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A wide-ranging popular history of the Hudson Bay Company, the corporation that was an empire. Granted the charter for most of what is now Canada in 1670, the company built the nation. The book is an enter-raining and expansive, if not rigorously intellectual account of the HBC's first century, written in loose, unmannered prose--a self-styled ""journalist's book."" The first volume of a complete history in progress, the book covers the origins of the company through the 18th-century. The approach is readable, but the lack of assertive themes eventually tells as the chapters come to resemble unrelated magazine articles rather than parts of a whole. Without strong points of reference, the course of this history founders into the shoals of anecdote and trivia. The author's introduction warns that history doesn't happen in categories, and the book is not a ""neat set of carefully marshalled revelations?' The work is limited by this anti-intellectual perception, however, because thoughtful history demands categories. Within these limitations, Newman succeeds. A portrait emerges of the vast corporation that minted its own coins and still uses a calendar dating from its own creation rather than anne domini. Yet for all the sense of destiny and grandeur, HBC was always more interested in profit than glory, stodgily resisting exploration until the demands of trade made it necessary. The history has its heroes, like Samuel Hearne, who adopted native survival techniques to explore the north. Economics, anthropology, even zoology have a place. There is a fascinating study of the beaver, the remarkable creature whose pelt became currency. Replete with intriguing stories and amusing detail, this history is easily read, yet easily forgotten, too. More focal ideas and a firmer presentation of chronology would have given relevance to those same stories. Without memorable themes, the specifics fade away.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Viking