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Karen Hofmann: Barefoot Girls and Wild Women

Canadian books with female characters who break the rules, ignore decorum, sin, err, shoot at people, take off their shoes in public, love who they shouldn’t, and otherwise transgress.

Book Cover After Alice

Karen Hofmann's first novel is After Alice, which author Angie Abdou has calledun "a rich novel with big heart.” In this list, she recommends wild Canadian heroines who have much in common with the fascinating female characters in her book. 


This is a list of Canadian books with female characters who break the rules, ignore decorum, sin, err, shoot at people, take off their shoes in public, love who they shouldn’t, and otherwise transgress. These unconventional woman are also associated with the landscape—not in the classic sense of fertility and cultivation, but in their ability to discover or rediscover and draw on their inherent, individual, untrammelled selves.

Book Cover Swamp Angel

Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson

Maggie Lloyd has had more than her share of sadness and loss. One day she puts down a dish she is drying and walks out the back door, away from her sour, narrow, controlling husband, Eddie, and takes a job in a rugged resort at Three Loons Lake (reputed to be an alias for Lac le Jeune, near Kamloops, in BC’s Interior). Both Maggie, who is unconventional, self-aware, and intelligent, and her wilder friend Nell (the owner of the pearl-handled revolver the book is called after) show toughness and guts and unusual survival instincts, as well as the power of friendship between women.

Book Cover Desert of the Heart

Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule

This novel was among the first to explore a lesbian relationship, outside of pulp (not that there’s anything wrong with that) fiction. The novel is set in the 1950s; the protagonist, Evelyn, an academic, in Nevada waiting out the residency period to obtain a “quickie” divorce, falls in love with a younger woman. As with other of Rule’s work, the novel portrays the lesbian couple as “ordinary”—but the characters struggle with conformity and individuality just in the exploration of their sexuality and roles. A film version of the novel, Desert Hearts, released in 1985, starred Helen Shaver.

Book Cover Bear

Bear by Marian Engel

I found this novella while doing research for a poem sequence I’m working on, about a bear in my neighbourhood. Engel’s protagonist, Lou, retreats from her job (sorting through the detritus of other lives and historical constructs), her relationships, and her social connections to live on an island with a semi-tame bear. The bear is both literal and metaphorical, comforting and shocking, vulnerable and violent, a companion of both body and spirit as the protagonist explores her own raw psyche and sexuality.

Book Cover The Progress of Love

The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

Is it permissible to choose a book by Alice Munro that is not her latest book as a favourite? To me The Progress of Love is Munro at her peak: the stories ripple with the uncanny: they explore, as do most of Munro’s work, the way we create our versions of reality through the stories and the language we use, but in this collection Munro really pushes the edges of reason, the borders of propriety and taste, with more bravado than usual. The women in these stories go about their loves following their own often impractically skewed moral compasses, and Munro’s close observation and detached treatment of their stories honours the quirks and fits of the individual. My favourite story is “A Queer Streak”: the characters in it can’t be contained, though society tries. They suffer suspicion, social banishment, isolation, disenfranchisement from the world of politeness and wealth, but their individuality bursts through with the devastation of dammed water. The progress that love has made, Munro seems to say, is from the stemming up of society of what is most human to the sometimes frightening freedom of acceptance.

Book Cover We So Seldom Look on Love

We So Seldom Look on Love by Barbara Gowdy:

Necrophilia. Need I say more? In the title story, the basis for the film Kissed, lovers challenge the ordinary boundaries of arousal, as does the female protagonists of the selections “Sylvie,” “Ninety-Three Million Miles Away,” and “Flesh of my Flesh.” Gowdy explores the extraordinary, the taboo, the repulsive in life by looking at it with calmness and objectivity. This is a kind of freedom, she seems to say: to unplug the imagination from the social constructs that seek to limit and define. Gowdy’s novel, The White Bone, with its visionary pachyderm heroine, Mud, would also fit in this list of books with unconventional heroines who are connected to the landscape.

