I love reading the stories of Canadians. I wish more people read our literature, it’s damn good. The writers of the North use restraint (apparently, I am the exception that proves the rule), place and geography shows up in the prose, every word matters, it sings to me of people I know, places I love, my own history. Some of my favourites are well-known – think Margaret Atwood, L.M. Montgomery, Michael Ondaatje, Farley Mowat, Leonard Cohen, Douglas Copeland, even the current darling of the New York Times bestseller list, Ann Voskamp – and therefore, aren’t appearing here, since most of you already know of them (and if you don’t – get on that).
No, these are simply the books that I wish had a wider audience, inside and outside of my homeland. There are so many more I want to include, and there a few gaping holes for the whole Canadian experience (for instance, no French books), but 10 is 10 and here they are.
The Stone Angel (Phoenix Fiction) by Margaret Lawrence. Few kids in Canada graduate high school without a battered copy of this novel. The protagonist, Hagar, is irreplaceable, stubborn, bossy, noble, she’s a stern and isolated old woman to reckon with, and the landscape, Hagar’s home, is more than simply a place to be. Hagar helped many people understand their pioneer ancestors or grandparents a bit better.
Late Nights on Air: A Novel by Elizabeth Hay. Set in the north, at a radio station, this book is ripe with character studies. I would have listened to every single one of her characters discuss Paper vs. Plastic, their voices were so interesting and unique. The book explores the themes of love, seduction and power, balance and loss, on a canoe-trip in Yellowknife.
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. My sister and I read this book together, and we ended up printing out a few paragraphs, just to frame the words on our walls. Mary Lawson writes about love and redemption, loss and death, set in the northern Ontario. The book is sometimes funny and winsome, sometimes penetrating and always insightful, while never trying too hard. There isn’t a missed step in the prose, or the story about the Morrison family.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. This book encompasses one woman’s entire life through the bewildering changes of the 1900s. Daisy doesn’t understand her own life, but she’s trying to find a thread to pick up here. Every chapter is brilliant and compassionate, even when exposing society’s expectations for women. (Shields is a Canadian by choice, she was born American.)
As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross. Margaret Atwood called this book our nation’s Madame Bovary, and for just cause. Set in the prairies, in the Depression, it is stark, holy ground. Ross is the master of leaving white space in the story of suffering, through unnamed journal entries. Here’s a line: “It’s an immense night out there, wheeling and windy. The lights on the street and in the houses against the black wetness, little unilluminating glints that might be painted on it. The town seems huddled together, cowering on a high tiny perch, afraid to move lest it topple into the wind.”
Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell. This book is required reading, for good reason. Books set in the prairies are my one weakness, and this one is written from the perspective of a young boy, Brian O’Connal, growing up right on the edge of the land. It’s gentle, profound, interesting, with a lot happening underneath the words. To me, Brian is representative of how we grow up here: the land is never far from our consciousness, and we layer our experiences with our tangible, physical world.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro. Without a doubt, our best short-story writer, this is my favourite collection of Munro’s work. Each story makes me doubt myself as a writer, who could ever compare? She says more in a paragraph than most of us say in an entire book. She’s elegant, in the truest sense of the word, heartbreaking, wise. (My favourite story was The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which was the inspiration for the award-winning film “Away From Her.”)
Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada by Stuart McLean. I am a devoted listener of the Vinyl Cafe on CBC Radio. I love all of the Vinyl Cafe books as well. But I chose this volume that chronicles McLean’s visits to 10 small towns across Canada because it’s a bit more complex and narrative than his usual down-home stuff, he dives into forgotten history, talks to people that aren’t usually on the front page or the television, to tell their stories. It’s gentle in spirit, but honest.
Emily Of New Moon by L.M Montomgery. Almost everyone has read Anne of Green Gables, it’s surprisingly how few have read the entire catalogue of Montgomery. (Her adult novels, such as A Tangled Web and The Blue Castle, remain among my favourites.) But this story, about an orphan girl named Emily Starr, was actually tied with Anne as my own favourite. I re-read it even now as an adult. It’s a bit darker and realistic, there is a deeply spiritual under-girding to the book, haunting themes, complex characters.
St. Urbain’s Horseman by Mordecai Richler. Gracious, I liked this book. Set in Montreal, the book explores guilt, modern life, heroes, and social mores. It’s complex, funny, a real guy’s book, and just plain wonderful.
Honourable Mention: Shipping News: A Novel by Anne Proulx. Technically, Annie is not a Canadian, but she makes her home in Newfoundland, where this story is set, so I’ll include it. I read this book, and I closed it, and then had to sit and think it through for a good while. I don’t know Newfoundland well (I’m a western Canada kid), but the story was so compelling, the writing so exquisite, I could hardly breathe. The rock is rich with unique characters, the story can be dark, but strangely comic and ridiculous.
Your turn: What is your favourite Canadian book? Or, if you aren’t Canadian, what’s your favourite book by a native son or daughter?
We’re talking about 10 Books a Day for a Week. Share your own favourites on your blog, and post your link in the comments, or just let me know what you think or recommend. I love to snoop bookshelves, and this is my excuse – and yours – to talk books.
Sunday: 10 books that changed my faith
Thursday: 10 books I read over and over (and over)
Friday: 10 spiritual memoirs
Saturday: My daily books + 10 books of poetry
Disclosure: Some of them may offend sensibilities in language or subject matter. Affiliate links used.