The Great Write North: 25 Classic Canadian Novels

As the second-largest country in the world, it is always odd to hear banter about the limitations of Canada. Some may point out its subservience to the United States or it’s deadly climate, but what most forget is that Canada has one of the richest and varied histories of any country in the New World, and that its landscape has provided countless authors with a slate upon which they can discover their place in the world. Here are 25 novels from the 19th century onward that have examined and defined Canada’s rich cultural heritage.

1. Susanna Moodie – Roughing it in the Bush (1852)

Immigration played a large part in the formation of American literature in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the Canadian version of the journey fared much differently.  Preliminary hopes about prosperity and a fair climate soon turned grim for Moodie when she moved from England to Canada, but Roughing it in the Bush, her novel about the hardships of living in the untamed wilderness of a nation that had not even existed yet, is written with biting irony and lightly satirizes the ideals that this nation was first populated upon. While a moderate success at the time, this concept of facing undesirable forces and such a vast geographic void would, for over 150 years, be a recurring theme in Canadian fiction and poetry.

2. William Kirby – The Golden Dog (1877)

Canada was barely ten years old when The Golden Dog was published, and in 1877 it lacked cultural fortitude. Disjointed, and multilingual, the country needed authors like Kirby to provoke nationalist fervor. The Golden Dog follows the lives of two French Canadian couples just before the Fall of New France in 1748. Though lauding the British and even making a controversial case for their moral superiority, the novel is ultimately a sympathetic account of French Canadian life that presents both European entities as vital parts of Canadian heritage.

3. Stephen Leacock – Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912)

At the beginning of the 20th century,  American authors like Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis took it upon themselves to portray the contradictions of small-town life in their short stories and novels. North of the border, however, Canada’s great humorist took it upon himself to present small-town life through comedy.  Set in the town of Mariposa (actually modern-day Orillia), Sunshine Sketches reveals the complexity of its setting by defying our expectations of its characters. Far from bumbling caricatures, the cast is an array of funny but lovable people that are as characteristic of Canada’s supposedly simple living arrangements.

4. Gabrielle Roy – The Tin Flute (Bonheur D’Occasion)

Living in Montreal in the 1930’s was tough. Riddled with poverty and poor living arrangements, the din of big city life became too much for many, and in the case of Roy’s protagonist Florentine, the escape from the brutish working class neighborhood of St.Henri meant everything. Pregnant and torn between solitude and fleeting love, the story immaculately balances the claustrophobia of the big city with the painful solitude women faced in pre-war, French-Catholic society.  Gabrielle Roy would secure her place as one of the most celebrated French-Canadian authors with this work, and The Tin Flute has become one of the rare works of Canadian fiction to become a classic in two languages.

5. Hugh Maclennan – Two Solitudes (1945)

Hugh Maclennan’s Two Solitudes was published in the same year as Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute, and in many ways it can be seen as its English-language companion. Set around Montreal and rural Quebec during the same time, it follows the life of a young man searching for a wholly Canadian identity for a novel he is writing,  but as he becomes ostracized by the two communities that he once thought he could call home, it becomes clear that finding any meaning will become difficult. Like so many other seminal Canadian works, Two Solitudes understands the great disparity found between individual and national identity in a country struggling to maintain one.

6. Germaine Guevremont – The Outlander (Le Survenant) (1945)

Germaine Guèvremont’s account of rural Quebecois life can be likened to the novels of George Eliot and Ivan Turgenev. Her story about a young, red-headed man visiting a small town is at once a nostalgic look at rustic small-town life and also an account of great change in the countryside. You could say the novel differs from many on the list for its isolated subject matter, though this does not squander but rather enhances the depth and beauty of the novel.

7. W.O. Mitchell- Who Has Seen the Wind (1947)

W.O. Mitchell’s most famous work is an Anne of Green Gables for Prairie life, where a child learns his way in the world among the comical social sphere of small-town Saskatchewan. The novel has since become a classic read by children and adults alike, and like many other Canadian novels focused on specific localities, is proof that it is not the location but the people who define who you are.

8. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)

 

Duddy Kravitz can arguably (and I do emphasize the ‘arguably’) be called Canada’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  This novel of adolescent formation set in the impoverished quarters of Jewish Montreal is eclectic and downright hilarious. As Duddy myopically seeks his dream of owning a swath of land in the countryside, his schemes become ever more comical and destructive. While it is primarily an indictment of materialism getting in the way of traditionalism, the novel has remained a classic for its dark humor and honest portrayal of growing up poor in Montreal.

9. Sheila Watson – The Double Hook (1959)

 

Qwiklit - Sheila Watson - The Double Hook

1959 saw the beginning of an unexpected but dramatic shift in Canadian literature. Sheila Watson’s Double Hook is a meandering and subversive text centered around the fictional town of Nineveh, a desolate town haunted by an old woman who steals all of their fish. When she is murdered by her son,  it sparks a great moral quandary, as the manifestation of their greatest fears is revealed to breed further implications. Surrealism and poetic, the novel’s unique form and subject matter reinvigorated literary movements in British Columbia and in other provinces.

