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Book Review: John A. Macdonald (The Canadians) by Peter B. Waite

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As Canada's first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald – or as John A. as he's still affectionately referred to here in Canada – is a personage that readers worldwide will want a passing acquaintance with. Often referred to as the father of Canada for overseeing the uniting of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1867 to form the new nation, his accomplishments are many and varied. His influence on the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, his role in the Saskatchewan rebellion, and many other pivotal events in Canadian history mark John A. Macdonald by Peter Waite, a biography of note for both students in junior and senior high, as well as adults seeking a brief yet informative primer on Macdonald's life.

This accessible biography is one of the foundational titles in The Canadians, an ongoing series of educational biographies focusing on the lives of notable Canadians for students in the upper grades. Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside, this 64 page title is filled with Waite's information -filled prose, and is packed with black and white archival photographs and political cartoons from Macdonald's time in office. Through the inclusion of photos depicting Macdonald's contemporaries, surroundings, and the man himself, a clearer feel for the times in which Macdonald lived is communicated to readers.

With only 64 pages to work with, and with the aim of providing a concise, accurate, and somewhat personal summary of Macdonald's life and work, Waite hits all of the high points. Though the text is densely written with dates, events, legislation, and the many politicians who worked with Macdonald to form the new country, Waite still manages to imbue the text with something of Macdonald's character. Widely remembered in Canada as something of a scalawag, Waite doesn't pull any punches when it comes to displaying Macdonald's character. He freely outlines the bribery, drinking, and racy stories without dwelling on them inappropriately, and sketches a portrait of the Prime Minister as a leader whose success seems largely attributable to his tenacity – he was certainly a determined man.

As a first time reader of any biography of Macdonald that seeks to span his entire life, I now feel familiar with the basics. Instead of smiling and nodding in conversations in which old John A. makes an appearance, I'll actually have some hope of contributing to the dialogue! What I found most enjoyable is Waite's ability to showcase Macdonald's involvement with his contemporaries and in the major historical events taking place around him. One excellent example is that of Louis Riel and the Sasketchewan Rebellion. For some reason Riel has remained almost a more memorable character than Macdonald in my mind, so when Waite drew the connections from Macdonald outwards it helped me make some missing connections.

With so much political maneuvering, events, and persons packed into a dense 64 pages, John A. Macdonald welcomes re-reading. Though a fast primer to read through rapidly, there is so much detail that digging in and researching further events of interest will yield much new knowledge. I highly recommend this installment in The Canadians series for school and public libraries alike, as well as any family who has yet to add a biography of Canada's first Prime Minister to their bookshelves.

About Jennifer Bogart