Throughout my almost two decades of collecting Canadian literature, I’ve created numerous spreadsheets to track my various goals: historically relevant series – like the New Canadian Library, certain authors, and important Canadian literary awards. The assemblage I am most proud of is my collection of English language Governor General’s Literary Award winners. Over the years, I have managed to round up all but one winner of the fiction prize, all the poetry and drama winners when the award was split in the early 80s, and many of the winners from the non-fiction, poetry or drama, translation, and both children’s categories. In total, my GG collection is 187 books. But I’ll have more on this collection in a later post. What I’m interested in today is the author of the one book I’ve sought after that has been the bane of my book collecting journey: Laura Goodman Salverson. Ms. Salverson is perhaps the most overlooked author in the early development, and perhaps the entire history, of Canadian literature.
Laura Goodman was born in Winnipeg on December 9, 1890. Her parents were Icelandic immigrants, Lárus Guðmundsson and Ingibjörg Guðmundsdóttir. It has been recorded that throughout her youth, her parents explored western North America with their young daughter in tow; Laura did not even learn English until the age of ten. These explorations with her parents helped steep Laura in her family’s Icelandic heritage and the history of this ancient and proud culture. In 1913, Laura married George Salverson, a railwayman.
Laura Salverson’s writings were meant to supplement the family’s income. In the writing she produced in the first part of her career, she focused on the trials, adversities and drama of the early 20th century immigrant experience, particularly in Western Canada. She lamented the loss of culture of immigrant communities in the Canadian melting pot of the time and she was highly critical of the “American Dream.” Additionally, Salverson was a staunch pacifist and very outspoken against World War I.
So why is Laura Salverson such an important figure in Canadian literature that should never have been forgotten? Three reasons:
- In 1937 she won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction for The Dark Weaver. Only the second year the award was given out, Salverson was the first woman to win the GG.
- In 1939 she won the Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction for Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter. The first woman to win in this category.
- Laura Salverson was the first person to win two Governor-General’s Awards and is still part of a very small group that has won GGs in multiple categories (a group that includes names like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, and Hugh MacLennan).
- Her first novel, The Viking Heart, was a longstanding title in the New Canadian Library (series number 116)
None of these books are still in print and they have not been in print for many years. The Viking Heart, the story of 1400 Icelandic immigrants to Manitoba and their experiences from 1876 to World War I, was taken out of print as of the third series of the New Canadian Library (late-1970s/early-1980s). The Dark Weaver, a pacifist novel about a group of Nordic immigrants to Canada who volunteer to fight for the British in WWI, seems to have only been published once in Canada, the original 1937 Ryerson Press edition, and once in Britain, the 1938 Sampson Low, Marston & Co. edition. Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter, Salverson’s autobiography which is a deeply personal record of the Nordic community’s conflict and assimilation within the English majority, was reprinted as recently as 1981 by University of Toronto Press as part of its Social History of Canada series.
Salverson’s early works can be read through a variety of lenses (her later works drifted towards traditional Nordic romances and adventures that got away from her earlier Canadian based books). She can be read to gather insight into the early 20th century immigrant experience, anti-war sentiments around the time of WWI, Western Canadian settlement, and more generally, Salverson is a woman’s voice at a time when there were few women writers making waves. That is, I should add, these works can be read that way if you are able to get your hands on the text to read.
The Viking Heart and Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter are still relatively easy to find on used book sites. Abebooks has 25 listings for Confessions ranging from $4.00 for an 80s reprint to $250.00 for a signed original copy and The Viking Heart has 15 listings ranging from $10 for a New Canadian Library edition to $80 for a signed first edition. The Dark Weaver though has gained a reputation of being the unicorn for CanLit collectors. This book is notoriously hard to find – there are no listings anywhere on the internet for a used copy and libraries will typically not lend it out due to its rarity and age of the volumes on hand. Even finding a photograph of the book is challenging. The Dark Weaver is the only GG Fiction winner I do not have on my bookshelf. Since Salverson died in 1970, her work is not in the public domain, so it is also not on any ebook sites like Project Gutenberg Canada. The only available version of the text anywhere is on the Peel’s Prairie Provinces project page of the University of Alberta’s library website; the text available is a scanned image of each page of the 1937 edition. If you are hardcore enough, like me, you can go through and download the individual TIFF image file of all 416 pages (I believe this took me about three hours). So, you can read this book, but you must put some work in for it.
