A Review of Jane Urquhart's A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects
Review by Jessica Rose
Countless books and magazine articles tell us there is joy in ridding our lives of objects. The sorting and tossing of material goods is touted as therapeutic, a remedy for anxiety and guilt. For some, minimalism breeds creativity, but for novelist and poet Jane Urquhart, objects house inspiration. Her latest offering — A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects — is a celebration of unexpected artifacts and the unique narratives that tie them to the Canadian experience.
Commissioned by Patrick Crean Editions, an imprint of HarperCollins, A Number of Things marks Canada’s 2017 sesquicentennial, bringing together objects of importance from each province and the North. Using a technique called scratchboard, draughtsman and illustrator Scott McKowen carefully and precisely recreates each object.
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines an object as “a material thing that can be seen or touched.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary expands on this definition, classifying an object as “a thing you can see and touch and that is not alive.” Urquhart’s definition is far more fluid, extending to include not only living creatures — horses, codfish and oysters — but also places, among them Danceland, a dancehall in Saskatchewan, and the ill-fated Seaview African United Baptist Church in the African Nova Scotian community of Africville.
“Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that objects have played a significant role in my life (particularly if you believe, as I do, that works of architecture can be classed in the object category),” writes Urqhuart in A Number of Things’ introduction. Her 50 objects include many that might be found in a museum, but also many that are conceptual. For example, the chapter “Skates” isn’t really about skates as an object at all; rather, it’s about the human experience of “having glided into another state of being, of having left the ordinary behind.”
Beautifully written, A Number of Things is infused with Urquhart’s own curiosity and excitement, as she shares the findings of a book she never expected to write. “I was asked, and I said yes, and after I said yes, I began to write about phenomena that interested and moved me,” she writes. While many of Urquhart’s objects are of importance to Canadian history — the rope used to hang Louis Riel and a microphone used by CBC to spread radio news across Canada are just two examples — many are deeply personal, tied to Urquhart’s own Irish-Canadian heritage and her Ontario upbringing. Objects possess a narrative, “if only concerning the routes they took to become a part of my life,” she writes. Another author, she notes, “would have undoubtedly picked an entirely different set of objects.”
A Number of Things holds great promise early on as Urquhart notes the following in her introduction: “It becomes impossible to think deeply about, for example, a beaver hat without investigating attitudes to animal life, colonization, ecology, the fur trade, capitalism, imperialism, the use and misuse of natural resources, and on and on.” However, the formidable task inherent in this observation proves impossible. At fewer than 250 pages, A Number of Things is too slim a volume to critically analyze each unique entry, leaving readers with stunning descriptions and anecdotes, but also unanswered questions: How might Canada be different without these objects? Why did Urquhart choose these particular objects and not others?
While readers might not immediately know why each object was chosen, it is clear that Urquhart was very careful not to present a celebration of colonialism. A Number of Things is bookended by two artifacts that embody the excruciating legacies of European contact — leggings used to wrap a Beothuk child’s body at a time when there would have been too few Beothuk left to make a traditional box-and-skin body bag, and a burnt Haisla mask with a haunting statement from a Kitamaat woman: “My grandmother told me that when Christianity came her uncle went down to the beach and burned everything. He had heard that the Lord will not receive you if you still look to your treasures.”
What makes A Number of Things unique is it brings with it a call to action, encouraging readers to ponder the importance of objects in their own lives and the captivating stories they hold. Inevitably stirring readers’ memories, A Number of Things is a rich collection that compels us to look at Canada in unexpected ways.