Great Families in CanLit

Don't you love escaping into a book where brothers, sisters, moms, and dads—not to mention freaky aunties and uncs—are crazier than yours? Where they fight more, philander more, commit more crimes, get sadder, and have their hearts broken even more than than you do? The best families in literature are wonderful because they are somehow utterly familiar—but strange enough—and thus cathartic. Here are a few greats. Of course there are many more (Larry's Party anyone? Fall on Your Knees?) so we want to hear suggestions from you. Tweet us @49thShelf with the hashtag #CanLitFamilies.

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The Flying Troutmans, by Miriam Toews

“Toews’s writing is a unique collision of sadness and humour. . . . The Flying Troutmans is a dark story but it is also a never-ending series of hilarious adventures.”—Ottawa Citizen

Days after being dumped by her boyfriend Marc in Paris—"he was heading off to an ashram and said we could communicate telepathically" —Hattie hears her sister Min has been checked into a psychiatric hospital, and finds herself flying back to Winnipeg to take care of Thebes and Logan, her niece and nephew. Not knowing what else to do, she loads the kids, a cooler, and a pile of CDs into their van and they set out on a road trip in search of the children's long-lost father, Cherkis.

In part because no one has any good idea where Cherkis is, the traveling matters more than the destination. On their wayward, eventful journey down to North Dakota and beyond, the Troutmans stay at scary motels, meet helpful hippies, and try to ignore the threatening noises coming from under the hood of their van. Eleven-year-old Thebes spends her time making huge novelty cheques with arts and crafts supplies in the back, and won't wash, no matter how wild and matted her purple hair gets; she forgot to pack any clothes. Four years older, Logan carves phrases like "Fear Yourself" into the dashboard, and repeatedly disappears in the middle of the night to play basketball; he's in love, he says, with New York Times columnist Deborah Solomon. Meanwhile, Min can't be reached at the hospital, and, more than once, Hattie calls Marc in tears.

But though it might seem like an escape from crisis into chaos, this journey is also desperately necessary, a chance for an accidental family to accept, understand or at least find their way through overwhelming times. From interwoven memories and scenes from the past, we learn much more about them: how Min got so sick, why Cherkis left home, why Hattie went to Paris, and what made Thebes and Logan who they are today.

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The Opening Sky, by Joan Thomas

"The Opening Sky is a marvel. In rich, meticulously woven prose, Joan Thomas confronts the painful paradoxes at the heart of a family, and reports back on both the darkness and the light ... I loved this book."—Alissa York, award-winning author of Fauna

Liz, Aiden, and Sylvie are an urban, urbane, progressive family: Aiden's a therapist who refuses to own a car; Liz is an ambitious professional, a savvy traveler with a flair for decorating; Sylvie is a smart and political 19-year-old, fiercely independent, sensitive to hypocrisy, and crazy in love with her childhood playmate, Noah, a bright young scientist. Things seem to be going according to plan.

Then the present and the past collide in a crisis that shatters the complacency of all three. Liz and Sylvie are forced to confront a tragedy from years before, when four children went missing at an artists' retreat. In the long shadow of that event, the family is drawn to a dangerous precipice.

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One Bird's Choice, by Iain Reid

"Cross James Herriot's tales of bucolic British life with Mike Myers' comedic portrayal of his Scottish Canadian family in the film So I Married an Axe Murderer and you end up with Iain Reid's hilarious memoir One Bird's Choice."—ShelfUnbound

Meet Iain Reid: an overeducated, underemployed twenty-something who moves back in with his lovable but eccentric parents on their hobby farm. But what starts out as a temporary arrangement turns into a year-long extended stay, in which Iain finds himself fighting with the farm fowl, taking fashion advice from the elderly, fattening up on home-cooked food, and ultimately easing (perhaps a little too comfortably) into the semi-retired lifestyle. Hilarious and heartwarming, One Bird’s Choice is an endearingly funny comic memoir that bridges the divide between the Boomer and Boomerang generations.

"Cross James Herriot's tales of bucolic British life with Mike Myers' comedic portrayal of his Scottish Canadian family in the film So I Married an Axe Murderer and you end up with Iain Reid's hilarious memoir One Bird's Choice."—ShelfUnbound

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Sitting Practice, by Caroline Adderson

"This book... is not a weepy tear-jerker. Nor is it a heart-wrenching story of the human spirit overcoming adversity. Instead, it's a smart, funny look at how events can change people and relationships."—Uptown Magazine, Winnipeg

Three and a half weeks after his wedding, Ross Alexander is driving home from a tennis game with his new bride when a wayward tennis ball rolls under his feet. As his wife Iliana removes her seatbelt to retrieve the ball, a truck slams into the car, and she ends up paralyzed and in a coma.

So begins this extraordinary portrait of a fated marriage. Ross struggles with the guilt over the consequences of his wife’s paralysis and for the imagined life that is now forever lost. He turns to an exploration of Buddhist principles to ease his pain. He must also contend with his codependent twin sister, Bonnie, mother of his adored nephew, who is jealous of the other woman in her brother’s life.

