Jill Sooley: Books for the Homesick Canadian
There are countless of us, expat Canadians who have moved away to other nations to live out new chapters in their lives, but who still need a good Canadian fix from time to time. Sometimes it’s the subtle things—a reference to the currency, the RCMP, a description of a familiar town or a public figure—that will fill the void. I can tell you that after nearly 14 years in New York, nothing feels as good as a down-home story. The following are all good books that stand on their own, and required reading for anyone who has ever felt the pull of home.
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery: Seeing the myriad expressions on my seven-year-old daughter’s face as I read this classic to her is the most fulfilling sense of home there is.
February by Lisa Moore: Just like every New Yorker knows of someone who perished in the twin towers, so does every Newfoundlander know someone directly affected by the Ocean Ranger tragedy. Lisa Moore tackles this defining moment by giving us the lovely Helen O’Mara—wife, mother, widow. Ultimately, Lisa Moore’s novel is a universal story of grief, the strange comfort grief provides, and one’s desire to hold on to it in all its subtle nuances. Moore is an engaging storyteller, beautifully conveying the depth of Helen’s love and loss without ever crossing the line to maudlin.
Strange Heaven by Lynn Coady: Coady’s teenage protagonist, Bridget Murphy, lands in the psych ward after giving up her baby for adoption. Sound like a good time? Lynn Coady’s dead-on description of a dysfunctional Cape Breton family will make anyone with an offbeat group of misfit relatives laugh out loud. You might even wonder if you’re somehow related. Coady’s cringe-worthy dialogue and cast of eccentric characters will not only help you make peace with all your crazy relatives, but by the end of the story, you’ll be missing them all with a longing you never imagined.
Canada by Richard Ford: Canada is better than America and everyone knows that, except Americans. So says the kindhearted Florence, a lifeline to Dell Parsons, a troubled American boy who unwittingly becomes absorbed by the gritty Western Canadian landscape in the 1950’s after his parents commit a bank robbery in North Dakota. Ford does not romanticize, rather he exposes the journey Dell makes, in which things go from bad to worse. The writing is sharp as Dell transforms from a scared adolescent to a young man who makes peace with his circumstances. By the end Dell finds his sense of home in Canada, leaving every expat Canadian to wonder why they ever left in the first place.
One Bird’s Choice by Iain Reid: Because every Canadian from a small town dreams of living in Toronto one day, and because everyone who does will ultimately revisit the wisdom of such a decision at some point. When twenty-something Iain moves back home, he is subject to parents who claim to be allergic to cell phones, have lengthy discussions about meals and trade voice mails about soap. This is not just for the Canadian living abroad, but for anyone who has left the sweetness of a small town for the big city. For anyone tempted to turn a visit home into a longer stay, Reid’s novel will remind us why it may not be the best idea. Or is it?
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott: When Clara Purdy accidently plows her car into that of a down-on-its-luck family bound for Fort McMurray, she gets saddled with three children, a crotchety old woman, and a host of other eccentric family members that move in and out of her life and home with a baffling sense of entitlement. While the young mother gets treated for cancer, the father bails, and Clara prepares for the family and the life she’s always longed for, until a devastating turn of events threatens to destroy her spirit of generosity. Endicott creates a complicated picture of family loyalty that will put readers in mind of their own extended families. For the homesick Canadian, it is Endicott’s references to all of the small towns in Western Canada that will resonate. Just for the reference to those marshmallow cookie treats we Canadians call Wagon Wheels is enough to leave anyone longing for a taste of home.
A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews: Toews’ protagonist is 16 year old Nomi Nickel, a confused Mennonite girl who bucks the system, even while remaining fiercely loyal to her straight laced father after her mother and sister abandon them. Toews takes shots at orthodox religion, small towns and troubled family members in a way that is bitingly sarcastic and funny. Anyone who grew up in a small town with a strong religious element will both laugh and wince at Nomi’s musings, and leave the book nostalgic.
Amphibian by Carla Gunn: You don’t have to be Canadian to get this novel of environmental stewardship, told through the voice of Phin, a charming child who worries excessively about the plight of the planet. But it’s the subtle clues that Gunn weaves in through her novel that will leave transplanted Canadians yearning to watch just one episode of David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things.
Seen Reading by Julie Wilson: Wilson pays such close attention to detail and her reader is granted a sneak peek into the hectic lives of Toronto’s commuters. It’s the next best thing to riding the Bloor line.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: True, this book is not Canadian and contains no mention of Canada. So why is it included? No other novel tackles the subject of homesickness more keenly than this one. The young Irish protagonist, Eilis Lacey, leaves her home and everything she knows to settle in Brooklyn in the 1950s, only to long desperately for the sights and sounds and smells of home. When news from home forces Eilis back to Ireland, she finds herself a stranger in a strange land. Toibin captures the longing and loss that comes with leaving home, and the shock that follows return to a homeland that is ever changed. This is a must for anyone who has ever felt like a foreigner lost between two different lands.
Jill Sooley grew up in Mount Pearl, NL. She enjoyed a successful career in public relations first with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and later, at a boutique PR firm in midtown Manhattan. Jill’s first novel, The Widows of Paradise Bay, was published by Breakwater Books in 2010 and has been translated into German and Italian. She currently lives and writes in Long Island, NY, with her husband and children. Her latest novel is Baggage.