10. Leonard Cohen – Beautiful Losers

Cohen has achieved international recognition for his music and poetry, but his brief foray into fiction still provided us with a pleasure of a read. Beautiful losers follows a love triangle that seems to transcend time and space altogether, but interwoven through accounts of Montreal beat culture, Quebec separatism and Aboriginal Canadian history, it presents a surrealist but alluring account of Canada during a volatile time. Just like Double Hook, the novel anticipates the shifting of Canadian literature from objective historical accounts to personal and sensual experience. It will also carry the particular erotic flavor that has and still defines his work up to the present day.

11. Robertson Davies – Fifth Business (1971)

The first novel of Davies’ Deptford Trilogy about a man obsessed with the connection between the events of his life and the lives of saints is today a staple in Canadian classrooms, and for good reason. Blending Canadian history with an encyclopedic exploration of religion, spirituality, Jungian philosophy and magic, Fifth Business defies the limiting definition of genre to create something wholly extraordinary. Followed by The Manticore and World of Wonders, Davies channels the more radical prose styles of his day without corroding his seemingly limitless will to create a masterful work of art.

12. Margaret Laurence -The Diviners (1974)

Laurence writes a particularly idiosyncratic style of fiction that explores the relation between various cultures, and The Diviners is no different. About a Scottish-Canadian woman who enters relationships with a young Metis (Part Caucasian, Part Aboriginal) musician and a mysterious scholar, the novel focuses on the teetering line between truth and repression in the modern world. Like I mentioned in my commentary on Susanna Moodie, the notion of survival in the wilderness is an important theme in Canadian fiction. Laurence puts great emphasis on the spiritual aspect of survival, and asks how such needs have transcended generations.

13. Jacques Poulin – Volkswagen Blues (1984)

The ‘Road’ novel has been a recurring plot in many major American works, but Canada’s largely horizontal highway system has made the same tale quite difficult to tell. Fortunately, Jacques Poulin’s road trip from the edge of Quebec to San Francisco is both a touching homage to Kerouac and a revisiting of French exploration through North America. The further west they go, the more the Quebecois brothers realize that their version of history should doubted, as the Metis hitchhiker they picked up challenges their well-ingrained belief system. The novel has fortunately received a resurgence of attention in the past few years, and English translations are now available.

14. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Once in a while, a dystopian novel will come along and capture the hearts and minds of an entire generation. Just like Brave New World and 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale presented a seemingly distant but ultimately relevant world where the women became imprisoned and were forced to bear children from prominent male leaders. The novel follows one such prisoner, Offred, and how she manages to rebel against the forces that put her there in the first place. Atwood has written several novels worth mentioning, and Handmaid’s Tale is has given her an audience the world over.

15. Michael Ondaatje – In The Skin of a Lion (1987)

I think one needs to look beyond all the talk of Ondaatje’s novel as being one of a great postmodernist or post-colonial work to best appreciate the audacity of the novel’s vision. In the Skin of a Lion is an immigrant novel with a twist—as opposed to chronicling the banal challenges of adapting to new Canadian life, Ondaatje envisions 1920’s Toronto as a city alive and electric, a place mysterious and erotic. I think that this novel exemplifies  what many historical fictions did during this time period; Ondaatje seems to focus equally on what is specifically ‘unseen’ or ‘unknown’, and in doing so makes a case for such fictions late in the 20th century.

16. Thomas King – Green Grass, Running Water (1993)

Few outside of Canada realize that First Nations’ literature has risen in recent decades, due in large part to the contributions of authors like Thomas King. Green Grass, Running Water is just one of the many that question the place of spirituality in the contemporary world, but his comic storytelling and colorful characters makes this novel enjoyable to audiences in Canada and abroad. Centered around the ever-shifting lives of five Blackfoot in Alberta, the novel examines the tensions pushing them away from each other while also providing them (and the reader, for that matter) with the humorous but ultimately essential road back to spiritual solitude.

17. Anne Michaels – Fugitive Pieces (1996)

As you may have noticed, Canadian novels have shifted from being sternly realist to more expressionistic and fantastical. Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces is no exception. From Poland to Greece to Toronto, Anne Michaels follows a Polish boy from his escape of invading Nazis to his eventual home in Toronto. But unlike the conventional immigrant novel, the past returns to him unpredictably, and its very presence becomes the very art that modifies this story from a mere account to a troubled but beautiful dance with memory.

