The Toronto Book of Love by Adam Bunch
Paperback, 528 pages, ISBN: 9781459746671
Published by Dundurn Press, 2021
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From the publisher:
Toronto’s history comes alive in the amazing true stories of romance and lust, carefully curated to offer a sweeping yet intimate overview of Toronto’s past.
Companion to Bunch’s Toronto Book of the Dead
Exploring Toronto’s history through tantalizing true tales of romance, marriage, and lust.
Toronto’s past is filled with passion and heartache. The Toronto Book of Love brings the history of the city to life with fascinating true tales of romance, marriage, and lust: from the scandalous love affairs of the city’s early settlers to the prime minister’s wife partying with rock stars on her anniversary; from ancient First Nations wedding ceremonies to a pastor wearing a bulletproof vest to perform one of Canada’s first same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Home to adulterous movie stars, faithful rebels, and heartbroken spies, Toronto has been shaped by crushes, jealousies, and flirtations. The Toronto Book of Love explores the evolution of the city from a remote colonial outpost to a booming modern metropolis through the stories of those who have fallen in love among its ravines, church spires, and skyscrapers.
The Toronto Book of Love brings the city’s history to life with tales of romance, marriage and lust. From adulterous movie stars to faithful rebels and heartbroken spies, it explores Toronto’s evolution through those who have fallen in love among the city’s ravines, church spires and skyscrapers.
Praise for The Toronto Book of Love:
“With an unmatched flair for storytelling, Bunch infuses Toronto history with fresh life.” —Toronto Star
About the author:
is the author of The Toronto Book of the Dead, creator of the Toronto Dreams Project, host and co-creator of Canadiana, and a contributor to Spacing. His work earned an honourable mention for a Governor General’s History Award in 2012. Adam lives in Toronto.
A TORCH IN THE NIGHT CLOSEBOLD
A concrete goliath towers over the University of Toronto. It has stood there on the corner of St. George and Harbord Streets for half a century, a brutalist colossus soaring fourteen storeys into the air. Robarts Library has earned its nickname; Fort Book is a fortress filled with information, its thick grey walls protecting millions of volumes. Venture inside its imposing exterior and you’re standing at the heart of the largest academic library system in the country. And just off to one side, through an unassuming revolving door on the southern edge of the building, you’ll find a treasure trove: a collection of some of the oldest and rarest books to be found anywhere in the world. It’s an awe-inspiring space. A cathedral of paper and concrete. There between the formidable pillars are soaring bookshelves stretching high above your head, five storeys into the air. This is the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library.
Nowhere in Canada is there a bigger public collection of rare books and manuscripts — hundreds of thousands of them. Here, you can find a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, an original edition of Isaac Newton’s ‘Principia’, and Charles Darwin’s own marked-up proofs. There’s a Babylonian tablet from nearly four thousand years ago. Ancient Egyptian papyrus. And five hundred historic valentines, too.
Tucked away in the archives beneath the library, kept safe in its place among some of the most precious books on earth, you’ll find an old, brown, hardcover tome. It’s hundreds of years old, worn by time. And as you carefully crack it open, you’ll be transported to another age. There, among its yellowing pages, you’ll find a brief, fleeting glimpse of the romances that once played out in the place where Toronto now stands.
Centuries before the modern metropolis was founded, the northern shores of Lake Ontario were home to the Wendat. (Europeans called them the Huron.) Where there are now parking lots and condo towers, there were once Wendat villages: clusters of longhouses built on the hillsides above rivers and creeks. Vast fields of maize stretched off into the distance, the corn intermingled with beans and squash. The rivers teemed with migrating salmon as travellers came and went in their birchbark canoes. Wendat hunters prowled the immense forests beyond the fields, where bears, wolves, cougars, and moose roamed between the great old oaks and pines. Eagles perched in the treetops. Endless flocks of passenger pigeons, an aerial ballet of flashing colour, filled the sky. Thousands of people could live in one of those villages, living on the land their ancestors had called home for hundreds and thousands of years.
Many of them were young and in love.
The worn pages of that old book in the Thomas Fisher Library give us one account of those love affairs. It was written by a French soldier: Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan. He was a baron who’d been sent to Canada to wage war against the First Nations, but never took to his mission. He witnessed terrible atrocities committed in the name of the French Empire, and could never understand why his country was waging war against the First Nations instead of partnering with them. When he was sent off to command fur-trading posts in the remote reaches of the Great Lakes, he spent years living among the Wendats, developing a deep appreciation for their culture — even if it was coloured by the prejudices of his time. “A solitary Life is most grateful to me,” he wrote, “and the manners of the Savages are perfectly agreeable to my Palate.”
When Lahontan returned to Europe, he published a series of books about his travels through the Indigenous lands of North America. And three hundred years later, you can find some of his writing in the Thomas Fisher Library, including a book with a particularly catchy title: ‘New Voyages to North-America: giving a full account of the customs, commerce, religion, and strange opinions of the savages of that country with political remarks upon the courts of Portugal and Denmark, and present state of the commerce in those countries, Vol II’.
