We're happy to feature a recommended reading list by Susan Philpott, whose debut novel is Blown Red. Connecting our editorial focus this month on new beginnings with themes from her novel about women in crisis, she has created an excellent list of works featuring women experiencing radical change. Their stories are harrowing and inspirational, and—most important of all—make for great reading.
Every so often, I feel an overwhelming urge to change things up, to take a risk—to jump. I’ve moved from city to town and from there to the wilds of Ontario. I’ve worked as a teaching assistant, a zookeeper, a mental health professional, and a writer. New beginnings have defined my life.
When I was writing Blown Red, the story of a new recruit to a modern underground railroad that helps shuttle women away from danger, I revisited other strong female characters also experiencing radical change in their lives—either wanted or unwanted.
Here are some of my all-time favourites.
Roughing it in the Bush, by Susanna Moodie:
Like the British pioneers for whom Susanna Moodie wrote her cautionary tale about the inhospitable Canadian landscape, I’ve nurtured romantic notions of living a wild life in the bush. Luckily for me, my homestead in Northern Ontario, while remote, has running water, electricity and a good house with solid walls. This was not the case for early settlers to Canada who were sold a bill of goods about streets paved with gold, and rivers running with milk and honey. Utilizing frank prose and vivid descriptions, Susanna set the record straight in her brutally ironic memoir, detailing the harsh realities of life in Canada with honesty and a wry sense of humour.
Sisters in the Wilderness, by Charlotte Gray:
I couldn’t leave the Canadian pioneer theme without mentioning Sisters in the Wilderness, a non-fiction account of Susanna Moodie and her sister, Catherine Parr Traill, who immigrated to the Peterborough area in the early 1800’s. This well researched book gives great insight into the hardships faced by two well-educated, middle class British women—and into their radically different approaches to new beginnings. Where Susanna was judgmental and dour about her hardscrabble existence in the new world, Catherine (despite having a much harder life) took a more cheerful outlook. The result is a fascinating study on how thought patterns affect one’s entire life.
The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence:
It’s funny how one’s perspective changes as the years progress. I was a teenager when I first met the querulous Hagar Shipley, and I thought her boring old lady. I’ve re-read the book probably once/decade since then and as I accumulate my own life’s experiences, Hagar becomes ever more real and immediate. Isolated by an uncompromising pride and a stubborn self-reliance she alienates almost everyone in her life, but when she makes a break for freedom and independence at the age of ninety, I cheered her on. Vivid, evocative and moving, The Stone Angel celebrates the triumph of the human spirit.
People You’d Trust Your Life To, by Bronwen Wallace:
I discovered this collection of feminist-inspired short stories soon after their publication in 1990. I fell in love with the strong, unique voice, telling real stories about real people. Each story features the moving tale of a woman struggling to make sense of her world through the trials of birth, death, divorce, raising teenagers—issues that affect us all. Wallace devoted her short life to raising awareness about the issue of violence against women and children, and many of her stories deal with the impact of this violence with a balanced mix of tenderness and deep anger.
Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay:
A darkly witty and moving tale of an eclectic group of characters, all transplants from elsewhere, who form an unlikely group at a small radio station in Yellowknife during the summer of 1975. Although each of the characters is memorable, the intrepid Gwen Symon stuck with me. In her mid-20s, and all on her own, she drives over three thousand miles across Canada to begin her life over in Northern Canada. Lonely and awkward, Gwen fights a constant battle with self-doubt—and wins.
A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindout & Sara Corbett:
I devoured A House in the Sky in one breathless sitting. It is the haunting story, brilliantly written, of a courageous and impulsive young woman in the fight for her life. Abducted and held captive for fifteen months in Mogadishu, Somalia, Amanda Lindhout not only survived a horrific trauma, but also triumphed—with a grace, spirit and compassion that illustrate the deep reserves of the human soul.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood:
In The Handmaid’s Tale, a powerful fundamentalist group takes control of an entire society. What follows is a nightmarish exposition on one possible outcome of environmental collapse and a dystopian future. The narrator, an educated woman, now useful only for her viable ovaries, reveals the awful truth. Freedom to make her own decisions and to live as she chooses are the first casualties, control over her own body is lost. The thought of escaping via the underground femaleroad is exhilarating, even as fear and subjugation keep her rooted in place. I’ve read the book several times and always come away with the same message. In our western smugness, we believe that something this radical couldn’t happen in nice, safe Canada. We cling to that belief at our peril.
Until the Night, by Giles Blunt:
I can’t round out my list without a shout out to the mystery/thriller genre. I’ve been an avid fan of the John Cardinal mystery series since Forty Words for Sorrow burst onto the scene in 2000. I look forward to Blunt’s carefully crafted stories and I get a kick out of the northern setting of Algonquin Bay. While I like the nuanced character of John Cardinal, I love Cardinal’s sidekick, the plucky Lise Delorme. Watching her grow over the series has been a pleasure. In Until the Night, Delorme’s insecurities threaten her sense as a person and as a cop, and even her deep bond with Cardinal. Giles Blunt portrays the tribulations of a strong female character on the edge of great change with heart-breaking insight.
Still Missing, by Chevy Stevens:
Still Missing, tells the harrowing tale of a 32 year-old realtor, Annie Sullivan, who is kidnapped by a psychopath and held captive in a remote cabin for a year. Her resiliency in the face of everything that happens to her in that hellhole is incredible—as is the way she takes her fate into her own hands in order to escape. The strength she exhibits as she struggles to put her shattered life back together is inspirational. Be warned, however: once you pick this book up, you will not be able to put it down.
The Underground Railroad: The Long Journey to Freedom in Canada, by L.D. Cross:
For the young person on your list, this easy to read book chronicles the lives of black American slaves, and the hardships they faced attempting to escape to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The book details the exploits of many brave women and men who helped shuttle slaves north to the Promised Land, including escaped slave Harriet Tubman whose courage in the face of extreme danger was extraordinary. The story of Laura Smith Haviland, a Quaker from eastern Ontario who travelled frequently to the southern U.S. to help escaped slaves is equally inspiring. Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker is another excellent book on the subject for young readers, telling the story of young slave Julilly and her friend Liza, as they make their harrowing race for freedom.
Susan Philpott holds a master’s degree in both science and social work. She has worked as a university teaching assistant, zookeeper and mental health professional. The mother of three grown children, she lives in the wilds of Ontario with her husband and yellow lab. Blown Red is her first novel.
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