Ultimately, I think Salverson is just one symptom of a greater problem in Canadian literature of important titles going out of print, but this is an article for another day. In three years, Salverson’s work will enter the public domain, so it is likely that availability will increase then. This, however, is a copout. I find the fact that some university press or academic publisher has not re-issued her most important works, in an edited ebook form at the very least, a great cultural shame. Salverson needs to take her place among the important Canadian writers of the 1930s and be held high with names like Stephen Leacock and Gwethalyn Graham.
References and Resources:
Christmas is the busiest book buying seasons of the year. The GG award announcement was actually moved to the fall many years ago to coincide with the holiday shopping rush. It’s sometimes hard finding something to buy, so literary award winners are a good place to find suggestions (at least I think so since they’re something of an academic interest of mine). This list is by no means exhaustive in any way, shape or form and is completely free of editorial commentary.
Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize: Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
Scotiabank Giller Prize: Sean Michaels, Us Conductors
Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour: Bill Conall, The Promised Land
Canada Reads: Joseph Boyden, The Orenda
Governor General’s Award for Fiction: Thomas King, The Back of the Turtle
Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction: Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection
Governor General’s Award for Poetry: Arleen Paré, Lake of Two Mountains
Governor General’s Award for Drama: Jordan Tannahill, Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays
Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature: Raziel Reid, When Everything Feels Like the Movies
Governor General’s Award for Children’s Illustration: Jillian Tamaki, This One Summer
Governor General’s Award for French to English Translation: François-Marc Gagnon, Paul-Émile Borduas: A Critical Biography
Trillium Book Award for Fiction: Hannah Moscovitch, This Is War
Trillium Book Award for Poetry: Souvankham Thammavongsa, Light
Amazon.ca First Novel Award: Wayne Grady, Emancipation Day
Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction: Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
RBC Taylor Prize: Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing: Paul Wells, The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006
Toronto Book Award: Charlotte Gray, The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country
Thomas Head Raddall Award: William Kowalski, The Hundred Hearts
J.M. Abraham Poetry Award (Atlantic Poetry Prize): Don Domanski, Bite Down Little Whisper
Griffin Poetry Prize – Canada: Anne Carson, Red Doc>
Griffin Poetry Prize – International: Brenda Hillman, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire
Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction: Sean Michaels, Us Conductors
Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction: Chantal Hébert, The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was
A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry: Sina Queyras, MxT
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
Pulitzer Prize for Drama: Annie Baker, The Flick
Pulitzer Prize for History: Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832
Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography: Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: Vijay Seshadri, 3 Sections
Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction: Dan Fagin, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation
National Book Award for Fiction: Phil Klay, Redeployment
National Book Award for Nonfiction: Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
National Book Award for Poetry: Louise Gluck, Faithful and Virtuous Night
PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction: Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Man Booker Prize: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award: Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Sound of Things Falling
Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (Orange Prize): Eimear McBride, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah Everyone!!!
This is my final post on film adaptations of Canadian literature, and it is the one I was most looking forward to. The National Film Board (NFB) is known for its amazing animated shorts; the three below, all based on Canadian literary classics, are now iconic and are a real cornerstone of Canadian cultural history. Rather than discussing them, I am simply posting them with a link to their respective NFB site – the videos will speak for themselves.
And that is the end of my six post series on CanLit on film. My point with these posts was to simply imform my readers that many great adaptations of our national literature, be it movies, TV, or shorts, have been made. I’m sure there are dozens of titles I have left off, but I’m sure I’ve introduced you to a few new ones you haven’t heard of. For the whole series of posts, click here.
There have not been a great many TV shows based on Canadian books. Here are a few that I could think of; feel free to add somemore in the comments.
