There’s a secondhand bookstore in Powell River that I like browsing through when we visit. While there this summer, I brought this book home since I always enjoy a good short story and I wanted to support a small business. When I find myself unmotivated to read, one short story a day can be a good way to get out my rut and so that’s what I did this November.
What I didn’t realize when I bought the book is that this a collection particularly curated for high school students. The title page even states that it is authorized for use in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. (Not sure why they skipped over Alberta.) The introduction tells us that the goal is to encourage reluctant readers by introducing them to a variety of fascinating stories. At the end of each story, there is a short list of other stories similar in nature. The idea being that if a young student enjoys that story they can then go on to search out more that they may like. Certainly nothing wrong with that.
It’s not hard to imagine this being an enjoyable collection for a young reader in 1934. I don’t have dates for each of the stories but I would guess that most of them were written not more than fifty years before this collection’s publication. So to the contemporary reader they would not have the same outdated feeling that they had to me reading this book in 2020.
This just isn’t a group of stories that would have been collected for publication, let alone for use in schools, today. Because only two of the stories are by women. Because, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing here from a person of colour. And that’s not even getting into the content.
I’ll be honest, these stories were enjoyable to read and pretty entertaining, it’s simply that as a collection, they don’t offer much value. Some were definitely better than others. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Speckled Band” is a Sherlock Holmes story and as fun to read as all of his Holmes tales are. “How Much Land Does a Man Need” by Leo Tolstoy is maybe the closest the collection offers to a piece that feels timeless, with its morality tale vibe. “The Envelope” by J. Storer Clouston is almost like a locked room mystery and even “Marjorie Daw” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich offers a twist at the end. Of course I knew that the Kipling story was going to be uncomfortable colonial. Unfortunately, it’s not the only one. I’d say five or six of the fourteen stories have blatantly colonial overtones, whether its the names they use for indigenous peoples, the way the plot exalts foreign rulers, or simply the assumed belief that “the Englishman” will always do what’s right.
So I wouldn’t rush out to buy this book or recommend anyone do so, even if you could, I’m sure it’s long out of print. As a snapshot of Canadian education in the early 20th century, it is kind of fascinating. As I considered from my modern day lens, I realized I wouldn’t be surprised to have seen such a collection on the reading list in my high school days (late 1990s/early 2000s) but there’s no way it would be pushed on high school students today. With a collection like this, I think the best stories (the Doyle and Tolstoy, for example) will last while the others can be appreciated as a part of history while today’s educators can find better tales for today’s students.