Iliana must deal with her new existence as a wheelchair-bound wife, her husband’s feelings of alienation, and their aching and growing lack of intimacy.

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Sistering, by Jennifer Quist

"Quist's writing is extraordinarily strong, powerfully handled, and evidence of a rarely encountered original voice." —Adjudicators, 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award

The second novel by award-winning novelist Jennifer Quist is a black comedy of birth, death, love, marriage, mothers-in-law—and five sassy sisters. When Suzanne's role as the perfect daughter-in-law ends in a deadly accident, she panics, makes a monumentally bad decision, and upends her world. The bond with her sisters is the strongest force Suzanne knows, and it may be the one that can keep her from ruin.

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My Ghosts, by Mary Swan

“Swan writes beautifully about the interplay of chance and choice in people’s lives and the various ways that losses and joys reverberate through generations, haunting the present with all that came before and all that might have been. These are affecting stories of ordinary lives told with extraordinary clarity and grace.”—Nancy Richler, author of The Imposter Bride

In My Ghosts, with an uncanny eye for the telling detail, Mary Swan brings to vivid life a household of Scottish orphans trying to make their way in Toronto in 1879. The youngest, Clare, has rheumatic fever; the oldest brother has run away. The fate of them all rests on the responsible Ben, the irrepressible Charlie and the two middle sisters: Kez, sarcastic with big ears and a kind heart, and Nan, benignly round but with a hidden talent for larceny and mischief. Fascinating lives spool out from these siblings: a cast of indelible strivers and schemers, spinsters and unhappy spouses, star-crossed lovers and hidden adulterers, victims of war and of suicide—proof of how eventful the lives of "ordinary families" can be.

Swan leaves us with the contemporary Clare, widowed and moodily packing up her house. She isn't sure what she'll do next, and she knows nothing of her family's past. But we do: we recognize the ghosts and echoes, the genetic patterns and the losses that have shaped her as much as her own choices and heartbreaks.

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A Large Harmonium, by Sue Sorensen

"Please, let me tell you about Sue Sorensen’s A Large Harmonium, though it’s distinctly possible that I already did because I spent last week telling everyone about it, urging them to read it, this smart, hilarious book that delighted me so ... This is a wonderful novel with broad appeal. It’s absolutely the funniest and one of the best books I’ve read in ages."—Kerry Clare on her Pickle Me This blog

Janey knows she should be trying to put her academic career on the map, but how? She'll more readily poke fun at than engage in yet another overly dry and theoretical conference. And her husband and their friends simply encourage her off the serious academic path, providing anarchic ideas from Foucault-in-snowsuits to erotic poetry addressed to the harmonium collecting dust in the music department. A Large Harmonium is a sharply comical year-in-the-gloriously-unruly-life story. We follow Janey as she negotiates motherhood (“Little Max is a Roald Dahl story, I decide”); career (“the whole enterprise starts to resemble a lion-taming act without the lions”); frightful in-laws (“At breakfast, the two of them are serene and fit-looking. I never can see how people look like that in the morning”); and which literary hero her husband Hector most resembles (“Rochester! Why should I be Rochester? He's a bastard. And he has to be blinded and lose an arm or something before he can be tamed.”) Along the way, she relies on Hector, boy-wonder babysitter Rene, and even crazy unreliable friend Jam. And on Jake, the understanding minister who helps her pick her way through it all.

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Roost, by Ali Bryan

"Ali Bryan works in that magical space between hilarity and humiliation. Roost is about the family tragedies we all face, with courage and cowardice and warmth and malice. This novel is marvellous, terrible fun."—Todd Babiak, author of The Garneau Block and Come, Barbarians

Claudia, single mother of two young children, pines for her past independent life. Her ex, after all, has moved on to a new wardrobe, a new penchant for lattes—new adult friends. But in Claudia's house she's still finding bananas in the sock drawer, cigarettes taped to wrestling figures, and doodles on her MasterCard bills. Then Claudia receives the unexpected news that her mother has died.

As Claudia attempts to gain control of her life, she realizes that her fellow family members also struggle with uncertainty. Her brother's family appears picture perfect—the children always clean, the puzzles never missing pieces—but he and his wife hunger for a break from parenthood. Her father has joined a curling team and seems to be active in the community. Yet he orders product after as-seen-on-tv product for his own empty nest.

Shared through the hilarious, honest, and often poignant perspective of a single mother, Roost is the story of a woman learning about motherhood while grieving the loss of her own mother. And as she begins to mend, she's also learning that she might be able to accept her home—as it is.

