Today my beloved Canada celebrates the big 1-5-0, marking the sesquicentennial (yes, I just wanted to use that word) anniversary of Canadian Confederation. Along with poutine, butter tarts, basketball, insulin, and the zipper, Canada has given the word some wonderful books and what better way to celebrate than with a shoutout to some of the Canadian books and authors I love the most.
I must admit, I haven’t always had an appreciation for Canadian authors. While pursuing an English degree I dreaded the obligatory Can Lit course and bought into the stereotype that all fiction by Canadian authors was rural-set literary fiction that mostly made parallels between the landscape and a character’s mental state. Like all stereotypes there is some truth in this, but there are also fabulous Canadian authors whose books I have devoured. I am so grateful and proud to be Canadian, and to celebrate my country’s one hundred and fiftieth birthday, here’s my list of books by Canadian authors, both popular and lesser known, worth reading.
(Note: Margaret Atwood is not on this list because, shame of all shames, I have never read any of her works! Rest assured that I fully intend to give Atwood a try by the end of the year.)
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Most Canadian girls have had their imaginations captured by L.M. Montgomery’s plucky redhead at one point in their lives or another. The 1908 book tells the story of Anne Shirley, an eleven-year-old orphan who is mistakenly sent to Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, a middle-aged brother and sister who need a boy to help out on their Prince Edward Island farm. Anne wins over shy, sweet Matthew and the more practical Marilla though, and the rest of the seven book series sees Anne making her way through school and the town, becoming a school teacher, and beginning a family of her own. Intelligent, short-tempered, and wildly imaginative, Anne Shirley made a huge impression on me as a girl, and Anne of Green Gables has been adapted into multiple TV shows, plays, and musicals. Anne is the obvious choice when I think of Canadian books I love, but the enduring popularity of this character is a sign that I’m far from alone.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
I recently read this fabulous YA contemporary book loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and was blown away. Set in small-town Ontario, it follows Hermione Winters, the co-captain of her high school cheerleading team, who has everything going for her… until someone slips something into her drink at the summer cheer camp and she blacks out. The story deals with the lead up to, and aftermath of, the rape, as Hermione figures out how to move on from here. Although the book unflinchingly deals with serious topics, including date rape drugs, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, and abortion, Hermione has an excellent support system in place to help her through and the story is more one about a victim who takes back power and does so in her own time. Author E.K. Johnston is from Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. This was my first book of hers, but I can’t wait to work my way through the rest of her books!
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
Admittedly it’s been probably 10 years since I read this book, as part of an undergrad Children’s Literature course, but I remember really enjoying it. The book follows Matt Cruse, a cabin boy on a massive airship that sails above the ocean ferrying wealthy passengers back and forth. A dying balloonist tells him of fantastic, impossible creatures he has seen flying through the clouds and Matt dismisses the story as the ravings of a dying man, but when the man’s granddaughter Kate appears on the airship a year later, he is swept into her quest to prove the story is true. Author Kenneth Oppel was born in British Colombia, and has also lived on the opposite coast of Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Newfoundland. He currently lives in Toronto, Ontario.
The Scorpion Rules and The Swan Riders by Erin Bow
I have a healthy amount of skepticism when it comes to YA dystopian fiction. Following The Hunger Games a whole slew of it was published and there are some real gems in there, but there are also some not so great books. Erin Bow’s Prisoners of Peace duology is one of the gems. Taking an interesting and plausible background (wars over resources, particularly water rights, between nations), she crafts a future ruled over by an AI, where countries each submit an heir under the age of eighteen who are held as hostages for good behaviour. If a nation declares war, their heir dies. I loved the first book, and adored the second, which has a larger role for Bow’s snarky AI character, who delivers some of the best lines in the book. Erin Bow is an American-born Canadian author, who lives in Kitchener, Ontario.
The Agency series by Y.S. Lee
A friend introduced me to this lesser known genre-crossing series, which begins with A Spy in the House, and I really loved it. A Victorian era set YA mystery series, the books feature protagonist Mary Quinn, a young orphan and thief. Mary becomes a student at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, which excels at deploying female spies, reasoning that women can infiltrate without ever being suspected. Seventeen-year-old Mary’s first assignment is to pose as a lady’s companion and infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. The books have some truly wonderful banter, particularly between Mary and James Easton, a dashing young engineer, and Mary is an intelligent feisty heroine. Y.S. Lee was born in Singapore and raised in Vancouver and Toronto. She now lives in Kingston, Ontario.
The Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley
I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I certainly appreciated the originality of the first book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and have been meaning to read further in the series. Set in the 1950s, aspiring chemist young Flavia de Luce is delighted and appalled when murder comes to Buckshaw and takes it upon herself to find the culprit. Flavia is a precocious, somewhat morbid child detective unlike most protagonists I’ve encountered, and the chemistry angle adds something new to the mystery genre. Alan Bradley was raised in Cobourg, Ontario, and taught at the University of Saskatchewan, although he now lives on the Isle of Man.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Room was one of those books where I avoided the hype because I just didn’t think it would be my kind of book. Well, I was wrong. I finally read it for a book club last year and was blown away. Donoghue seems to know instinctively exactly where to switch gears. At first she explores the limited one room world of her five-year-old first person narrator Jack and his Ma. From an adult perspective we can marvel at Ma’s ability to create a structured life and to educate her son, as well as her endless creativity in coming up with new games and ways to keep Jack active, but just when this starts to grate the second half of the book veers off in an entirely different direction. It’s masterfully written and absolutely lives up to the hype. Emma Donoghue is an Irish-born author who has lived in London, Ontario since 1998.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven was something entirely new to me, a soft post-apocalyptic novel that deals not with the immediate aftermath of the end of the world as we know it in bloody in-fighting fashion (ala The Walking Dead), but with the longer term impact of a plague that has wiped out most of civilization. Moving back and forth in time between the time before the plague, its rapid spread, and fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains, the novel is beautifully written as it shifts between the perspectives of several characters who are all connected: the actor who died onstage during a production of King Lear the night the world dissolved, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, the actor’s oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, who was a child actress in the production of King Lear. I really can’t say enough about this quiet, moving book (which is partially set in Toronto!). Emily St. John Mandel was born and raised in British Columbia, and lived previously in Toronto and in Montreal. She now lives in New York City.
The Josephine Bonaparte series by Sandra Gulland
Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B trilogy really hooked me. It’s my favourite kind of historical fiction, the kind that seems to be well-researched, with a compelling protagonist, and strong prose. Based on the life of Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s wife, the story is told through epistolary format as letters/diary entries. It’s not a format that always works, but I thought it fit this series well. Sandra Gulland is an American-Canadian, who was born in Miami, Florida, but immigrated to Canada in the 1970s. She now spends half the year in Ontario and the other half in Mexico.
The Chosen Maiden by Eva Stachniak
My interest in Nijinsky following the National Ballet of Canada’s stunning production of John Neumeier’s ballet means that I have a certain bias towards the subject matter, but I think even those unfamiliar with Nijinsky will enjoy this well-researched book. The Chosen Maiden is sweeping account of the life and accomplishments of ballet dancer and choreographer Bronislava (Bronia) Nijinska, the sister to legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who was known as “Le Dieu de la Danse” (The God of the Dance). Set between 1894 and 1939 and told from Bronislava’s perspective, the novel explores themes of art and modernity as Bronia sees beyond her rigid classical training and strives to be a great artist, dancing and creating bold new works. As I suspected when I picked up the book, Eva Stachniak (who was born in Poland) lives in Toronto, Ontario and is also a fan of the National Ballet of Canada.
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
As you can tell from the last three books on this list, Canadian authors write some great historical fiction! Set in Belle Époque Paris, The Painted Girls takes inspiration from the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and a notorious criminal trial of the era. After the sudden death of their father, the van Goethem sisters Marie and Antoinette seem faced with imminent eviction. With few options available for work, Marie joins the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventy francs a month, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet, while her older sister descends lower and lower in society, and must make the choice between a life of honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde. I really enjoyed reading The Painted Girls and learning more about this period in French history. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Cathy Marie Buchanan now lives in Toronto, Ontario.
Have you read any of these books? Who are your favourite Canadian authors?
I hope all of my Canadian readers have a very Happy Canada Day long weekend!