In the midst of a busy week launching his debut, the short story collection Debris, Kevin Hardcastle found the time to put together this crackerjack list of books about endurance, each title a great complement to his own book, whose stories Tamas Dobozy describes as "like the fighters he writes about: balanced, precise, knowing exactly when and where to hit you."
In recently discussing the stories in my book, Debris, the idea of what the characters in the stories were fighting and struggling for kept coming up. In the end, I figured the fight itself, and enduring the hard things that happen in their lives, is what drives the stories. The characters endure and sometimes that is enough. Here are some other Canadian books that might share a kinship to mine in that regard, or that I simply look up to as a reader and writer.
Lost Salt Gift of Blood, by Alistair MacLeod
This is one I always mention, and for good reason. MacLeod always managed to write stories and characters that carried real hope no matter what they endured or how long. But none of it would have been so indelible without some of the finest writing ever put to paper.
No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod
An incredible sense of family loyalty and clannishness and the ability to carry weight ended up in the pages of MacLeod’s only novel as well. A Maritime epic made near-perfect by its small moments.
Siege 13, by Tamas Dobozy
If you can read a story like "The Animals of The Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945" without feeling like you’ve gone through the wars with those embattled zookeepers, without knowing a little bit about how it is to live under siege and keep going, you probably should see a doctor. This collection expertly chronicles how people move through pain and suffering over the generations and what they keep and what they leave behind. There are entire histories told here, and there is an undeniable permanence to them.
All the Broken Things, by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Another excellent Canadian book about being wounded and living with it, and the culpability of those people responsible (some closer to home than you’d like). It has fantastical elements that elevate our journey with Bo, the Vietnamese boy at the heart of the story, and a sense of longing and hope that haunts you throughout.
The Lesser Blessed, by Richard Van Camp
I read this book some years ago, at the recommendation of a friend, and it left a dent. For a writer concerned with rural settings and the lives of the marginalized and isolated, this is an essential Canadian book. It is a damn hard read at times, but so are many of the most important novels and collections. This was a community I felt in my bones, even though the things endured therein were on another level compared with the material I’ve written from. If anyone missed this book, they’ve missed a lot.
Inside, by Kenneth J. Harvey
Lately released from prison, after his wrongful conviction was overturned, Mr. Myrden heads back to his old stomping grounds in St. Johns. He tries to get clear of the damage done by all his time inside and does his best to hold it together in the day to day, to break destructive cycles in his life outside. The language really drives this novel, and, while those short declarative sentences might be too much for some readers, I am big on deliberate style and craft and would rather see short, hard sentences with a purpose than a billion pointless commas.
Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O’Neill
Often people unnecessarily divide rural and urban fiction into two sets, when the true measure they should be looking at is the way environment plays on a person, and, in much of the best work, how it informs the lives of a specific class of people. The city here, in more wearied parts of Montreal, is a wilderness that Baby travels and survives. She is intelligent and resourceful beyond her years, but she carries a lot of weight and can’t stop the world from tearing a strip out of her time and time again. Yet she keeps moving. The writing and the dialogue are pitch perfect also.
Rust and Bone, by Craig Davidson
Davidson is one of the few Canadian writers that I look to when I think of fiction that truly matters in its guts. Some of these stories are hard to look at squarely, but they are written with such confidence and skill and heart that you have to absorb them. Through all the blood and sweat and suffering in this collection, there is humour and hope, and a sense of honest sentiment that is very difficult to achieve. When people try to pigeonhole “tough guy” writing, this is a good place to send them to turn that idea on its head.
The Desperate People, by Farley Mowat
I know that there are more famous books by Mowat, many of which have had their place in fiction or, perhaps, creative non-fiction, championed or questioned. But this book struck me as entirely unsentimental, especially when compared to The People of the Deer, his initial account of the Ihalmuit people and the destruction of their way of life at the hands of various Canadian authorities.The Desperate People gives up Mowat’s interjections in favour of a bare, grim chronicle of the forces that forever changed the lands of the inland Inuit, and the resulting death and decline of the people there. This was the entry point for me into one the many historical events that shows the dark, underside of Canada and the world’s lack of attention to it. Part of the reason there are so many great Canadian writers go unheralded is because they are exploring that darkness, delivering these kinds of stories to us. Or at least they are trying. It is still a steep uphill climb, but that makes it matter all the more.
Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod
It seems right to start with MacLeod short stories, and end with MacLeod short stories, even if they aren’t by the same MacLeod. No matter. Alexander MacLeod’s short fiction collection is written with skill and has truths in there that come out subtly and with great effect. MacLeod writes the home and family life as well as anyone in this country, as in "Wonder About Parents". There is always a looming sense that all of it can be lost, and when things are lost, they linger even as they are lived through. The run through the cross-border rail tunnel, in "Miracle Mile", is thick with tension and ambition. It’s probably a good one to end with, those two boys running the dark and possibly for their lives. That stands in for a lot of what we do in life, and a lot of what good writing is and what is worth writing about.
Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 24th annual Journey Prize in 2012, and his short stories have been published in Word Riot, subTerrain, Noir Nation, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Little Fiction, The Puritan, The New Quarterly, PRISM international, EVENT, Joyland, Shenandoah, The Walrus, and The Journey Prize Stories 24 & 26. He also has short fiction forthcoming in This Magazine, and Best Canadian Stories 15.
Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, is published by Biblioasis and is in stores and available for order now. His novel, In the Cage, will also be published by Biblioasis in fall 2016.
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