Lahontan’s accounts aren’t always entirely reliable — he wanted to sell books and add to his own glory — and while he respected the culture of the First Nations much more than some of his countrymen did, his condescending enthusiasm helped lay the foundation for the “noble savage” stereotype that persists to this day. But his books provide one of the few written sources we have from the era when the longhouses of the Wendat were a common sight on the shores of the Great Lakes — including what happened when young couples fell in love.
On some nights, he wrote, there was a light in the darkness: the flickering yellow and orange of a young man moving between the longhouses, a torch in his hand. When he found the house he was looking for, he would slip inside, and she’d be waiting there for him, in bed. By then, they would have already spent time together, chatting during the day, sharing stories and laughing, but never crossing a fine line. They wouldn’t have kissed or cuddled or talked about anything to do with romance or love. Those were topics best left for the hours after dark.
There in the longhouse, he would approach her bedside, his torch still flickering in his hand. His heart must have been beating nervously in his chest as he waited to see what she would do. If she chose to reject him, she would simply keep hiding under her covers until he went away. But if her answer was yes, she would blow out the light of the torch as an invitation to join her in bed.
The Wendat enjoyed freedoms that the French soldier found both astonishing and admirable. Young men and women were allowed to sleep together without any promise of marriage. Having multiple partners was fine. And control was ultimately in the hands of the women; they decided who they wanted to sleep with and when.
“A young woman is allowed to do what she pleases;” Lahontan wrote, “let her conduct be what it will, neither father nor mother, brother nor sister can pretend to control her. A young woman, say they, is master of her own body, and by her natural right of liberty is free to do what she pleases.”
Young lovers developed relationships over time, gradually getting to know each other before making a decision about their future. A man was often about thirty years old before he decided it was time to get married. And when he did, he would propose to the woman he loved by giving her a gift: a beaver robe or a wampum necklace. If she took it, they would sleep together for a few nights before she made her decision. If she accepted his proposal, the wedding was held in the home of their oldest family member: a great feast with dancing and singing. According to Lahontan, the ceremony took place after most of the groom’s guests had left. The couple stood on a mat, holding a long wooden rod between them as the elders spoke and the newlyweds danced and sang. At the end of the ceremony, the stick was broken into pieces: one for each of the witnesses.
Even married couples kept their physical affections private. Public displays were frowned upon. And while finding time to be alone could be difficult in a longhouse filled with people, couples might slip away into the fields or forests for some privacy.
Lahontan seems to have mistaken this reserve for a lack of passion. “They are,” he wrote, “altogether strangers to the blind fury we call love. They content themselves with a tender friendship … one may call their love simple goodwill.”
But the Wendats’ oral history includes tales of heartbreak and passion. And Europeans were amazed by the depth of their mourning when someone they loved died. A widowed husband or wife would barely speak for the first ten days after the funeral, lying on a mat wrapped in furs, their faces pressed to the ground. “They do not warm themselves even in Winter,” one missionary explained, “they eat cold food, they do not go to the feasts, they go out only at night for their necessities.” The mourning would last a year beyond that as they avoided feasts and gave no greetings their neighbours. Remarrying was out of the question during that year. Many grieving widows blackened their faces and wore dishevelled clothes long after their husbands had died.
But in Wendat villages, unlike the cities of France, death wasn’t the only way a marriage could end. Divorces were commonplace. If a woman found herself falling out of love or married to a husband who failed to live up to his commitments, she could simply end their marriage. And he could do the same. “They are very careful in preserving the liberty and freedom of their heart,” Lahontan marvelled, “which they look upon as the most valuable treasure upon Earth: from whence I conclude that they are not altogether so savage as we are.”
Still, not everyone shared the baron’s appreciation for Wendat romance. The first explorers and fur traders to reach the Great Lakes were followed closely by missionaries: the Jesuits in their black robes and the Récollets in their pointed grey hoods. Priests were horrified by the freedom they found there. Determined to turn Wendats into proper Catholics, they did everything they could to end divorce and stamp out premarital sex. The Jesuits even collected donations from their supporters in France: money they could give to Wendat wives so they wouldn’t leave their husbands. The missionaries were thrilled to see converted young women adopting a gloomy air to discourage the attentions of young men. And they wrote glowingly of one man who rushed naked into the woods in the dead of winter, rolling around in the snow to quench his urges. Many, however, refused to give up their romantic freedom in return for the priests’ promises of what God would do for them in return.
Battles over love and marriage became an important front in the missionaries’ quest to wipe out Wendat culture and assimilate them — the opening salvos in a cultural genocide that would last for centuries. The Wendat suffered terribly as the long arm of European empires reached west into the Great Lakes. The first wave of smallpox is thought to have killed half the population in just six years. And then came the Beaver Wars: bloody battles over the fur trade engulfed the region for the better part of a century, killing thousands more.
By the time Lahontan visited the Wendat in the late 1600s, they’d been driven from the northern shores of Lake Ontario; today, you’ll find the Huron-Wendat Nation just outside Quebec City. But Toronto is still filled with reminders of the days when their ancestors lived — and loved — in the place where the city now stands. A burial mound in Scarborough. Gorgeous pottery and countless other artifacts lifted from the earth. The curve of a street that still follows the route of an ancient portage trail. And even a book written by a longdead French solider kept in the archives beneath a concrete library.
(Credits: Book cover image and publisher’s description have been retrieved from BiblioShare.)
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