There are so many Canadian classics you could use for the #NVCLreads Canada 150 Bingo contest, how do you choose? Fortunately our Web Specialist David has shared his picks for this category with a great mix of older and modern classics:
Two Solitudes, by Hugh Maclennan (1945)
Two Solitudes is a multi-generational novel set in Montreal and rural Quebec between World Wars I and II. The story focuses primarily on the fortunes of the French Tallard family. Athanase, the family patriarch, is comfortable in his culture, but his younger English wife struggles to feel accepted in the small town in which they live. Their eldest son, Marius, blames all his problems on the English while Paul, the youngest son, falls in love with an English woman, Heather, and moves back and forth uncomfortably and yet with optimism for a better future, between the two cultures. Hugh Maclennan’s classic masterpiece won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-Language Fiction in 1945, and offers insights into the Canadian psyche that remain relevant today.
Who Has Seen the Wind, by W.O. Mitchell (1947)
Brian O’Connall lives in Saskatchewan with his parents, younger brother, strict Scottish grandmother, and the family dog. Described by one reviewer as an “Anne of Green Gables of the prairies”, the book doesn’t have a traditional narrative plot. Instead it’s a series of vignettes from young Brian’s life, and we see him at age four, then six, then eight, and finally at age eleven. The main theme running through the book is a special feeling that Brian has, one associated with large themes like God and death, and often brought on by the prairie wind: “when it washed through poplar leaves, when it set telephone wires humming and twanging down an empty prairie road, when it ruffled the feather on one of Sherry’s roosters standing forlorn in a bare yard […] always, he noted, the feeling was most exquisite upon the prairie or when the wind blew”.
The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence (1964)
The Stone Angel tells the story of Hagar Shipley. Set in fictional Manawaka, Manitoba, the novel contains a present-day (i.e. 1960’s) narrative in which Hagar – now 90 and full of regret over her joyless and difficult life – is fighting with her son, who wishes to put her in a nursing home. The remainder of the novel looks back into the past and tells Hagar’s story. Toronto Review of Books describes Hagar as “one of the few great and fully realized characters of Canadian literature”. Laurence’s prose is exquisite: a book to read slowly and savour.
Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies (1970)
The first novel of the Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business is considered by some to be the witty and erudite Davies’ finest novel. Dunstan Ramsay has recently retired from a career as a schoolteacher, and is insulted by the lukewarm send-off he has been given. He writes a letter to the head in which he demonstrates that he has in fact led a full and interesting life; that letter is the novel. Why did Davies call it ‘Fifth Business’? Davies seemed to enjoy pranks and he at first claimed that he had taken the term from an obscure Norwegian literary work, and even added a quote from it at the beginning of his novel. When pressed, he later admitted that his story of the title’s origin was as fictional as the novel itself. This is a rich, delightful and moving work.
A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews (2004)
To finish up, here’s a modern classic, Miriam Toews’ fine second novel, set in the fictional town of East Village, Manitoba. It’s a very small town, mainly Mennonite, with two industries: a chicken slaughterhouse and an artificial ‘heritage’ village at which Toews’ protagonist, 16-year old Nomi Nickel, churns butter for the tourists. Nomi’s mother and sister have both escaped town, unable to bear their lives in East Village, and when he’s not selling off their remaining furniture, her father spends his days sitting by the roadside watching the cars go by. The mood of the town is largely governed by ‘The Mouth’, Nomi’s pastor and uncle. This novel is a rather bleak but powerful exploration of the life of a teenager in a tight-knit and oppressive community. It won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-Language Fiction in 2004.
So there’s our top 5 – what would be the one Canadian Classic that you think everyone should read?