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CanLit Gets Name Therapy

Duana Taha's new book, The Name Therapist, inspires us to come up with a list of the most storied names in Canadian stories.

Book Cover The Name Therapist

For years, Duana Taha has made a reputation for herself as resident Name Therapist at Lainey Gossip, addressing readers' questions and concerns around the politics and practicalities of naming. And now with The Name Therapist: How Growing Up With My Odd Name Taught Me Everything You Need to Know About Yours, Taha brings together all she's learned about names, what they mean, and how they affect the lives and experiences of those who bear them. It's fascinating reading and makes so clear that every name has story...

...which inspired us to come up with a list of the most storied names in Canadian stories. 


Book Cover Anne of Green Gables

Anne Shirley: Lucy Maud Montgomery clearly had a thing for names herself, just like her best known character, Anne-with-an-E who spent her early years wanting to be called "Cordelia." Montgomery knew as well as Anne herself what goodness could be conjured with a name like "Diana Berry." In later books in the series, Anne would give all her children deeply meaningful names from her own family, in particular her youngest children, Rilla, short for "Marilla" after Anne's adoptive mother.

Montgomery's other books are rich with characters for whom names are destinies: the controversially named title character from Magic for Marigold (whose father had been called Leander); the sadly monikered "Doss" from The Blue Castle who is reborn when she assumes her real first name, Valancy; and really, who else could she have been but Emily Byrd Starr


Book Cover Booky

Beatrice "Booky" Thomson: Bernice Thurman Hunter was another writer with an affinity for naming. "Booky" was the pet-name Beatrice Thomson's mother gave her throughout her hardscrabble childhood growing up in Toronto during the Great Depression. And no matter how clearly the text delineated that it was pronounced "Boo-key" (rhymes with "spooky"), I refused to believe it doesn't rhyme with "cookie." Names are also a preoccupation in Hunter's "Margaret" trilogy, in which Margaret (who is called Peg at home) is sent to the country to live with her namesake Aunt Marg while she recovers from tuberculosis, and it is here where she begins to be called "Maggie," taking full advantage of the many diminutives possible with a name like Margaret (though nowhere in the trilogy is she called the inexplicable Margaret nickname, "Daisy").  


Fifth Business

Dunstan Ramsay: Robertson Davies never named anyone lightly. What kind of a person would call a child "Dunstable"? And could a person called "Percy Boyd Staunton" be anybody other than who he is? Both characters change their names too, Percy Boyd becoming the playboy "Boy Staunton," and Dunstable reborn as "Dunstan," a name bestowed on him by an English army hospital nurse during World War One for a ninth century saint known for cunningly defeating the devil. 


Book Cover The Stone Diaries

Daisy Stone Goodwill: It's clear to any reader of any of her novels that Carol Shields took a real delight in naming her characters, celebrating those names both ordinary and extraordinary, the way she did with everything in her writing. Daisy is the child of Mercy Stone and Cuyler Goodwill, her first name given by neighbour Clarentine Flett who assumes care for the baby after the death of her mother in childhood. And eventually Daisy would grow up and marry Clarentine's son, Barker Flett (but not until after her unfortunate first marriage to the aptly named Harold Hoad). Daisy would give her own children less remarkable names—Alice, Warren and Joan, and so we move through the family tree that opens the novel, each generation appropriately named, her grandchildren Judith and Rachel born in the 1970s, although Judith's own son is incongruously named "Mordicai," born in 1991. Although two of my very favourite names from The Stone Diaries involve Daisy's lifelong friends, Elfreda "Fraidy" Hoyt and Labina "Beans" Anthony. 


