The Infinite Bonds of Family Domesticity in Canada, 1850-1940 – COMACCHIO (CSS)

COMACCHIO, Cynthia R. The Infinite Bonds of Family Domesticity in Canada, 1850-1940. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 180p. Resenha de: SPEER, Lynn. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.3, 2001.

As another book in the Themes in Canadian Social History series, this volume explores the history of Canadian families during a time period which saw an industrial revolution, World War I, and the Great Depression. Comacchio uses these larger historical events to trace and explain continuity and change in the lives of Canadian families, arguing that these events were punctuation points (p. 149) that effected the ways in which families constructed and reconstructed themselves. However, the author acknowledges that the historical path of family life cannot be examined in a linear fashion because there has never been one ‘kind’ of family. She claims that while family is universal in that all cultures have constructs known as ‘family’, families are also unique in that they emerge out of a mix of factors, including: …class, gender, region, race, ethnicity, religion and age…(p. 5). Hence, in tracing continuity and change in families, the author takes into consideration all of the kinds of families found within Canadian society, including: working and middle class families, French Canadian families, Aboriginal families, Anglo-Celtic families, African Canadian families, long-settled families and recently immigrated families.

Though Comacchio has made a solid effort to affirm the complexity of domestic life, she was unable to resist imposing a type of unity on her work. In formulating a focus for the book, she claims that: … if there is one thread that winds unbroken through this era of rapid and intensive change, it is a widespread public perception that ‘the family’ was in a state of crisis (p. 4). With this focus, the author is able to demonstrate how the notion ‘families in crisis’ helped to shape Canadian social policy, proving her claim that families both effect and are effected by society. However, because this idea actually emerged out of the middle class, the ‘families in crisis’ thesis creates difficulties for Comacchio. This social group constructed and promoted the notion of the ‘ideal’ family and then perceived that families were in crisis because of the dissonance between real families and the idealized family, a dissonance which became most extreme when real families were impacted by events like economic change and warfare. Comacchio indicates that she will trace continuity and change among all kinds of Canadian families, as well as tracing the impact of the perceptions of the middle classes on families belonging to other social groups. Hence, in attempting to create a unified focus or thesis, the author compounds her already complicated task.

While this type of complex examination is laudable, the length, depth, and breadth of this book is limited by restrictions placed upon it because it is designed to provide an overview of a particular theme in Canadian social history for undergraduate and graduate students. In creating this overview, the author did not engage in original research, but rather created a synthesis of the scholarly studies investigating the history of Canadian families undertaken over the last two decades. The main purpose in compiling this book, as stated on the back cover, was to …pull together a large body of research and lay out the main themes and interpretations…, rather than to explore complexities. It is from the imposition of this main purpose that the main criticisms arise.

The attempt to create a synopsis of important themes, while trying to acknowledge the complexity of the lives of families, leaves the reader with a sense of frustration. This arises from the lack of in-depth discussion of important and enticing information. For example, the discussion of the impact of industrialization on Canadian families is disjointed. Over the space of only a few pages, such topics as housing, income levels, poverty, racism, widows, orphans, health, disease, and old age are given coverage, with only a paragraph or part of a paragraph devoted to each (pp. 28- 30) . This lack of depth is an irritation.

Added to this, is that fact that the reader is rarely taken ‘inside’ the lives of Canadian families. While there are occasions where the author includes a direct quote from a family member, allowing some insight into how a family viewed the world, the book generally examines domestic life from an ‘outside’ viewpoint. We receive a variety of statistics, for example, describing aspects of the changing role of women: in 1860, one in five middle-class housewives had regular paid help, while in 1921 only one in twenty housewives had this kind of help (p. 81). However, we do not hear the voices of women themselves discussing their personal views about housework, children, or husbands. In taking the ‘observer’ point of view, the book is able to point out major themes, but it lacks intimate, personal insights which seem especially important in understanding the histories of families.

Finally, there are no citations indicating the specific sources from which statistical information or direct quotations were extracted. This is not only irritating, but is poor scholarship as well. Without appropriate citations the reader is unable to identify the particular historical study the author consulted when creating statements of fact and arguments. While there is a reference section listing the titles of the sources used for each chapter, the lack of citations makes this book a bad example for use with undergraduate and graduate students, who should be learning to indicate the sources from which information and evidence is derived.

The main criticisms arise from what appears to be the format required of books that are part of the Themes in Canadian Social History series. The author is attempting to accomplish an extremely complex task, but seems to be required to do this using an undocumented, overview approach. This being said, Comacchio must be given credit for attempting to tell an inclusive, multilayered story about Canadian families who lived between 1850 and 1940. While the book does not have practical value for classroom teachers, it is accessible to both secondary and post-secondary readers providing insight into topics and issues that could spark an interest to further explore the historical lives of Canadian families.

Lynn Speer Lemisko – Nipissing University. North Bay, Ontario.

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