Hitting the Road
A literary car-trip across Canada
It’s summertime. Time to strap on the seat belts and go exploring, across all of this country’s provinces and territories. And we will need some great reading matter to help eat up the kilometres and tell us something essential about the land we are crossing. Thirteen of Canada’s best writers have volunteered to act as literary guides for a patch they’re particularly familiar with in this enormous quilt we live on, so let’s get moving. In honour of Vancouver 2010, we have decided to follow the route (more or less) of the Olympic Torch.
Robert W. Service
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold.” Those words launch “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” probably the most famous poem ever written about the Yukon. The only other contender, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” begins: “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon.” And surprise! Both rollicking, unforgettable narratives turn up in The Collected Poems of Robert Service. Let’s say you and a companion are driving from Whitehorse to Dawson City, a rough-country distance of 530 kilometres, and you decide to take turns reading to each other. Do you tackle Klondike by Pierre Berton or The Call of the Wild by Jack London? Well, maybe. But at Dawson City, you’ll ramble between Berton’s boyhood home and the log cabins of both London and Service. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to enter the magic, feel the spell of the Yukon, the only way to travel is Robert Service: “The Arctic trails have their secret tales / That would make your blood run cold…”
— Ken McGoogan
In the summer of 1927, a young Englishman followed the Mackenzie and Liard Rivers to the “strange river with the beautiful name,” the South Nahanni. A year later he returned with a partner and a dog team and overwintered in that legendary country where travellers vanished and gold lay hidden. His book is a tale told in recollection some 25 years after the fact, a classic of northern travel written by a combination Huck Finn/Robinson Crusoe/Emily Dickinson/Charles Darwin. Alone and inexperienced, Patterson paddles a “green, shadowy, driving river” of canyons, currents, rapids and falls. Then, with his partner, he builds a cabin and settles in for months of hunting, fishing, trapping, exploring and, above all, observing: “humming-birds and columbines, the bugs, the bull moose and the beaver cuttings.” What he captures, besides the overpowering impression the North makes on an eager mind, is the spirit and quality of a place “meant for loneliness and not for men.”
— Elizabeth Hay
In some ways Saqiyuq is the ultimate Arctic travel story because it involves movement through time and space. You discover Inuit life through three generations of women in the same family, two of whom I have met—Rhoda Kaukjak Katsak and Sandra Pikujak Katsak. It is quite astonishing to see the change of life over three generations. Their family comes from the northern end of Baffin Island and their life was traditionally spent between Pond Inlet on the Eastern shore and Igloolik, which is beyond the eastern side of Baffin on a small island off the Melville Peninsula. It is Igloolik that has the wonderful film-making tradition that produced Zacharias Kunuk and The Fast Runner. Apphia Agalakti Awa, the grandmother, has a story which is very much that of living on the land. I met her daughter, Rhoda, when she was the town manager of Pond Inlet. Sandra, her daughter, is now one of the graduates of the Polar Law Program. When you read Saqiyuq you understand that physical place that is called the Arctic, but you also understand the enormous and compressed journey the Inuit took in the 20th century.
— John Ralston Saul
Michael Winter’s The Architects Are Here is an elongated road trip that begins in Toronto and travels east, coming to a dramatic culmination in the physically magnificent west coast of Newfoundland. There is something extremely smart on every page, in every paragraph of this novel, and the very particular wit here, the eloquent twists of language and mastery of storytelling are distinctly Newfoundland. In Winter’s character David Twombly, there is bravado and brutishness, charm and calculation, monstrous insensitivity and near-clairvoyant intuition, a piggish, loveable seer and self-centred male who bursts off the page. The novel explores, among other things, an intimate friendship between men. Winter’s Gabriel English is the wry and worldly narrator on the road trip with Twombly, travelling back to his hometown of Corner Brook. The essence of a place must always be ineffable, inchoate and altering—but Winter captures that peculiar mix of wisdom, irreverence and tenacity, all caught up in the revving engines of story, that feels like Newfoundland to me.
