Frenemy Nations

18 December 2019

Frenemy Nations: Love and Hate Between Neighbo(u)ring States
By Mary Soderstrom
Published by University of Regina Press
Reviewed by Michelle Shaw
$27.95 ISBN 9780889776722

In the summer of 1968, Mary Soderstrom and her husband loaded up their Volkswagen Beetle and immigrated to Canada from the United States. “We were young, we were disgusted with the [Vietnam] war, and we were hopeful that we’d find something different across the border,” she says. “But to be honest, we didn’t expect things to be too different. After all, weren’t Canada and the United States very much alike?”

The contrast between their new home and their old led to a long running reflection that continued to intrigue her over the years.…How could two places that are similar in so many ways be so disparate in others?

In Fremeny Nations, Soderstrom looks at a range of geographical “odd couples” that she has encountered over the years. In addition to the United States and Canada, the book also examines the two Vietnams, Algeria and Tunisia, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Brazil and the rest of South America, Burundi and Rwanda, Scotland and Ireland, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Vermont and New Hampshire and, intriguingly, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The book explores these “odd couples” through a number of interconnected threads including historical (colonialism and greed come up repeatedly), geographical differences (no matter how minimal), gender (the place of women in a society can be an indicator of how two similar places go in different directions), linguistic (the shelter that a language can give) and educational (how and to what extent people are educated.)

She combines first–hand knowledge and experience with an encyclopedic amount of research. I found it helpful to read the book with a map alongside me (most of the time it was my smartphone but it did the trick.)

Frenemy Nations is also filled with intriguing facts and quotes. I was fascinated, for example, to discover that the United States formulated an “audacious plan” in the 1930s to invade Canada! And I particularly loved Robin Williams’ quote about Canada: “You are the kindest country in the world. You are like a really nice apartment over a meth lab.”

Not surprisingly I was particularly interested in the chapter on Alberta and Saskatchewan. I’ve lived in Saskatchewan for almost ten years and I continue to be fascinated not only by the history of the Canadian prairies but also by the various perspectives of that history. Sonderstrom illustrates how different these two neighboring provinces have historically been but also how both provinces are changing in the twenty-first century.

Montreal-based Soderstrom is a writer with a broad range of interests and talents and this is very obvious reading this book. As well as writing non-fiction, she’s also a novelist and short story writer.


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