war, particularly with a quote at the beginning of the book, where Hitler admits that they ought to have gone to war in 1938. Brilliant in its telling and quite on point, Robert Harris is surely an author on whom many readers can rely to be educated and entertained in equal measure.

Kudos, Mr. Harris, for another novel that pulled me in from the opening pages. I will have to make a point of investing more time to follow your work and make sure I take much away from the experience.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons