Review – Once They Were Hats

Once they were hats cover

Title: Once They Were Hats
Author: Frances Backhouse
Publisher: ECW Press
Sources: Goodreads Amazon | Indigo
My rating: 5/5

This delightful non-fiction book takes us through the history of the beaver, mainly in North America, and the phenomenal impact it has on our environment and landscape.  From near decimation during the height of the fur trade to a remarkable rebound, the beaver has played an important role in the shaping of our nation.

The book is really well written and takes what could be a dry subject and makes it engaging.  It’s written in a style similar to that of Mary Roach (although without the delightful footnotes) and the author’s blurb describes her as a teacher of “creative non-fiction”.  I think that’s the best description for this work.  It’s factual and well researched, but there’s a story behind the facts.  Following the author as she meets with various experts and travels to some off the beaten path (way off, like there is no path) locations pulls you in to understanding the history.

The book has nine chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the beaver’s history.  The chapters can each be read as their own mini story and I found them fascinating.  The books takes us to a remote area in Saskatchewan dubbed the Beaver Capital of Canada, to the Museum of Nature in Ottawa, to Riding National Park in Manitoba, and back to Ontario.  The breadth of people that the author interviewed and researched is as wide as the Canadian landscape that she traversed.  From the fur auction houses in Toronto, to research scientists studying the impacts of beaver activity on the landscape, to North American First Nations people who have their own stories of the beaver it was wonderful to meet all the people in this book.

There are so many interesting facts

– a program was designed to parachute (yup, parachute) beavers in boxes into remote areas to help with repopulation.  A rather stoic beaver named Geronimo acted as the “test pilot” a number of times before finally being parachuted into his final new location.

– the beaver acts as a “keystone species”, one who’s presence (or absence) can have a profound impact on an ecological system. In the tidal marshes of the Skagit River Delta (in Washington State) beaver dams actually provide refuges for salmon during low tide.

– a good quality 19th century beaver hat took two-three pelts to make.  The under-fur of the beaver is removed from the pelt and felted to make these hats.  Beaver fur is still used today for hats.

As a Canadian, I have to say there’s a bit of a natural affinity and affection for the beaver, so having this validated through the book was an added bonus! While this book may not be your typical summer beach read, I found it was a both a fascinating and compelling read and it well worth checking out. So grab a copy, find yourself a hammock by a lake and sit back to enjoy learning a bit more about the iconic animal that literally helped shape a nation.

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4 thoughts on “Review – Once They Were Hats

    1. I’m a little sad I couldn’t wait until I was at the cottage to read this! I’ve lent it to my grandmother who refers to beavers as “our sworn enemies” (they prefer to chop down her favourite trees so she’s been at war with them for 40 years) in hopes that she might appreciate them a bit more 😉

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