Listening to Overdue’s episode on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I started to think about Canadian literature – specifically, about how little of it I’ve read. All I have to my name are a couple of Atwood novels and Anne of Green Gables.¹
But that aside, I’d still like to read more books by Canadian authors. If I were to start a Canadian literature reading challenge today, here’s what it would look like:
- Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (2003)
Yes, I just said that Atwood is one of the few Canadian authors I have read, but I received this book as a gift years ago and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. A post-apocalyptic story, Oryx and Crake seems much more like traditional science fiction than what I’ve read from Atwood before, but knowing her, it will be anything but traditional.
- The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden (2013)
I became interested in The Orenda because from the jacket copy, it seems like a foil to Death Comes for the Archbishop, one of my favorite books that comes with a caveat. Death Comes for the Archbishop tells the life story of a French missionary colonizing the southwestern United States, managing to almost entirely neglect the perspective of indigenous people. In The Orenda, the focus is reversed, telling the story of members of the Huron and Iroquois Nations alongside a French missionary. Bonus: It has a 4.25 (!) rating on Goodreads.
- Volkswagen Blues, by Jacques Poulin (1984)
I found Volkswagen Blues looking for a book translated from the French – it didn’t seem right to read only the English-speaking authors from a bilingual nation. And while it plots a road trip running through both Canada and the United States (and Jacques Poulin clearly owes a debt to Jack Kerouac), Volkswagen Blues also traces the exploration and conquest of North America by the French. Language and history? Right up my alley.
- Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King (1993)
The National Post steered me in the direction of Green Grass, Running Water in its article “Ten authors you have to read (if you’re a Canadian student),” a recommended read for anyone considering their own Can Lit challenge. This book is a modern-day tale about ordinary people getting involved with the mythological trickster Coyote. From reading others’ reviews, it sounds like a satirical American Gods or a Catch-22 infused with magical realism – both comparisons that recommend it to me.
- Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro (1971)
Alice Munro is another author recommended by the National Post article, but as possibly the only Canadian author to have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, she deserves a definitive place on any Can Lit list regardless. (Canadian-born Saul Bellow is also a Nobel laureate, but lived and worked in the United States, hence the possibly.) Although Munro is most famous for her short stories, the summary of her novel Lives of Girls and Women, a semi-autobiographical chronicle of growing up in 1940s Ontario, reminds me of my favorite book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with a different setting.
- Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat (1968)
Never Cry Wolf is the story of Farley Mowat’s time surveying an Arctic wolf pack near Nueltin Lake on the border of Nunavut and Manitoba. However, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the authenticity of Never Cry Wolf as a work of nonfiction has been called into question since its publication – for example, Mowat didn’t study the wolves alone as the book portrays, but rather with a team of wildlife biologists. I plan to take the book with a grain of salt as a “nonfiction novel,” since it is apparently a fun, adventurous tale that helped change the popular perception of wolves and fight for their preservation.
¹ Exaggerated for effect. Although, in researching this post, I did discover that I’ve read more books by Canadian authors than I had suspected – I just either forgot or never knew their nationality.