In 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)–
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:
Truth 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).
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?
The drama, history and cultural complexity of life in Manitoba have inspired many authors:
Miriam 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?
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: 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.
I’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.
Sally Armstrong, The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (2007)
David Adams Richards, Mercy Among the Children (2000): so difficult to read and so unforgettable (sigh).
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)
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)
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.
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:
**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!