I haven’t read this Douglas Coupland novel, but it is on my to-read list (I loved Microserfs, and JPod is apparently an unrelated “sequel”). This show was very funny; in a way, it is a Canadian version of The Office. The show focuses on a group of video game programmers who work in JPod – thus named because all of their surnames all begin with the letter J. This show has a great mix of intellectual, low-brow, and awkward humour. Unfortunately, the show only lasted for one-13 episode season in 2008 before it was cancelled due to low ratings by the CBC (who stuck it in the Friday night death slot). | IMDB | DVD
Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures
This is based on Vincent Lam’s fantastic Giller Prize winning short story collection. I have not yet seen this show, but from what I’ve heard, it is well written, acted, and faithful to the source. This 2010 series was produced by TMN and ran for 10 episodes. It is not yet available on DVD, but it is available on many “on-demand” services. | IMDB
Jake and the Kid
There have been a variety of TV series adaptations of this W.O. Mitchell classic over the years. In fact, prior to TV productions, the CBC produced several radio adaptations between 1949 and 1954. The first, and probably best known, adaptation was a single, 13 episode, season produced by CBC in 1961. This show contains all of the warming hallmarks of 1960s family television. There was also a longer running adaptation that debuted in 1995, but this one is so poorly done that it is not even worth discussing. None of the series are available on DVD, but likely can easily be found online. | IMDB
Emily of New Moon
Here is the second half of made-for-TV movies and miniseries based on CanLit:
The Robber Bride
This 2007 CBC adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel does an adequate job in telling this bizarre story. The movie has a decent cast, starring Mary-Louise Parker and Shawn Doyle in the leading roles. The Robber Bride hasn’t been released on DVD, but that is no great loss to civilization. If it is on TV or is streaming online somewhere it might be worth a watch, but I wouldn’t trip over myself or spend money to watch this. | Trailer | IMDB
Anne of Green Gables
This behemoth, 1985, made for TV epic of Anne with an E was a joint production between CBC and PBS. Everyone in North America has seen this and has been enchanted by Megan Follows’ portrayal of everyone’s favorite redheaded child. There were a few sequels to this miniseries, but unfortunately they didn’t measure up to the original. (Also, I just want to point out that Anne was not from the Island, she was originally from Nova Scotia – take that, tourists). | Part 1 on YouTube | IMDB | DVD
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town
In 2012, CBC adapted Stephen Leacock’s best known book into a 1 hour TV movie. I am not sure how they managed to squeeze it in. I am honestly not a huge fan of this book – I much prefer Leacock’s Literary Lapses or Nonsense Novels to this collection. I recorded this on my DVR when it first came out but returned my cable box before I bothered to watch it. It looked like it was well made and starred Gorden Pinsent (who is AWESOME), so I’m sure it was ok. If I get an Indigo or Amazon gift card and I have nothing else to buy I might order this, but honestly I have no driving urge to see it. | Commercial | IMDB | DVD
Last of the Curlews
Fred Bosworth’s short novel The Last of the Curlews is one of my all-time favorite works of Canadian literature. It is heartbreaking on many levels, extremely well written, and has a moral without being even slightly preachy. This 1972 animated adaptation was done by none other than Hannah Barbera (The Jetsons, The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, etc) and has the honour of being the first in the long running series of ABC Afterschool Specials. The animation is filled with that 1970s Saturday morning charm and is very close to the original story. My one problem with this adaptation is the narrator; he falls into the trap of being a snotty didactic preacher. But, I suppose since this is an afterschool special, whose job it was to teach, this can be excused. The whole special is on YouTube and definitely worth the watch. | Part 1 on YouTube | IMDB
Of all of the movies and miniseries I have mentioned in these last four blog posts, the 1993 CBC adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s magnum opus The Diviners is, without question, my favorite CanLit film. The casting is spot on (especially Sonja Smits in the role of Morag), the writing is phenomenal, the pacing is fantastic, and it is quite close to the book (there are a few omissions, but it is a massive novel). One of the great crimes against humanity is that this movie has not been released on DVD; it was released on VHS but is only ever available at academic libraries – and is usually in poor shape. I first saw this on Showcase in 2003 when I was getting ready to read the novel for a Canadian fiction course; it excited me so much that I ripped through the 500 page book in 3 days. In 2007, Bravo broadcast this movie and I recorded it on my DVR and then watched it at least once a month until I returned my cable box a few weeks ago. Losing this movie was one of the great heartbreaks I have suffered in my 30 years of existence. | IMDB
Coming in the next few days are posts on TV shows and animated shorts based on CanLit.