Book Cover The Robber Bride

Tony, Roz, Charis and Zenia: Margaret Atwood also puts a lot of stock in naming, and the names of the characters from The Robber Bride are some of her most iconic creations. For has there ever been any other Zenia? Her name ("Tony doesn't know Zenia's name yet, but Zenia doesn't seem to need a name...") is the one constant in this book of characters whose own names and selves metamorphosize: Tony from Antonia, and she marries Stew whose name she (nearly) reverses to create "West"; before she was the exotic "Charis," she'd been less remarkably "Karen"; and once upon a time, Roz Grunwald had been "Rosalind Greenwood," who'd attended Catholic school with no idea that she was actually Jewish after all. It seems that name, perhaps, is destiny, and there are some of us who can change ours over and over again. 


Book Cover On the Shores of Darkness

Harriet Baggs: "What kind of a name is Harriet anyway? I mean, it's, like, an old lady name," Cordelia Strube has a character ask the protagonist of her latest novel, On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light. 11-year-old Harriet is named after her estranged wealthy grandmother, her parents hoping that the name might lead the grandmother to forgive them for eloping. It doesn't work, but what it does do is serve to distinguish Harriet from her peers and the people around her. There is only one Harriet. Except that there isn't, of course, because Harriet has a literary forbearer, the title character of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy whose indomitable spirit infuses Strube's creation. 


All My Puny Sorrows

Elf and Yoli: Two of CanLit's most memorable sisters, Elfrieda and Yolondi's names are part of their complicated, beautiful cultural inheritance, just like their respective personalities. Their names are essential to their singularity as characters—it's hard to imagine this as a story about Barbara and Linda—and their nicknames represent their intimacy, how they're both so well known to and a part of one another that names are merely stand-ins for something unnameable and so much more. 


Monkey Beach

Lisa Marie Hill: She was named after the daughter of Elvis, who was born into her own complicated inheritance, and the protagonist of Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach doesn't have it any easier. The story begins shortly after Lisa's brother Jimmy has gone missing at sea, and she waits for news of him, she recalls characters from the spirit world who have guided her and Jimmy both through difficult times before. 


Book Cover The Diviners

Morag Gunn and Hagar Shipley: Margaret Lawrence's characters are always meaningfully named, and these meanings come to inform their own senses of themselves, as well as how we understand them.  For Morag Gunn in The Diviners, her name is the most tangible part of her Scottish cultural heritage (and much of the meaning in this has been created by her foster-father, a prolific storyteller). It is a solid, un-moveable name with plenty of ballast that comes to stand for the strength of its bearer. Much of The Stone Angel is allegorical to The Book of Genesis, which means that Hagar Shipley carries with her connections to the biblical Hagar (and her husband Bram to the biblical Abraham).

The force of these names is enormously important. Laurence's other protagonists, Stacey Cameron and Vanessa MacLeod, carry more delicate and conventional names (although the former is fascinatingly anachronistic for a woman who comes of age in the 1950s), which inform their more conventional experiences. Laurence's novel, A Jest of God, is about Rachel Cameron, Stacey's sister, whose name, like Hagar's, carries biblical connections. Her name was made front and centre when the novel was translated into the 1966 film titled Rachel, Rachel


Book Cover The Love Monster

Margaret H. Atwood: As perhaps the most audacious act in all of Canadian literature, her name is Margaret Atwood. Margaret H. Atwood, no relation. She’s the protagonist of Missy Marston’s award-winning novel The Love Monster. And her name is Margaret Atwood entirely by accident–her own mother, Rose, had never heard of the literary icon when Margaret H. was christened. There is no meaning to the connection, which is barely even a connection. In this, I suppose, Marston is casting light upon the shadow in which Canadian authors pen their books, putting the name out there because readers are thinking it anyway, or a name that’s something like it. Here is an iconoclast then, this Margaret Atwood, who’s just been left by a cheating husband, has psoriasis, and works in a dreadful office she calls The Button Factory. (Plus there are aliens. This book is so fantastic.) 