Book Cover Bad Imaginings

Bad Imaginings by Caroline Adderson

This collection of short fiction, published when Adderson was still in her twenties, won the Ethel Wilson prize for fiction and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. It’s a brilliant collection, exploring characters from such a variety of lives in such vivid and convincing detail that I felt, reading it, that the author must be channelling them. “The Chmarnyk,” which has been widely anthologized, is my favourite: its heroine, a young Ukrainian immigrant in the Palliser Triangle during the Great Depression, observes and aids the spit and spark of her brother’s madness with a sensibility that is both bare-bones, stripped to a 1930s prairie mentality we associate with Sinclair Lewis, and rooted in deep, rich, wild Galician myth.

Book Cover Cure for Death by Lightning

The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson Dargatz

This novel, which won the Ethel Wilson Prize and was shortlisted for a Giller, uses magic realism and a vivid, immediate voice to tell the story of fifteen-year-old Beth Weeks, growing up in the Turtle Valley area of the Shuswap in the 1940s. Recipes and cures are combined with accounts of madness, violence, taboo relationships, and the uncanny. Beth’s connection to the landscape and her fearlessness give her what it takes to tough things out. The novel’s fresh and individual take on the legacy of war and other forms of colonialism and dislocation gives it a philosophical depth that balances the quirkiness and the tightness of Beth’s world very effectively. Beth, at the novel’s end, finds her own cure in the free expression of her own fierce will and sense of self.

Book Cover the woman who gave birth to rabbits

The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue

In one of Emma Donoghue’s short stories in this collection, a character justifies her admiration of her female companion: “Because nothing quells her. When she heard that Ruskin called her a clattering saucepan, she roared, “The better to boil his head down to size!” The same character confides “I wish we were in Wales. It is easier to exist in a state of nature there.” Donoghue has used obscure historical references as inspiration for these 17 short fiction pieces, all of which cast the subjection of women by social, medical, and financial means in the context of the subversion of nature, and are presented in no-holds-barred, boisterous, liberal narratives. This is one of the most entertaining, funny, and liberating collections I’ve ever read.

Book Cover I'll Tell You a secret

I’ll Tell You a Secret by Anne Coleman

In her memoir, which is as acutely written and tautly structured as a good work of fiction, Coleman recounts the story of her friendship with the great Canadian writer, Hugh MacLennan, from the time she was 14 to about 21. Coleman explores a nuanced, confusing, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t attraction between the young woman she was and the famous (and domestically troubled) older man. Coleman’s depiction of herself as a headstrong, intelligent, daydreaming girl suspended in a summer world of lake water and fluid social boundaries inspired me to write about an adolescent girl in lake country, but is a portrait that will be recognized by many women.

Book Cover Alligator

Alligator by Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore’s first novel won a Commonwealth Writers Prize and was a Globe and Mail Book of the Year. Two original heroines: teenaged Colleen, who’s looking for more significance than the respectable but constrained St. John’s life in which her mother and others try to hold her safe, and her middle-aged aunt, a passionate filmmaker who will give everything she has to her art. The alligator of the title appears in both animal and human form throughout the novel, in male power figures who are more ugly and dangerous than they first appear, or, sometimes, less. Finding the way between the sometimes benevolent, more often corrupt and malevolent figures of experience hones Colleen’s sense of the world. She must learn to really see, to trust her intuition, to replace blindness with deep attention. Madeleine’s passion grips and holds her in its curved teeth, but is animal, amoral: it is what it is, its own magnificent, lethal reptilian self.


About After AliceAfter retiring from the heady world of academia, Sidonie von Täler has returned to the small Okanagan Valley town she escaped in her youth for the lights of the big city. The family orchard has since gone to seed, and even decades later Sidonie still finds herself living in the shadow of her deceased older sister Alice.As she gets down to work sifting through the detritus of her family’s legacy, Sidonie is haunted by memories of trauma and triumph in equal measure, and must find a way to reconcile her past and present while reconnecting with the family members she has left.Karen Hofmann’s debut novel blends a poetic sensibility with issues of land stewardship, social stratification and colonialism, painting the geological and historical landscape of the Okanagan in vivid and varied colours.

Karen Hofmann lives in Kamloops, BC. She has been published in ArcPrairie FireThe Malahat Review, and The Fiddlehead. Her book Water Strider was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Prize at the 2009 BC Book Awards, and her story “The Burgess Shale” was shortlisted for the 2012 CBC Short Fiction Contest. After Alice is her first novel.

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