The Great Write North: 25

Greatest 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.

Qwiklit - Canadian Lit
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