Toronto: An Illustrated History of Its First 12,000 Years
Ed. Ronald F. Williamson
James Lorimer & Company (2008)
Yes, that’s right: 12,000 years. So the city that you recognize from tramping the pavement these days doesn’t even get going until 2/3 of the way into the book. Which makes this particular Toronto book a great find on my local library shelves.
No, I didn’t go looking for it. But as I read along, I realized that I’d meant to. It’s one of the books that Amy Lavender Harris refers to in Imagining Toronto. (Check out her site: it’s amazing. And guaranteed to hit your TBR list hard, if you love books about this city as much as I do.)
What she’d referred to, and what leapt out at me on the page, was the idea of human footprints, captured in the clay beneath the waters of Lake Ontario, 70 feet below the water, to the south of the city.
Workers were tunnelling in Toronto Bay and discovered more than 100 prints there (maybe bare feet, maybe moccasined), footsteps of all sizes (including a single print of a child’s foot). Evidence suggests these stretch back 10,500 to 11,000 years ago.
Isn’t it amazing to think how much our environment has changed in that time, and how much has not changed: a family heading downtown from their camp (as Professsor A.P. Coleman suggested, upon their discovery, in 1908)?!
Something else that stood out about this volume (besides the terrific variety of photographs and images) was the playful personification in spite of the stated risk (that such an act over simplifies things and risks giving the wrong impression).
“Toronto’s real personification may be that of a middle-aged, middle-class aunt or uncle, ungendered but recognizably human, and wearing sensible shoes: wise, experienced, sill capable of turning heads, but both world-wary and a little world-weary.”
With my new understanding of how straight-laced Toronto was in the early part of this century (which certainly contrasts with the multi-culti, oh-so-busy, pushing-the-boundaries milieu that I love about it), I got a real giggle out of that. Even though I agree that it’s a slippery slope, to make generalizations like that, which seem to diss sensible shoes.
What’s really great about this volume is its selection of photographs in a large format, frequently with accompanying inserts that bring the image up-to-date.
So, for instance, the bulk of one page is occupied by a black-and-white shot of Yonge at Eglinton (looking north) in 1917, with a Toronto Police Constable talking with the local garbage collector midway down the road, stretches of telephone poles stretching along both sides with no curbs, two-story brick buildings laid out like cards in a solitaire layout.
And, in the centre, at the top of the page, there is a small colour photograph (about a sixth of the size) showing the same scene today (all highrises, one lamp-post, and no people, so clearly snapped at 6am on a Sunday on this frightfully busy strip).
Then and Now. It’s a simple concept. But it works.
Most of the time. Sometimes the pictures don’t quite line up (perhaps there were limited opportunities for contemporary aerial shots to accompany the specific historical shots) and it’s hard to spot the exact buildings referred to as standing in both shots (in those congested high-rise stuffed sections of the city).
And there are some pretty outrageous typos. And a really politically charged introduction that might have read differently in 2000 but which only seems forced and over-the-top now.
But what works about this book really works.
Having said that, I’d say that the intended audience for these books is people who already love this city and want to know more about its history and development.
Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion made me love it on the page, but if I hadn’t been fond of it already, I don’t know if these books would have sparked that for me.
Have you met Toronto on the page recently?
PS I’m reading through this year’s nominees for the Toronto Book Award, so this is a way of gearing up for that. Hope you’ll join in!