— Lisa Moore
If the Quebec Citadel was the doorway to 18th-century North America, the French fortress of Louisbourg was the lock, and on June 8, 1758, in one of the most peculiar incidents in the history of the continent, three British lieutenants found the key … by accident. During a crucial attack on the rear of the fort from the sea, they misinterpreted a signal from their leader, Brigadier General James Wolfe (a wave of his hat), to withdraw and, instead, plunged onward, followed by 100 infantrymen, and made it safely to shore through a withering bombardment. It was the beginning of the end of French hegemony in the New World. This is but one anecdote in a rich history, set out with admirable authority and verve considering the time of composition (1869) by a British geographer named Richard Brown. His unique book was reprinted in 1979 by Mika Publishing Co., in Belleville, Ontario. Works of literature cannot encompass the comprehensive sweep that overcomes the fact that Nova Scotia is, in fact, an amalgamation of sub-provinces (South Shore, Valley, Cape Breton, etc.). But history is its synthesizing feature and nowhere is it better told than in Brown’s fascinating book.
— Linden MacIntyre
Prince Edward Island
The book that best gets to the heart of Prince Edward Island is a story collection entitled My Broken Hero and Other Stories (Ragweed Press, 1992) by Michael Hennessey, a storyteller, poet and playwright who used to be the registrar and secretary at the University of Prince Edward Island. The collection is divided into two parts, “Then” and “Now,” comprising stories set in the 1940s and ’90s. Hennessey’s prose adopts an easy, anecdotal tone, which captures the outward simplicity of Island life. There are also dark streaks of violence that counterpoint the portrayals of innocence, revealing the depth of an inner life in the same way that clear blue water reveals patches of red soil. Hennessey begins one story: “I watched her pinch the cross of her rosary between her thumb and forefinger and curl it down like a well-trained snake into the little leather case.” I think any newcomer to PEI would take away from these stories a sense of the complex undercurrents thrumming beneath what is widely known as the “Gentle Island.”
— Steven Mayoff
Dalton Camp, the Tory strategist, columnist and author from New Brunswick, wrote with extraordinary grace, authority and wit. As a writer, he was our Churchill. In 1970, Dalton Camp published Gentleman, Players and Politicians, the story of his coming of age in politics that is also the quintessential political history of his home province. At the heart of the book is the election of 1952, when Camp, the communications director for Tory leader Hugh John Flemming, engineered the upset of the smug Liberals and then premier John McNair. But the story begins several years before that election when a young Camp became disillusioned with the Liberal Party and sought refuge at Robertson’s Point, a summer cottage community on the shores of Grand Lake. “I hitch-hiked back to the family cottage at Robertson’s Point and quickly dived into the water,” he wrote. “The placid, mirrored surface of the lake reflected the slanting rays of a late August sun. The summer was ending, and with it, I thought, a brief career in politics. I had quit the Liberal Party.” He could never really quit politics. In fact, this moment was a beginning, of both a remarkable book and a memorable life.
— Philip Lee
In La héronnière, Lise Tremblay’s celebrated story collection, a tiny, unnamed village—sometimes believed to be in the Saguenay, sometimes l’Îles aux Grues—becomes a place of collision. While bird watchers, recreational hunters and poets arrive to drink up the summer light, villagers prepare for “la saison des étrangers,” resigned to the belief that, when outsiders come, “ces amitiés-là, ça finit toujours mal.” Year after year, the economy falters and families split. An outfitter, Marius, whose wife has abandoned him for the freedom of Montreal, finds himself cradling a gun outside the home of a summer cottager, shamed by the closed circle of lives he cannot comprehend. “Moi, je nous ai defendus,” his nephew tells him, while the mayor reiterates, “Pas de touristes, plus de village.” Tremblay’s Quebec is fierce and complex; within its borders, there is a disturbance more universal, more irreconcilable, and more profoundly human than the headlines would have us believe. Some of us take our livelihood from the soil and some of us merely bask in the land’s beauty. Tremblay has a gift for elucidating both worlds. Her prose, simply put, is masterful: a knife in the gut whose devastation hits home only when she pulls the blade out.
