mister_sandmanIn response to my May 23rd posting, Online Book Club reader Cathy McKee decided to go ahead and “Read Canada”, starting in Ontario, with Barbara Gowdy’s  Mr. Sandman (Cathy generously left some of her impressions of the novel in the Comments section: take a look!).

She’s braver than you might think: though she is a world traveler (from Northern Ireland), she nevertheless only arrived in Canada this year! And yet it is she who has jumped aboard first!

Spurred on by Cathy’s initiative, I’d like to put together a literary itinerary that really represents Canada’s regions, geography, cultural uniqueness and multiples voices, and I need your help.

Who are the writers who have spoken to us, in our own provinces and regions, in the most memorable or personal way?


To keep the ball rolling, here’s a preliminary list of novels, stories and poems―by the province and/or territory they were set in―that I consider important, if not “musts”, for any literary traveler hoping to “Read Canada”. There’s nothing comprehensive or systematic or researched about it; I read some of these decades ago, and they still mean the world (err…the country) to me. I’ve made sure to leave lots of room for you and your suggestions.

I. From British Columbia

Jack Hodgins, Broken Ground (1999)broken

Few people have read this brilliant Canadian author, and that’s a tragedy.  Broken Ground is a gorgeous and affecting novel (a personal favourite) that left forever etched in my memory the smells and deep colours of the woods and rocky terrain of Vancouver Island, and the courage of several generations of families.

This is my “must”. What do you recommend?

II. From Alberta

Two novels by Thomas King:

downloadTruth and Bright Water (1999)

and Green Grass, Running Water (1993)

It should be easy to add suggestions of your own, but our Reading Canada adventure must include Thomas King’s unique voice and perspective.

*24-06-14:  Thank you, David Homel, for the following suggestion: Robert Kroetsch’s The Stud-Horse Man.

III. From Saskatchewan  

W.O. Mitchell, Who Has Seen the Wind? (1947).077106098X.01.LZZZZZZZ

This iconic novel was once required reading in the classrooms of the country. I wonder if it still is. I discovered it as an adult, following a trip to Saskatchewan  that was part of a student exchange. It evokes images of wind and of limitless blue sky; of community and solitude; of longing and restlessness; of eternity and of death, of coming of age in Canada’s prairies. I still remember feeling rapt.

What would you recommend?

IV. From  Manitoba0771047088.01.LZZZZZZZ

The drama, history and cultural complexity of life in Manitoba have inspired many authors:

Margaret Laurence: The Stone Angel (1964) and The Diviners (1974)

0676976123.01.LZZZZZZZMiriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness (2004). A brilliant author, and an extraordinary glimpse into the province’s Mennonite community.

Gabrielle Roy, Streets of Riches (1991).Moving away from the novel form, Roy offers eighteen stories which centre upon the bittersweet experiences of a young girl growing up in the francophone community of St-Boniface.

V. From Ontario

Where to start?

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996) and The Blind Assassin (2000)

Mary Lawson, Crow Lake (2002)

Robertson Davies, What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), for the simple joy of discovering two of my favourite fictional characters:WhatsBredInTheBone Francis Cornish and Tancred Saraceni.

I’ve chosen Atwood and Davies’ novels (out of hundreds and hundreds of possible books) because, well, their work will stand for centuries; because they bring to life Ontario’s past, its underbelly, its urban intelligentsia and its preposterous fools and scoundrels with brilliance, humour and astonishing originality.

I’ve included Mary Lawson’s novel because months after reading it, the imprint in my memory of life in small town Northern Ontario is as clear as the day I finished the past page.

VI. From Quebec

In our home province, I mean to leave you lots of space because I’m really looking forward to seeing which books you recommend.

fishchangedirectionI’ve chosen Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute (1945), in which life in Montreal’s Saint-Henri district during the period of WWII is portrayed with ferocious truth.

And I invite you to read Pierre Szalowski’s   Fish Change Direction in Cold Water (2009), a gentle and effortlessly readable account of a series of small miracles that occur during Quebec’s unforgettable 1998 Ice Storm.

VII. From New  Brunswick

My two choices delve into the heart of the Miramichi.

0679314040.01.LZZZZZZZSally Armstrong, The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (2007)

David Adams Richards, Mercy Among the Children (2000): so difficult to read and so unforgettable (sigh).0385259174.01.LZZZZZZZ

VIII. From P.E.I.

David Helwig, Saltsea: A Novel (2006)

And feel free to include your favourite Lucy Maud Montgomery tome, or help us uncover a new author to read and love.

 IX. From Nova Scotia

The common denominator among my selections is their power.

Linden MacIntyre, The Bishop’s Man (2009)

Ann-Marie MacDonald, Fall on your Knees (1996)

book-U6-A35-B126-R584X. From Newfoundland

To anyone who has been there, it’s no mystery why so many extraordinarily beautiful novels are set in Newfoundland; and Rivers Thieves, in particular, speaks of a lost and untraceable past.

Wayne Johnston, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998)

E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (1993)

Michael Crummey, River Thieves (2001)  and  The Wreckage (2005)

Bernice Morgan, Random Passage (1992)

**Reader Louise Wall recommends Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

XI. From Labrador

Gabrielle Roy, Windflower, set in the austere landscape of Northern Labrador.jacket_med

XII. From the Yukon and NWT

The Yukon and North West Territories (though I’ve not been able to find work set exclusively in the latter)  have inspired Pierre Burton, Jack London, Farley Mowat, and Frances Backhouse (Women of the Klondike), but I’m just a sucker for the poems  of Robert W. Service, the Bard of the Yukon.  Enjoy:

113209 “The Spell of the Yukon”

 “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”

  “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

**Reader Louise Wall also recommends Late Nights on Air,  by Elizabeth Hay

Reading Canada should include more poetry and short stories (there’s no Alice Munroe here!); there are gaps (there’s no Alistair MacLeod!), which I’ve left to you to fill in.

Remember, the organising principle of our literary itinerary is that the writing be set in one of Canada’s provinces or territories.

And now, the adventure begins!







  1. Thank you David!
    It’s set in Alberta (I just checked).
    How is it that this is the first time I hear of this Governor General Award winner?
    (good grief)
    For others out there who may not know this novel, here is a terrific Globe and Mail review:

    I’m in!

    And you can find it at the library!

  2. What a wonderful idea, Michelle! I would add Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Newfoundland) and Late Nights on Air by Louise Hay (N.W.T.), as well. Looking forward to further suggestions by other patrons. Again, great idea!

  3. Hello Louise!
    That’s true! “Late Nights on Air” was on my original list, but somehow I forgot it!
    “Annabel” is a book I really hope to get to this year (before January!!!).

    Thank you so much!
    If you think of anything else, or if you want to share your personal critique of any of the books, DO leave more comments.

  4. For Newfoundland, a friend just recommended “Galore” by Michael Crummey, and I have to say, it looks fantastic. “No Great Mischief” by Alistair MacLeod was also put forward for Nova Scotia. I may have to do two laps of this great country to fit all these wonderful books in!

    1. Hi Cathy! I’ve read 3 Michael Crummey’s, but not that one. I’ve fallen behind. Crummey’s novels aren’t usually all that funny, but Galore sound promising in that department.
      Please let me know how you found it.

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