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Alberta Originals: Stories of Albertans Who Made a Difference

Brennan, Brian.
Calgary: Fifth House, 2001.
216 pages
Contains: Index
ISBN 1-894004-75-0
DDC 920.07123

Tags: Alberta Albertans biographies biography

This sequel to Building a Province: 60 Alberta Lives (2000) offers
slightly longer group biographies of the “Big Four” of Calgary
Stampede fame and the “Famous Five” of the Persons Case, but
otherwise Brennan’s approach is to write short three- to five-page
sketches of individuals. In many respects, his books resemble Grant
MacEwan’s Fifty Mighty Men (1995) and Mighty Women (1995). Like
MacEwan, Brennan has tapped into a strong popular interest in Western
Canada in short biographies of significant—and preferably
colorful—local notables.

Other than some connection to Alberta, there is no real organizing
principle for Brennan’s selection of profiles. He suggests that they
were selected randomly but not indiscriminately; taken together, they
are a “representative” sample of Albertans. Those profiled range
from very well known to relatively obscure figures who made a difference
in some way. For example, William Aberhart, Frank Oliver, Karl Clark,
William Hawrelak, and Catherine Robb Whyte are all prominent enough to
figure in general histories of the province. Violet King Henry, Les
Kimber, and Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, though not as recognizable, also
have interesting stories. Most of the subjects are more worthy than
roguish, but the odd “Two Gun” Cohen breaks up the list of community
activists, business magnates, and arts promoters.

The biographies are well written in a breezy, journalistic style, but
they are entirely based on secondary sources, so there is not much new
here for anyone with a more academic interest in those profiled. There
also is a tendency to reuse uncritically good stories of doubtful
provenance. For example, I doubt that Karl Clark ever used his wife’s
washing machine to separate bitumen from oil sands; his research was
undertaken in scientific laboratories for the University of Alberta and
the Alberta Research Council.

Michael Payne:

Michael Payne is head of the Research and Publications Program at the
Historic Sites and Archives Service, Alberta Community Development, and
the co-author of A Narrative History of Fort Dunvegan.

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