Canadian TV, especially the CBC, has produced numerous TV movies and mini-series based on Canadian writing. It would take forever to list them all, so I have chosen ten highlights (5 today and 5 tomorrow). These are adaptations that either I have seen or were very popular.
Lives of the Saints
Based on Nino Ricci’s first novel, this CTV miniseries is a very power adaptation of this Governor-General Award winning contemporary Canadian classic. The miniseries has a run time of over 3 hours, so the viewer becomes immersed in the world of this Italian family. This adaptation has a strong cast that is on top of its game, with Sophia Loren in the lead role of Teresa Innocente. It is certainly worth watching and is widely available on DVD. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
I saw this TV movie on Bravo about 3 years ago, but I think it was originally produced by CBC. This adaptation of Timothy Findley’s award winning play translated very well onto the small screen, likely because the source is a high-production value stage play. The cast is solid, it is very faithful to Findley’s book, and the movie is, above all, entertaining. | IMDB | DVD
Billy Bishop Goes to War
This 2010 TV movie was one of CBC’s best CanLit adaptations in recent years. It stars the playwrights – John Gray and Eric Peterson – and sticks to the original source script and score. The actors, while getting on in years, can still elevate Canada’s first war hero, Billy Bishop, like no one else. CBC also made an adaptation in 1982, but I have yet to see it. Unfortunately, this has not yet been released on DVD. | Trailer | IMDB
St. Urbain’s Horseman
This 2007 three hour miniseries adaptation of my favorite Mordecai Richler book is an absolute delight to watch. I bought this for myself as a Christmas present last year and have watched it at least once a month since. The casting is perfect (they all have their names above the title on the DVD box, but I haven’t heard of any of them), the pacing is spot-on, and the right amount of liberties are taken to effectively adapt this goliath of a novel for the small screen. If you have a free Saturday and feel like wrapping yourself in the warm sardonic blanket of Mordecai Richler’s wit, watch Duddy Kravitz, this movie, and Barney’s Version (and if you are lucky enough, watch Joshua Then and Now as well). Of the various Richler adaptations, I think this is my favorite. | IMDB | DVD
The Englishman’s Boy
Produced by CBC in 2008 and starring Bob Hoskins (yes, Mario himself), this mini-series adapts Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Governor-General Award winning historical novel. I forgot this existed until I started these CanLit film posts. I have ordered the DVD and will report back once I watch it (it does look quite good). | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
Here is part two of my series of posts on the various adaptations that have been made of Canadian literature. These are the final few theatrical films that I could think of; if I missed any, please feel free to comment (I intentionally excluded Water for Elephants as I have neither seen the movie nor read the book).
