Book Review: Nellie McClung

July is biography month for book club! I had a difficult time thinking of a "famous person" I'd like to read about, and found it was easier to find a memoir or autobiography (written by the person) but we'd picked biography (written by someone else) specifically. In the end I went local, and picked Nellie McClung. I know a bit about "The Famous Five", but was interested in finding more about why stuff (roads, schools, parks, murals) in Edmonton is named after Nellie McClung!

July 2013: biography

Nellie McClung
By Charlotte Gray
2008
204 pages

Nellie McClung was born in Ontario in 1873, moved to Manitoba as a child, moved to Alberta as an adult, and finally moved out to BC to retire, where she passed away in 1951. In between, she had an incredible "career" as a teacher, a writer, a speaker and an activist for women, children and minority rights. She helped get the vote for women and, as a member of the Famous Five, won the right for women to be considered "persons" (and thus entitled to be part of the federal senate).

I really enjoyed Charlotte Gray's style of writing. She gave just enough detail to explain Nellie's life, events, and accomplishments, but not too many to bog down the reader. I thought I might be bored or confused by the politics, but I wasn't. As such, it was a very accessible read. Gray also did a great job of not only giving the reader a clear of idea of what Nellie did, but also who she was. Turns out our Nellie was a funny, witty, feisty woman who could capture the attention of an audience, yet battle with even the sternest, stuffiest, male politicians.

The author also made a point to mention a few times how the history and status of women differed from what we know it as now. It seems shocking to me that women weren't considered "persons" at the turn of the century, and Gray does a good job of explaining the atmosphere and opinions of the day. I found this helped me appreciate what Nellie and the Famous Five did more - getting the vote for women and changing the British North America Act were HUGE accomplishments at the time and we shouldn't forget that.

My only complaint about this book is that there were no photographs included - even the cover is an illustration. It would've been nice to see pictures of Nellie during the important events that occurred. For example, right after the bill giving Alberta women the right to vote was passed in 1916, Nellie McClung, Alice Jamieson and Emily Murphy celebrated by having their photograph taken. The author even calls this "one of the best photographs ever taken of Nellie McClung" (p.109), but it's not included in the book. Gray also describes in detail the statue of the Famous Five on Parliament hill (p. 189), yet again, no photo. I guess that's what Google is for?

The day after I finished this book, I picked up my new passport. And look who owns page 30?!

Overall though, this book was a delightful romp through Nellie's life and subsequent accomplishments. I'm glad I now know more about this funny and feisty woman who's name and face are displayed around Edmonton! I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Canada's history, from a woman's perspective.

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