Book Review: A Book of Good Stories ed. by G. Fred McNally

A Book of Good Stories – edited by G. Fred McNally (The MacMillan Company of Canada Ltd., 1934)

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 So to the contemporary reader they would not have the same outdated feeling that they had to me reading this book in 2020.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.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: A Book of Good Stories ed. by G. Fred McNally”

  1. It’s a great idea of a way to introduce young people to a variety of authors, but yes, it does sound too outdated for modern schools to use. Still, for older readers it sound like a fascinating glimpse into what was considered good at a particular point in time. As a lover of vintage, I’ve had to learn to overlook the outdated attitudes or half the books I read would end up on the fire!

    1. I imagine it was a great book to use for its time. The stories are all easy to read and entertaining so it was probably a welcome change from some of the older, stuffier collections. You’re right that reading vintage books often means you have to accept that ideas and knowledge have changed, so I wasn’t very surprised the ideas here hadn’t aged well. I only wish a book for Canadian schools contained more writing by Canadians!

  2. Ugh yah reading a book of stories by a bunch of old white guys has definitely lost its appeal for the modern day reader BUT I love this idea of a short story collection curated especially for students. Also, the fact that it offers further recommended reading is so perfect! That’s why I love these collections from Biblioasis, they publish the short story and essay collections each year and it’s such a fun mix of stories and voices.

    1. I think the idea is great and I agree that the further recommended reading is a great addition too. It’s just very clearly of its time. It’s kind of nice, actually, to see how we’ve come along as a society. Plus, it’s kind of weird that this is a story collection for a place I’ve lived in most of my life but none of the stories are at all connected to Canada or the west coast!

    2. I know what you mean about feeling better about how far we’ve come! It’s never far enough, but it’s still comforting to know we are improviing

    3. It is comforting! What really surprised me to think about was how much things have changed even since I was in school This collection wasn’t hugely different in content than ones we had in high school but in less than 20 years, we’ve come far enough that this book would never be seen in a classroom now.

  3. This book sounds like a time capsule, which is interesting. I love things that basically say, “Hey, this is how people lived.” I felt similarly when I was reading Hearing Maud by Jessica White and learned that the board of twelve who made decisions about education for deaf people included zero deaf or hard-of-hearing people. Also interesting: when I was in college, if you wanted to read classics by non-white men, you took a special course or a separate unit in a course. The canon was still very much Old White Guys. Professors acknowledged the problems with this, but still segregated them into different units or courses.

    1. That was definitely the case when I was in university too. Though I remember taking a first year course that was something like Intro to Poetry and Plays (super vague like that!) and the prof chose entirely women of colour and we were all so confused by that choice. It was a fantastic introduction to so many diverse voices but all these 18-year-olds were shocked that we were reading Audre Lord rather than Shakespeare!

  4. Ah, this book does sound like a very good idea in theory, although it is disappointing that the collection doesn’t have better range and themes. A more inclusive, modern version of this book might be wonderful to see, especially for reluctant young readers in schools, but it is always interesting to look back at the norms of the past and see the ways in which we’ve changed.

    1. I hope there are similar books with more updates and diverse co tent being used in schools now. It reads now as a bit of a time capsule of ideas from the past.

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