The Handmaid’s Tale
The 1990 Volker Schlöndorff adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was a fantastic film, in my opinion. The screenplay was written by Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter and the cast is very strong: Robert Duvall, Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, and Aidan Quinn, to name a few. The movie is very faithful to the book and it captures the themes perfectly. I strongly recommend taking this movie in. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
Field of Dreams
Most random people on the street are shocked when I walk up to them and say “hey, did you know Field of Dreams was based on a Canadian book?” And I understand their shock; it is a very surprising thing to hear. This film was based on the Canadian novel Shoeless Joe by Alberta author W. P. Kinsella and won the then named Books in Canada First Novel Award. This movie is a modern classic and I really have nothing else to add. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
The Stone Angel
This 2007 adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s first Manawaka novel, penned and directed by Kari Skogland, is an absolute masterpiece of Canadian cinema. Ellen Burstyn becomes Hagar. The film stays reasonably close to the book (the novel is a very “big” story). I was very excited when this was released and I was not disappointed. This was the third adaptation of a Margaret Laurence novel; The Fire-Dwellers is the only Manawaka novel left to be done. Even if you are not familiar with Laurence, you will love this movie. It takes the viewer on an emotional roller coaster, the characters are very well developed, and the acting is phenomenal. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
Paul Newman’s 1968 adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God is, I think, the first Hollywood film based on a Canadian book. This movie is marvelous and is one of my all-time favorites. Joanne Woodward masterfully takes on the tragically complex character of Rachel Cameron. Newman crafted a subtle, heartbreaking, and artistic film that is universal, yet very of its time. This was the first film based on a Canadian book to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (as well as Best Adapted Screenplay and for both leading and supporting actresses). | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
The Favorite Game
I saw this adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s autobiographical novel once on TMN in 2004, the year after its limited theatrical release, and have not been able to find it since. This 2003 Canadian film takes today’s award for the most obscure. I cannot find a trailer, cannot find a DVD copy for sale, and cannot find it online. The film is very well done, the acting is well done, and the spirit and themes of the original source are captured. I happened across this film by luck and, honestly, will likely never see it again. It is a pity because it was quite a good movie. If anyone knows where I could obtain a copy, please comment below. | IMDB |
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
The quintessential classic of Canadian cinema! This is one of my favorite movies. Ted Kotcheff’s 1974 film, starring a young Richard Dreyfuss, is a very faithful adaptation of the Mordecai Richler classic. This film is fast paced, hilarious, and filled with memorable characters. This is a movie that anyone will enjoy. Go watch it (it’s on Netflix). | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
Next post will discuss made-for-TV movies and mini-series based on CanLit
This is the first in what will likely be a six part series over the next two weeks on film/television adaptations that have been made of Canadian literature. This first entry is one of two posts on theatrically released films. Some are well known (The English Patient, Life of Pi), while some are unbelievably obscure. These are in no particular order, other than the order that I came across them on my book shelf.
The 2010 adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s magnum opus requires no introduction. A critical and commercial success, the film earned major award nominations; Paul Giamatti won a Golden Globe for his performance of the title character and Dustin Hoffman was widely praised for his role. This is a fantastic, five-star, film that captures the spirit of the novel and nails the book’s most memorable scenes. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
Away from Her
Perhaps one of the most heart-breaking movies I have ever seen. Sarah Polley’s 2006 adaptation of Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” received two Oscar nominations (Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay). The film takes a few liberties with the story but keeps the themes and characters intact. No matter how cold-hearted you may think you are, this story of a husband coming to terms with his wife’s Alzheimer’s will make you cry. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
Life of Pi
Ang Lee’s 2012 adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel was a huge critical success, winning four Oscars and 42 other assorted awards. I have not yet seen this, but everyone I know who has watched it told me that it was one of the most visually stunning films they have seen. This is the third movie based on a Canadian book that has been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
Angus, early in the film, says “I’ve been sober too long, Margaret; it’s kept me from thinking straight.” And so begins this tragic tale of the Cape Breton coal mines. Mort Ransen’s 1995 film is adapted from Sheldon Currie’s well-known novel The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum and casts Helena Bonham Carter in the lead role. I saw this movie many years ago and remember it as being watchable, but not great, although I know my wife really enjoyed it. Almost 10 years have passed between the time I saw the movie and finally read the book, so I can’t remember off the top of my head how faithful it was. As I was getting my links for the trailer, I saw that you can rent this on YouTube (that’s a thing now?) for $2.99 | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