— Madeleine Thien
Seeing Ontario for the first time, I felt exposed, standing too tall against nature. Having grown up in northern British Columbia, I was used to measuring myself against trees whose tops disappeared in the sun. Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, set mostly in Toronto during the 1920s and ’30s, will inspire awe in the urban landscape that labourers blasted, hammered, cemented and forged. Never again can you cross the Bloor Street Viaduct without thinking of the daredevil bridge worker tethered to a pulley. You see public works and factories and in your mind is the brick maker, sheet metal and iron worker, the tanner, the dyer. When night falls, you give a thought to the “night shift workers … starting to get up. They could be seen in grey trousers and undershirts, washing at their kitchen sinks.” Yet Ondaatje holds a mirror up to us all: the daredevil bridge worker, most of his life gone by, sees “how he has been sewn into history” and that the time has come to tell stories. He starts with the nun last seen falling from the unfinished bridge and whose body was never found; to catch her, his timing had to be impeccable.
— Denise Chong
After you drive through the rocky portal of Kenora, Sandra Birdsell’s The Two-Headed Calf will be your guide to Manitoba. The author takes you to Winnipeg first—that’s where everyone goes. In the extravagant summer, the homeless wander with shopping carts and festival goers crowd the elm-lined streets of Wolseley. In grand old Assiniboine Park families play Frisbee and an aging playboy lures three teenaged girls towards his River Heights mansion. Then it’s winter, snow pellets rattle the windows, and you are rolling across the iron trestle of the Salter Bridge into the North End. Two women stand at the top of the bridge dropping frozen turkeys onto the vast railyards. Don’t ask—there is a strange amalgam of righteousness and defiance at work in this crumbling city. Everywhere the tough prairie grasses encroach like a reminder of our roots, so finally you head out to the parklands and prairies where the ghosts of Birdsell’s Cree and French and Mennonite ancestors wander, and where the old and the isolated try to make sense of change and abandonment. In its nine penetrating stories, The Two-Headed Calf confronts you with Manitoba’s two solitudes: Winnipeg and what lies outside it.
— Joan Thomas
Dianne Warren writes in the Saskatchewan voice: unassuming, laconic, steady as the grass and air, its people turning for solace, always, to the land. Even in our cities the land is omnipresent, the sky always bigger than humans can contain, the air redolent of growing things, of dust, water, ice, and carrying birdsong from chirps to croaks to the faint screams of raptors, wafting downward, broken by constant vagaries of prairie wind. Warren gives life to the unending struggle between the Old West and the New and to the primacy of the relationship network, spread out over miles, with all its nuances, which she knows intimately. She shows how the hard past has shaped the present and lends uncertainty to the future—oil, gas, uranium, movies, books, the cyclotron. She shows as well the quirky good-heartedness of the people, and their tenacity, and quietly reveals the luminous beauty of the place.
— Sharon Butala
Aritha van Herk
I have been re-reading my pick for Alberta over the past few months. I have been reading it like poetry—flipping through and stopping when a line, or a name, or a word popped off the page. This book stands up as a brilliant exploration of the heart of a province. It is an unapologetic and beautiful love letter to Canada and the world, from Alberta. In fact, Mavericks is a beautifully written invitation to understanding. Aritha van Herk had me in her introduction, where she admits her resignation to telling the story of the province from her own “idiosyncratic and biased point of view,” and she held me breathless in that first chapter (Aggravating, Awful, Awkward, Awesome Alberta). I know! Breathless! History that does not read like history! Mavericks is a bold and wonderful rant that comes as close as I’ve ever read, or heard, to capturing the spirit of a province from its earliest life forms to its current irascible occupants. If all history books were written by non-historians who loved “story” this much, I would read a lot more history.
— Thomas Trofimuk
For me the novel that most encapsulates the trickster magic of the British Columbia spirit and elevates it to the level of always-relevant literature is The Invention of The World by Jack Hodgins. The history of B.C. often reads like a magic realist tale without any need for embellishment, and what makes Hodgins’s wildly fantastical novel so funny is its believability. It is a forest of a story, dramatic as a stampede in its action, touching and spiritual in its depiction of love, with an earthy sentiment toward death, and written in expressive, loving, celebratory language that is more than capable of depicting the wild country grammar of its many locations. The Invention of The World is a book about B.C., but also about the bigger ideas of heaven and earth, earning a living, human nature and the supernatural. It is a portrait of the B.C. way of being and one awesome read.
— Lee Henderson