Great Canadian Authors
Joseph Boyden is one of Canada’s most highly regarded authors. Besides “The Orenda,” he’s written other books, including the novels “Three Day Road” and “Through Black Spruce.” “Three Day Road” is about a couple of Cree soldiers from Northern Ontario who serve in the Canadian military during World War I, and it’s inspired by a real person who became a legendary sniper during World War I. Boyden’s grandfather and uncle served in this conflict. “Through Black Spruce” continues the story as it follows one of the sons in “Three Day Road.”
Never heard of him? Neither had I, until he was picked up by an American publisher. There is something going on here that has always puzzled me. Canada, our neighbor to the North, has a lot of great authors, but it seems to take a very long time for awareness of them to build south of the border.
Why is that? I don’t know. One reason is that Canada has separate publishers and book distribution networks. It has its own separate newspapers, television stations and other media. That’s because – surprise! It’s a separate country. But it seems weird to me, because there are so many great Canadian authors. And the majority of us on both sides of the border share the English language.
So I have decided to do a little march across Canada, touching on some great Canadian writers. Some of these you will have heard of; some not. Some, like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Robertson Davies, I’m going to skip because they ARE well-known.
Alistair Macleod. Alistair Macleod falls into the category of “one of the best writers you’ve never heard of.” Though he became a university professor, he was the son of a coal miner. He shunned computers and wrote in longhand.
He wrote about one short story a year during his writing career, and only wrote one novel – “No Great Mischief,” but it won the international IMPAC prize of $100,000 for the best novel published in the English-speaking world. I have to refer to him in the past tense because, very sad to say, he died this year from complications of a stroke.
“No Great Mischief” is set on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. It’s a multi-generational novel that tells the story of the island’s fishermen and miners, along with their Scottish ancestors (Macleod’s ancestors are Scottish – they emigrated to the island in the late 18th century).
The story is that of a community that’s trying to hold on to its traditions in the face of assimilation and modernism. It’s narrated by a man who has forsaken the island for a bourgeois life, but has indelible memories of his home, a very harsh and very beautiful place.
It’s an unforgettable story; the fact that he took ten years to write it only makes it a sweeter read. I can also recommend his short story collection “Island” – the stories convey a way of life that’s both brutal and passionately felt. Men die in the mines and on the sea; women are left to decide whether there’s enough food to carry the family (never mind the pets) through the winter. Many stories are about the breaking of family ties, often accelerated by the will of parents to give their children a less dangerous, brutal life.
Next up – Louise Penny, author of the Inspector Gamache mysteries.
I’m cheating a little bit because Louise Penny is not an unknown; her novels have started rocketing to the top of the best-seller lists.
Penny was a broadcast journalist when she started writing about Armand Gamache, an inspector who works in Montreal, Quebec. She doesn’t need her day job anymore. The strengths of the Gamache books include the main character; he’s one of those upright but world weary heroes that readers just bond to. And Penny has a wonderful sense of place – she makes Quebec seem like the most beautiful and fascinating place ever. I’m not quite as crazy about the conspiracy amongst his superiors to get Gamache kicked off the force that occupies a lot of the novels – I think she’s better when she portrays everyday Quebecois. I particularly liked her novel, 2011’s “A Trick of the Light,” because it focuses on artists and what makes them tick.
Carol Shields is another Canadian author (she was an American who married a Canadian and moved there) who unfortunately has passed away. Most people remember for her novel “The Stone Diaries,” but I really liked her novel “Unless,” the last one she wrote before she died of cancer. It’s about Reta, a writer and translator whose college-aged daughter Norah drops out of college and lives on the streets of Toronto with a cardboard sign affixed to her chest that reads “Goodness”. Part of the book is a mystery – trying to figure out why Norah would do such a thing. But part of it is a look at the role of women in literature and a passionate defense of women writers who are undervalued because they write about “domestic” subjects.
If you like big, dense novels, try “Fall On Your Knees” by Toronto author Anne-Marie MacDonald. This critically praised novel chronicles four generations of a Canadian family, the Piphers, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The family has a lot of dark secrets. There are ghosts. There are spirits. Everybody suffers. This family also originates in Cape Breton, the locus for many of Alistair Macleod’s stories.
Finally, I can’t end this without mentioning Alice Munro, who most readers have heard of because she just won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Called the master of the contemporary short story, she lives both in British Columbia and Ontario, but many of her stories are set in Ontario, where she grew up.