The English Patient
The second film based on a Canadian book that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the only one to win the prize. Anthony Minghella wrote and directed this 1996 adaptation of the Governor General and Booker Prize winning Michael Ondaatje novel. The novel is told in a very non-linear fashion and much of the book is dedicated to getting into the heads of the various characters. This film was a huge critical and commercial success. I thought this film was ok, not great, but Minghella did a good job compressing this massive story into a 3 hour film. The book is a far more satisfying experience in this case. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD
Joshua Then and Now
This 1985 adaption, with a screenplay written by Mordecai Richler himself, has been on my list to-watch for years but it has to be one of the hardest films I’ve ever tried to find. Directed by longtime Richler friend Ted Kotcheff (who also directed Duddy Kravitz and wrote the NCL afterword to The Acrobats), this film has a strong cast, including James Woods and Alan Arkin. The novel is often seen as the most autobiographical of Richler’s novels, and, from what I’ve heard from the two people I know who have seen this, Woods takes on many of Richler’s mannerisms and idioms in his portrayal of Joshua Shapiro. As far as I can find, this movie has not been released on DVD, can only be found used on VHS on Amazon and is nowhere to be found online. Unfortunately, I don’t have a VCR anymore and my university’s library doesn’t have this title, so I guess it will be a while before I see this. | Trailer | IMDB | VHS
This is about an obscure movie as you can get. This 1981 Canadian film, directed by Claude Jutra, is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s second novel. Surfacing is one of my favorite books, certainly my favorite Atwood book. The film had a good sized budget for the time and place it was produced, $2,250,000. Unfortunately, the story didn’t translate well to film. The novel, about a group of campers on remote Canadian lake looking for one of the party’s missing father, is very psychological and difficult to capture in a dramatic fashion. It was interesting for me as a fan of the novel, but for someone watching it cold, it will likely be disappointing and quite dull. Of course, it is impossible to find, even more so than Joshua Then and Now. I saw it at my university’s library 7 years ago on a then 25 year old VHS tape (but I think they have manually copied it to a DVD since then); the only copy for sale is a VHS tape on Amazon…for $163.90 (try explaining that purchase to your wife). Don’t worry though, you really aren’t missing much. | Trailer (Cannot be found anywhere) | IMDB | VHS
The final six films in this category will be posted in the next couple days.
Someone asked me today why I blog about Canadian books. I figured I’d blog my response. Ahead you read a little bit about my love of CanLit, some history on the subject, and some thoughts on the current state of affairs.
As you may have guessed from the fact that I run this blog, Canadian literature is a passion of mine. It has been since I was 19, in 2001. My living room, with its four bookshelves, look like a professorial collection of CanLit; only 2 shelves of my 19 contain non-Canadian books, and one of those two are anthologies and textbooks from university (don’t be fooled though, I have almost 200,000 ebooks from outside our borders). I have every book that has been released by the New Canadian Library, I have the bulk of the M & S Emblem editions, I have every Governor-General Award winning novel back to 1956, every poetry and drama winner back to 1990, every Giller Prize winner and most of the nominees, and every Canada Reads contestant except for 2013 (funds have been tight with a baby on the way). I have 3 full, very large, shelves dedicated to Atlantic Canadian lit, with one shelf strictly PEI writing. In total, including Canadian ebooks, I have close to 7,500 Canadian literary works, having read about 20% to date (according to my Book Collectorz database report).
I have taken courses in Canadian prose, poetry, drama, Atlantic Canadian lit, Nova Scotian lit, PEI lit, and Quebec lit; I have studied under renowned CanLit scholars Renee Hulan and David Stains, and under award winning poets Richard Lemm, Brent MacLaine, John Smith, and George Elliott Clarke; I am somewhat of an amateur expert in Jewish Canadian literature; and I will be completing my Master’s thesis on the history and business of literary publishing on PEI and Newfoundland. Needless to say, when it comes to the niche study of Canadian literature, especially Canadian literary history, I know my stuff.
To earn my English degree, I had very specific requirements. Courses were required in Medieval, Renaissance, Shakespeare, 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, research methods, and linguistics. Anything that was not either Canadian or American lit always seemed to pose great difficulty for me – in the Fall 2012 semester, I took two English courses, Medieval lit and PEI lit; I got 92 in PEI and 68 in Medieval. The primary reason why I have trouble connecting with non-Canadian, centuries old, writing is that, other than the historical interest, I could not connect with the literature. With North American in general and specifically Canadian writing, I could envision the place and time, I knew the history, and I could see connections with the evolving Canadian and American zeitgeist.