18. Wayne Johnston – The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998)

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is perhaps the great Newfoundland epic, but that doesn’t mean that Wayne Johnston positively spins the story of Joey Smallwood, the underdog-turned-politician who joined Newfoundland into the Confederation in 1949. Including his foray into journalism in New York City, as well as his 700-mile journey across the province by foot to spread his political message, the novel is ambitious and sprawling, At the heart of it, however, lies pressing questions about the true merits of confederation, as well as the questionable lengths that some went to to achieve political favor at the time.

19. Alistair Macleod -No Great Mischief (1999)

It may seem surprising to some that the first Canadian novel to win the Dublin IMPAC award was specifically regional and a very personal exploration of his own genealogical history, but it is Macleod’s very intimacy with the world of his youth and of  his ancestors that gives this novel so much life. Set on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island and in the mines of Northern Ontario, the novel shifts between a nostalgic celebration of family and a elegiac tribute to the inexorably destruction of the narrator’s family.

20. David Adams Richards – Mercy Among the Children (2000)

Also set on the beautiful and stark  Maritime coast, Mercy Among the Children is a novel with about a boy who promises to be nothing but good all of his life, and we the reader must of course suffer through all of the obvious trouble that will get him into. David Adams Richards has remained a popular figure on the Canadian literary scene for his novels, as their combination of parable and regional history have helped transform the challenging and unforgiving Canadian landscape into a place of great enchantment.

21. Yann Martel – Life of Pi (2001)

Recently made into an Oscar-winning production, Yann Martel’s novel is an exploration of spirituality through the eyes of a precocious boy lost in the Pacific with a tiger on a lifeboat. The novel has since become an an international hit, and it is difficult to actually categorize this as a “Canadian” novel, since much of the plot takes place in the nation-less void of the Pacific. I would argue, though, that many of Martel’s sleights about the deceptive but redeeming aspects of storytelling possess a particularly Canadian flavor, and as many of the previously-mentioned novels discuss, the journey to Canada is also an important facet of  the formation of its culture heritage.

22. Miriam Toews – A Complicated Kindness (2004)

Toews’ novel about growing up in a rural Mennonite community in Manitoba presents an oft-forgotten aspect of Canadian life. Just as so many immigrated from Europe and joined the melting pots of the big cities, others chose a different route, opting instead for isolated, religious life in a very isolated place. Following the decline of Nomi, a teen attracted to rebellion who wants to escape to New York City to meet Lou Reed, Toews shows us just how dangerous the youth can be when its most essential ingredients are withheld from its most vivacious.

23. Heather O’Neill – Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006)

Heather O’Neill’s stunning novel about growing up in abject poverty in Montreal is as touching as it is horrific. When the narrator, Baby, must watch as her heroin-addicted father succumbs to the soul-sucking vicissitudes of his own addiction, it prompts her to escape the emerging realities of the real world, but as her life among children begins to dissipate, she must resist the affronts of a salacious pimp to avoid repeating the cycle that tore she and her father apart. While the subject matter is enough to intrigue the average reader, it is O’Neill’s remarkable use of narration that sets this novel apart from others.

24. Joseph Boyden – Three Day Road (2006)

Combining the realities of early 20th century First Nations’  life with the horrors of World War I, Boyden’s account of two fictional aboriginal warriors is like few other works of fiction out there. Told from the perspectives of the elder Niska and Xavier—the one who successfully returned from war—Three Day Road is a surprisingly subdued account of battle and death. Like many other First Nations’ authors, Boyden interweaves elements of oral storytelling and spirituality with the inevitable persecution suffered at the hands of  those who were supposed to be on their side.

25. Esi Edugyan – Half-Blood Blues (2011)

Almost a century and a half after confederation, Canadian authors have shifted from locally-based narratives to tales set all over the world. Edugyan tells the story of several Jazz musicians living in the crosshairs of Nazis at the beginning of World War II in Berlin. Combining  heavily-stylized historical fiction with a cast of characters as musical in their trade as they are with their language, Half-Blood Blues focuses on the difficulties of being black in a country on the brink of racial purging. Canadian literature has time and again looked back at ancestry and various cultural heritages for answers to our present-day problems, and I believe it is this particular type of fiction that will solidify Canada’s reputation on the international literary scene for years to come.

9 thoughts on “The Great Write North: 25 Classic Canadian Novels

  1. Ah well yes we are “second largest” by total land and water mass (third if just by land mass…we have a lot of water) but certainly not by population. We are one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, and our population, as I’m sure you know, ranks us lower than Poland, Kenya, Myanmar and Tanzania. So it isn’t all that strange, really, that people would speak of us as a small country.

  2. lonesome gopher says:

    A fine list that I will have to dive into. Life of Pi is the only one I’ve actually read. Shame on me!

    Being a good prairie boy I think Guy Vanderhaeghe’s prairie series should have been on the list. It is a great list by any measure. It’s nice to see some love for CanLit.

    • Mac says:

      Being a good prairie boy is the reason why you have read only ONE of these Canadian treasures. Turn off the tractor and pick up a book.

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