Sunday, August 28, 2011

Off the Shelf: William B. Hamilton's At the Crossroads

William B. Hamilton loves to talk--about history in general and his books in particular.
I had the pleasure of speaking with him in 2004, in conjunction with the release of At the Crossroads: A History of Sackville, New Brunswick. We no sooner settled in at one of the Waverley Inn's breakfast room tables than he launched into a lengthy account of the background behind his book. By the time he finished, he already answered most of my main questions.
Hamilton's interest in history stretches back decades. Through teaching and writing, he believes in a "backward into history" approach that he first introduces in his 1974 book Local History in Atlantic Canada. In essence, one must "start with the local community then work out in concentric circles to the province, the region, the nation, the world" in order to gain a personal perspective on broader issues.
That approach is evident in At the Crossroads. The smallest of dots on the world map, Sackville nonetheless reflects numerous global events through its story. Hamilton deftly weaves accounts from the Age of Sail and two World Wars, among others, but he's the first to admit the task wasn't easy.
"How do you cover almost four centuries of European settlement, before that eons of Mi'kmaq inhabitation, and get it all in readable fashion and in form that the average person can muster?" he asks before diving into the answer. "Very early on I decided that I would not try to write a comprehensive history of Sackville. People try to tell too much. You've got to be brutally selective. So I hit upon the idea of three basic themes.
"One was the crossroads analogy beginning with the Mi'kmaq, the century of French/English conflict for the isthmus because of its strategic location, then you move into the later period with the establishment of the Post Road, the railways.
"Theme two is the marshlands and the impact of the marshlands. That's what brought the first Acadian/European settlers. By the beginning of the 19th century--I'm borrowing a phrase here from Harry Thurston--you have the largest hayfield in the world.
"The third theme starts in 1839 and it's the founding of the Mount Allison institutions. They came to Sackville for two reasons: one was location [and the other] was the Yorkshire Methodists. They were interested in education, they were literate, [and] they wanted to make sure that their future generations had an education. They also wanted a Methodist clergy."
Hamilton also believes that Canadians, contrary to popular opinion, are interested in their own history--you just have to put it in front of them. So he writes. From textbooks and guidebooks to columns and lectures, Hamilton puts our history before us and asks only that we read and understand.

Other books by William B. Hamilton:
Local History in Atlantic Canada (1974)
The Macmillan Book of Canadian Place Names (1978; revised 1983)
The Nova Scotia Traveller: A Maritimer's Guide to His Home Province (1981)
The Quest for a Regional Identity (1984)
One County One World (1992)
Place Names of Atlantic Canada (1996)

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