Canadian literature also fascinated me because, unlike American literature (I’m sure many will disagree with my assertion), CanLit cannot be bulked together into one big monolithic category. There are so many subsets within the study of Canadian literature that are so disconnected on so many levels they could be from different planets: You have the study of pre-Confederation pioneer narratives (Moodie, Traill, Jameson, Hearne), Atlantic literature (MacLeod, Acorn, Halliburton), Francophone literature (Roy, Beauchemin, Aquin), Native literature (Saukamappee, King, Tomson), Jewish literature (Richler, Klein, Layton), Southern Ontario Gothic (Findley, Urquhart, Munro), and even Prairie lit (Laurence, Grove). Every region of Canada has a distinct identity, and, unlike almost every other national literature, Canadian literature has been heavily influenced by immigrant writers; some of Canada’s most widely praised authors were not born in this country – Ondaatje, Vassanji, Austin Clarke, and Sheilds are all great examples.
Like British and American literature, Canadian writing can be broken up into very distinctive periods that can be used to chart the development of Canadian cultural history. Typically, CanLit is broken up into four periods: Pre-Confederation, Confederation, Modernist/Mid-Century/”Between the Wars,” and Contemporary literature. Pre-Confederation, going back to Saukamappee, is very heavy on pioneer and immigrant narratives and really sowed the seeds of our national identity. The Confederation Period, which is usually dated from 1867 to 1914, saw the genesis of Canadian poetry and fiction with writers like the Confederation Poets, LM Montgomery, and Stephen Leacock. That multi-named mid-Century period started with the outbreak of WWI and is usually dated to the mid-1960s (the 60s marked the high-point in the development of Canadian society with Expo 67, the Maple Leaf flag, the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, student loans, and increasing military independence); this period brought us some of the giants of CanLit like MacLennan, Raddall, Ross, and, my favorite, Leonard Cohen. And Contemporary is obviously from the 60s on (but, I have this theory, that in the entire literary world, a new period starting in 1993 – with the invention of the World Wide Web – will eventually be recognized); I consider Atwood’s 1964 book The Circle Game to be the first piece of contemporary Canadian writing.
The role of Canada’s publishers in the development of our literary identity cannot be understated. Publisher McClelland and Stewart especially should be seen as the Godfather of CanLit. Publishers, with the support of the Canada Council of the Arts, played the most pivotal role in the dissemination of our writing. Unfortunately, in our current environment, I have great fears about the future of our national literature. McClelland and Stewart are now part of Random House, which is itself part of German media behemoth Bertelsmann – so there is no longer a large, national, Canadian publisher. Fortunately, there are numerous small independent publishers like Brick Books, Acorn Press, Goose Lane, Wolsak and Wynn, Coach House, and Gaspereau Press. But, these small publishers may be in jeopardy as well. What is most worrying to me as a lover of CanLit and an academic student of publishing is the dwindling financial support for these small regional publishers.
Federal and provincial governments are cutting arts funding in the name of fiscal restraint (even though the amounts are miniscule); these tiny amounts are incredibly valuable to small presses. The arts are an easy target for governments; we live in an age of cultural illiteracy. The latest Mark Wahlberg movie will likely make more money in one night than Canada’s entire independent publishing industry make this year. The general public no longer sees any value or need to fund publishers or writers; there is a common belief that we, as taxpayers, are subsidizing artists. No. We are subsidizing the arts. We as taxpayers are also subsidizing the oil industry, the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, the banking sector, defense contractors, and transportation companies. Why are these more important than the arts? Publishing employs hundreds of people across the country. Book stores employ hundreds, if not thousands, of people. These men and women, as well as the artists themselves, spend money and stimulate the economy just as much as that VIA rail train engineer you are also subsidizing. Literature is one of the cornerstones of a nation’s culture. Could you imagine living in a country without its own literature, music, art, film, etc? This terrifies me. It is not completely out-to-lunch to imagine a day when there is no government funding available to the arts. As an interesting concluding thought on this topic, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is releasing a book this fall on the history of hockey – his publisher is Simon & Schuster, one of the US’s largest presses.
Canadian literature, from Samuel Hearne and Frances Brooke to Will Ferguson and Joseph Boyden, from Vancouver and Whitehorse to Halifax and St. John’s, is a national treasure. Our literature can transport you across space and time and show the commonalities we as Canadians share. Our literature needs to be more widely read, more widely taught in schools (every level of public school English should include Canadian literature and it should be a required course for all Arts students at Canadian universities), more film and television adaptations need to be made of our writing, and, most importantly, our literary community needs to be well funded.