Book Cover Desperately Seeking Susans

Susan: There is something about Susan. Or at least poet Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang thought so when she realized just how many Canadian poets were called Susan, or Suzanne, or Sue, and all the other possibilities. And so from that revelation, Desperately Seeking Susans was born, which “brings together Canada’s most eminent Susans… paired with Canada’s emerging Susans.” Susan Elmslie, Sue Goyette, Susan Holbrook, Susan Glickman, Susan Olding, Susan Musgrave, and more. Plus the epigraph is a poem by Lorna Crozier called "Susan," and the back cover copy includes a blurb by Susan Swan. 


Book Cover Malarky

Philomena: I learned more than a few things from reading The Name Therapist, and one was that sometimes the absence of a name is a story in itself, which is certainly true in the case of Anakana Schofield's first novel, Malarky, whose main character is most often called "Our Woman," her actual self nearly effaced, hard to reach. But discerning readers will remember that her given name was Philomena, which turns out to be the second name of Duana Taha's Irish mother, Mary Philomena (who was only ever called Maureen, but that is a whole other kettle of fish). And another thing I learned from reading The Name Therapist is that Philomena was a Catholic saint whose veneration was withdrawn by the Catholic church in 1961, which might shed some light (no pun intended, although the name does mean "daughter of light") on Our Woman's situation and her own personal exile. 


Book Cover Kay's Lucky Coin Variety

Yu-Rhee Hwang:In Ann Y.K. Choi's debut novel, Kay's Lucky Coin Variety, readers learn soon into the book that Korean names are incredibly important. Yu-Rhee Hwang explains how she was not named until weeks after her birth, "as my grandfather consulted with ancestral spirits over the right name." Her mother tells her, "Names must be treated as sacred. Your reputation will one day be built on it." And then when the family immigrates to Canada, they are told that it is school board policy that the children be given new names: "It will help them fit in. Their teachers will never be able to say a name like this." And this is how Yu-Rhee becomes Mary, an essential part of herself lost to her forever after that. 


Book Cover The Antagonist

Rank: You get a sense of why someone might take on a nickname like "Rank," particularly if he's broad and tall like the protagonist (antagonist) of Lynn Coady's The Antagonist. The name suggests hierarchy, and clearly Rank is at the top of it. Which means that probably no one will bother him too much for having a name synonymous with wretched odour. Interestingly, Rank's full name is Gordon Rankin, which is so profoundly Canadian (Lightfoot, Korman, Downie, Pinsent, Howe) that the Barenaked Ladies called their 1992 album after it. It is also the name that Taha is perhaps hardest on in her book: "...because who dreams, for instance, about loving a Gord?" she asks on page 249. Earlier in The Name Therapist, she speculates that there is possibly no one outside of Canada who is called Gord, save for Gordon from Sesame Street, and maybe he's even Canadian. 


Book Cover The Book of Negroes

Aminata Diallo: The narrator of Lawrence Hill's blockbuster novel The Book of Negroes is so vividly invoked by Hill's narrative and prose that it seems impossible that she could be a fictional creation. But she was, although Hill reveals that she shares her name with his eldest daughter. In regions where Hill's chosen title is seen as controversial (even though "The Book of Negroes" itself—a historical document from which Hill's novel is inspired—is not fictional), the novel appears as Someone Knows My Name, and in French it's published under the title, Aminata


Book Cover Birdie

Bernice "Birdie" Meetoos: Names factor big in Tracey Lindberg's bestselling novel, Birdie. She's surrounded by Lola, her Aunt Val (short for Valene) and her cousin, Skinny Freda. "Birdie" seems like an unlikely name for the large Bernice, but the name embodies her spirit, which is what saves her in her crisis, and allows her to fly outside her body and her history to heal from what being in the world has done to her. In a Q&A at the end of the novel, Lindberg shares that she chose Bernice's surname, "Meetoos," from a variety of family names that had resonated with her, and only later did she learn from an Elder that the word means "tree," connecting with the "tree of life" thread that runs throughout the novel. 

Which corresponds with another thing that Duana Taha demonstrates in The Name Therapist: that all the while giving a name seems like shaping a destiny, a name itself will sometimes have a destiny of its own.

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