New Devilishly Good Book Review

By , February 5, 2023 10:20 pm
Mairi Cowan, author of The Possession of Barbe Hallay

Readers familiar with my book reviews know that I like to email authors after I finish their books. I did it again, but this time I was not emailing a stranger. Mairi Cowan, amazing author and history professor at UTM, is a friend I met through a colleague.

Her new book, The Possession of Barbe Hallay: Diabolical Arts and Daily Life in Early Canada, was an amazing read. It tells the story of a young woman who migrated to Quebec from France in the mid 1600s and experienced some kind of “infestation” by devilish forces. But really it is a book about how to approach a historical mystery or story. I would have read Mairi’s new book no matter what, but I especially love its devilish connection. Ever since I learned about Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches, 1486), I have been interested in the topic of women and witchcraft. Luckily, as Mairi points out, by the time of Barbe Hallay, Europeans (or in this case Canadian settlers) religious officials didn’t get quite so worked up and no major panic ensued like in Salem, Massachusetts a few decades later to the south.

I love how didactic this book is. I mean that in the most complimentary way. In fact, I am reading “Barbe” again with a highlighter in hand – yes, on the subway. Out of this I intend to create some new content for my grade 12 world history course; I’ve already adjusted a few things based on things I was reminded of while reading about 17th century Quebec.

I even told my grade 12 history class, on the first day of the semester, that I felt guilty for not including Canada in world history for the last 20+ years of teaching this course. Of course Canada fits in with all the negative themes of colonization, empire, genocide, conversion. It just doesn’t get mentioned very often – my fault.

Since I haven’t taken a university level history course since 2002 (I took Roman history in the summer after my fourth year of teaching), I’ve lost touch with some trends in the discipline. Mairi’s book connected me with microhistory. In her introduction she quotes Edward Muir on the purpose of microhistory: “to elucidate historical causation on the level of small groups where most of real life takes place and to open history to peoples who would be left out by other methods.” Love it, especially Mairi Cowan’s inclusion of the story of watermelon making its way around the world into the hands of a French nun in 17th century Quebec.

She also quotes historian Johan Huizinga: “‘the mainspring of all historical knowledge” is “our perpetual astonishment that the past was once a living reality.'” I suppose that is akin to the saying, “the past is a foreign country.” It’s a good quote to help students understand the importance of context. And perhaps it also helps explain why I like history. I can never answer that big “why” question when students ask. You’d think I’d have one by now, 25 years into my history teaching career.

This book has prompted me to add some Quebec-based figures into my unit one culminating activity, the Global Gathering. It also got me thinking about ways to add more Indigenous content into my course. I’ve done so with some topics in unit two related to the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Royal Proclamation, and some Indigenous figures I never learned about during my education.

Learning is growing.

Take a listen to Mairi Cowan on CBC’s Ideas.

Next up, Val and I are reading David Javerbaum’s The Book of Pslams. NO, that is not a spelling error. Yes, we are reading it together because it is so hysterical. I’ll be sure to give it a puritanically glowing review.

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