Lauren Carter: Survival in CanLit

Book Cover Swarm

Lauren Carter is author of Swarm, a dystopian novel set "in a not-so-far-off future of diminished energy reserves and collapsing economies." Here, she recommends some excellent books that riff on the theme of survival. 

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Search your library catalogue or bookstore for the term survival and you’ll likely pull up a list of dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels, even though the theme of characters facing threatening external forces echoes throughout literature. When working on Swarm, a novel in which my characters navigate a disintegrating city during a future economic collapse and subsequently learn to live off the land, I read several works that spoke to this experience—both historically, in present day, and in the future. Here are a few that inspired me, along with contemporary works that add to the theme.  

Roughing It in the Bush by Susanna Moodie: This classic of early Canlit was written by an Englishwoman who immigrated to the Canadian colony in 1832 with her husband and daughter. Her descriptions of arriving at Grosse Isle, the quarantine station for cholera in the St. Laurence, and her experience attempting to make a wilderness home in a one-room log shanty are revealing of the shock and trauma survived by pioneer settlers arriving into this other “new” world. Her unsettling and often fearful relationship with the land and the dangers of homesteading (including fire) inspired Margaret Atwood’s 1970 poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie.    

A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright: In the final year of the 20th century, David Lambert propels himself deep into the new millennium using H.G. Wells’ time-travelling machine. Searching for a cure for his Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, he instead finds a largely abandoned Britain, returned to wilderness and altered irrevocably by a warming climate. In his 2004 Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, Wright posited that the human experience follows a pattern of defeat and triumph and his first novel brings us into a future where our modern-day technology and accomplishments are all but forgotten, leaving rugged survivors to navigate a new dark age.   

Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller by Jeff Rubin: Written by the former chief economist for CIBC World Markets, this non-fiction treatise argues that the era of inexpensive oil is behind us and that this could be a good thing. Presenting a primer on the connections between the global economy and cheap fossil fuels, Rubin suggests that we need to return to a way of life based more on local economies and communities than the energy-intensive way of life we’ve known for the past century or so. This is an important book to read for the sake of our own future survival.  

Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall: In 2001, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall moved into Toronto’s Tent City, a community of homeless people living in constructed shacks and tents on an empty waterfront acreage owned by Home Depot. This memoir of his time there details the circumstances and struggles of the people who called the place home for four years. Living on panhandled change and welfare cheques and usually addicted to alcohol and/or crack, his new friends reveal their fortitude and humanity. As Tent City swells, the drama rises, and when eviction day arrives, it’s impossible not to empathize with the residents’ grief at the end of a community and their panic over where to go next.  

Little Ship of Fools by Charles Wilkins: In 2009, Charlie Wilkins, a self-described “scrawny, bespectacled sexagenarian” signed up for the journey of a lifetime. Having never before rowed, he signed up to take part in the Atlantic crossing of Big Blue, a catamaran-row-boat contraption with a crew aiming to break the record for fastest crossing by oar. The result is a seven-week journey of salt sores, near starvation, a divided crew and, at times, psychological turmoil. Wilkins’ wisdom and humour shine in this memoir, a fascinating account of people choosing to put themselves in extreme conditions that challenge survival. 

Into That Darkness by Steven Price: After a powerful earthquake tears apart Victoria, B.C., survivor Arthur Lear digs out a young boy. His mother, buried with him and assumed dead, is left behind and Arthur finds himself acting as guardian to the boy. A debut novel for poet Price, this book paints a portrait of a very possible happening using stunning language and imagery. Artist Lear’s observations of the fallen city and his own efforts at survival are marked by the wisdom of his 69 years and his long-held grief over his wife’s death. Both beautiful and eerie, this book explores the desperate choices people make when pushed to their limits and the questions of faith that arise in the face of destruction.

The Strength of Bone by Lucie Will: Attempting to escape the grief of his former life, Doctor Henry Bryce travels to Blantyre, Malawi where he encounters patients struggling to survive a variety of maladies: malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, pesticide poisoning. When he travels with Nurse Iris to her home village he is pushed to the edge of hopelessness and attempts a foolish outing in a mountain wilderness he doesn’t know while Sister Iris is left to come to terms with the circumstances that formed her life. A medical doctor, Wilk has written an ambitious debut novel that explores the meaning of resilience in the midst of great loss and overwhelming disease.           

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden: “This law is the same law as in the bush. Turn fear and panic into the sharp blade of survival,” writes Joseph Boyden in his masterful debut novel. The experience of living off the land contrasts and melds with the bloody, near-apocalyptic battlefields of WWI as Xavier recalls his time spent fighting overseas where the smell of blood in the trenches reminds him of slaughtered moose. Addicted to morphine, his memories weave in and out as he journeys down the river with Niska, his auntie, who tells him stories of her own life—hard winters, killing windigos, and her rejection of residential school—as she brings him home. A deeply honest and human tale of survival on several fronts.

n-Body Problem

The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess: Not for the faint of heart, this extremely well-paced and graphically violent post-apocalyptic novel deals with the real zombie threat: how to dispose of the bodies. In a world where a billion undead block the sun thereby causing ecological and human health problems, an unnamed would-be bounty hunter struggles to survive in the face of incredible, fantastically disturbing odds. Despite harrowing plot points, Burgess’s prose is confident, poetic and even, at times, beautiful.  

Kuessipan by Naomi Fontaine (translated by David Homel): This quiet and poetic novel is a meditation on life in an Innu community in northern Quebec that moves from language loss and drug and alcohol abuse to traditional, nomadic hunts and gorgeous descriptions of the land and the village. A new mother, the narrator contemplates birth and death, writing about the high birth rate among teenage girls and the impact her grandparents had on her own life. Unnamed characters enter and leave the narration, giving a dream-like quality to the prose which focuses on sheer survival alongside the richness of tradition and the natural world. “What he knows he learned from his grandfather,” she writes. “What he knows he has been practicing since he stopped using drugs. He has made himself a new future.”   

Lauren Carter has been published in several literary journals and has been nominated for the Journey Prize. Lichen Bright, her first collection of poetry, was long-listed for the ReLit Award. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic Traveler, This Magazine, the Georgia Straight, First Nations Drum, The Writer, and Adbusters. A transplanted Ontarian, she currently lives in The Pas, Manitoba. Swarm is her first novel. More information can be found on her website laurencarter.ca.

January 9, 2014
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