My final summation: All of this history, cultural richness, and national diversity are why I love reading Canadian literature. I can get first hand insight into the Quiet Revolution by reading Next Episode; I can see the early stirrings of feminism in Canada by reading Laurence’s Manawaka series; I can experience the collapse of the traditional Cape Breton way of life by digging into the stories of Alistair MacLeod; and, I can see the birth of Canadian culture by reading Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill. I am a very proud Canadian and our literature charts every single important moment in our existence.
Now that the semester is over, I hope to return to discussing books very shortly – starting with a review of Island by Alistair MacLeod in the next week. In September, my academic focus is going to be shifting full-time to the study of islands (with the end goal of earning my MA); my concentration is going to be on the arts industry of PEI, Newfoundland, and Iceland, with a focus on publishing and its interaction with commercial, political and economic forces. So, over the summer, I will be reading lots of island related books, concentrating on PEI literature (a new passion of mine). Here are some upcoming books I plan on reading and reviewing over the next couple months (some are not Canadian – don’t panic):
• I am an Islander by Patrick Ledwell
• Growing Up with Julie by Gerry Steele
• Afternoon Horses by Deirdre Kessler
• Her Teeth Were Stones by Judy Gaudet
• Causeway by Linden MacIntyre
• History of Prince Edward Island by Duncan Campbell (a late 19th century history)
• Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
• Pulling Strings by Godfrey Baldacchino
• A Geography of Islands by Stephen Royle
• … and many more, hopefully.
I have become very fascinated in the last year with the idea of literary “canons,” particularly national and regional canons within Canadian literature (potential PhD topic maybe?). As of late, in my book collecting, research for school, and both required and pleasure reading, I find myself constantly coming back to the questions “Why was this worth reading?”, “Why was this worth publishing?”, “Will this be read 50 years from now?”, “What constitutes enduring literature versus Tom Clancy-esque garbage?” (for the record, I enjoy Clancy), and finally, “Should this be part of a provincial, national, or language-wide literary canon and who gets to decide that?” My view on what makes up an English, Canadian, Atlantic or even a PEI canon has evolved.
In my years of both formally studying literature and reading for fun, I developed a way of approaching literature – which many of my undergraduate classmates disagree with when I bring it up. I see a piece of writing, be it a novel, poem, collection, play, or whatever, as the recorded intersection of a number of variables, but primarily and invariably geography, history, and psychology. Could Mordecai Richler have written Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain’s Horseman, or Barney’s Version if he hadn’t grown up in the ghettos of Montreal in the post-holocaust world? No. Would Matthew Lewis have written The Monk without the backdrop of the French Revolution and the seedy underbelly of England’s Hellfire Clubs? I would argue no. Many English professors of mine over the years have told me that “an author and their writing must be separated!” I disagree with this with every fiber of my being. Who else could have written The Diviners other than Margaret Laurence? Who else could have written Adventures of Huckleberry Finn other than Sam Clements? One of my favorite English professors, after I told her my geography-history-psychology approach, nodded approvingly and added “true, and each time we read something, we re-evaluate those things on multiple levels.” (This comment gave her extra “awesome points”).
Why have I rambled on about canons and approaches to literary analysis? I’m getting to that. In Island Studies, there are three fundamental attributes to island life: totality, intimacy, and monopoly. Small islands – small enough to produce a culture of insularity (i.e. “islandness”) – produce sociological conditions like no other geographical location on our blue rock; in turn, this produces a unique body of literature and literary culture. Islands act as a living-lab, allowing someone (me) to closely examine the interplay of geography, history, and psychology in literature. Social science methodological approaches can be applied to literature without sucking the fun out of reading. That is why I love islands and, especially, island literature.
On a closing note, consider this. A coworker recently asked me, “What do you considered good writing? [in terms of books I read]” I pondered for a moment and said, “I can’t define ‘good’ writing, but I would define ‘bad’ writing, as a book that could have been written by anyone, at any time, in any place. That kind of writing lacks a soul, and ‘soul’ is the key ingredient to good writing.”