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When the Saints, by Sarah Mian

"If you read one new Canadian author in 2015, make it Sarah Mian. Mian’s debut novel, When the Saints, is the kind of gem that makes other writers wish their name was on the cover."—Toronto Star

A decade after being cast off to live with strangers, Tabby Saint returns to Solace River, Nova Scotia, to find her childhood home deserted. She quickly latches on to the lonely tavern-keeper, West, who informs her that her family was run out of town. Tabby heads out to nearby Jubilant to find the fragments of her family: her addict sister, Poppy, and her two young kids; her brothers, Bird and Jackie, one crippled by a vicious attack and the other holding a dangerous grudge against the men responsible; a threadbare version of the bulletproof mother she remembers; and an ailing father, a man so vile he is unworthy of forgiveness even on his deathbed. Irreverent and mouthy as they ever were, the Saints are still a lightning rod for trouble. When a new storm arises, Tabby must choose whether to stay or run back the way she came.

Original, gut-wrenching and incessantly hilarious, When the Saints is the story of a family of outsiders whose redemption might be found in what they longed to escape: each other.

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The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy

"The Jade Peony is one of the finest works of fiction yet to break the silence that surrounds so many of the country's immigrant communities"—Macleans Magazine

Chinatown, Vancouver, in the late 1930s and 40s provides the setting for this poignant first novel, told through the vivid and intense reminiscences of the three younger children of an immigrant family. They each experience a very different childhood, depending on age and sex, as they encounter the complexities of birth and death, love and hate, kinship and otherness. Mingling with the realities of Canada and the horror of war are the magic, ghosts, paper uncles and family secrets of Poh-Poh, or Grandmother, who is the heart and pillar of the family.

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islandwalkers

The Island Walkers, by John Bemrose

“A beautiful, elegiac novel about place, family, and community. A profoundly moving book.”—Guy Vanderhaeghe

John Bemrose’s highly acclaimed national bestseller tells the story of a family who slips from fortune’s favour in a southwestern Ontario mill town during the mid-1960s. Like his father before him, Alf Walker is a fixer in the local textile mill. When a labour dispute forces him to choose between loyalty to his friends and his own advancement, Alf’s actions inadvertently set in motion a series of events that will reverberate far into the future. Meanwhile, Alf’s wife, Margaret, must reconcile her middle-class upbringing with her blue-collar reality, as her marriage is undermined by forces she cannot name. And after their eldest son, Joe, falls headlong for a girl he first glimpses on a bridge, the boy finds his world overturned by the passion and uncertainty of young love. At once intimate and epic in scope, The Island Walkers follows the Walker family to the very bottom of their night, only to confirm, in the end, life’s regenerative power.

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No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod

“You will find scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever.”—Alice Munro

Generations after their forebears went into exile, the MacDonalds still face seemingly unmitigated hardships and cruelties of life. Alexander, orphaned as a child by a horrific tragedy, has nevertheless gained some success in the world. Even his older brother, Calum, a nearly destitute alcoholic living on Toronto's skid row, has been scarred by another tragedy. But, like all his clansman, Alexander is sustained by a family history that seems to run through his veins. And through these lovingly recounted stories-wildly comic or heartbreakingly tragic-we discover the hope against hope upon which every family must sometimes rely.

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Natural Order, by Brian Francis

“Good, sharp, vivid writing.... When he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final sixty pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once.”—The Globe and Mail

Joyce Sparks has lived the whole of her 86 years in the small community of Balsden, Ontario. “There isn’t anything on earth you can’t find your own backyard,” her mother used to say, and Joyce has structured her life accordingly. Today, she occupies a bed in what she knows will be her final home, a shared room at Chestnut Park Nursing Home where she contemplates the bland streetscape through her window and tries not to be too gruff with the nurses.
 
This is not at all how Joyce expected her life to turn out. As a girl, she’d allowed herself to imagine a future of adventure in the arms of her friend Freddy Pender, whose chin bore a Kirk Douglas cleft and who danced the cha-cha divinely. Though troubled by the whispered assertions of her sister and friends that he was “fruity,” Joyce adored Freddy for all that was un-Balsden in his flamboyant ways.  When Freddy led the homecoming parade down the main street , his expertly twirled baton and outrageous white suit gleaming in the sun, Joyce fell head over heels in unrequited love.
 
Years later, after Freddy had left Balsden for an acting career in New York, Joyce married Charlie, a kind and reserved man who could hardly be less like Freddy. They married with little fanfare and she bore one son, John. Though she did love Charlie, Joyce often caught herself thinking about Freddy, buying Hollywood gossip magazines in hopes of catching a glimpse of his face. Meanwhile, she was growing increasingly alarmed about John’s preference for dolls and kitchen sets. She concealed the mounting signs that John was not a “normal” boy, even buying him a coveted doll if he promised to keep it a secret from Charlie.
 
News of Freddy finally arrived, and it was horrifying: he had killed himself, throwing himself into the sea from a cruise ship. “A mother always knows when something isn’t right with her son,” was Mrs. Pender’s steely utterance when Joyce paid her respects, cryptically alleging that Freddy’s homosexuality had led to his destruction. That night, Joyce threatened to take away John’s doll if he did not join the softball team. Convinced she had to protect John from himself, she set her small family on a narrow path bounded by secrecy and shame, which ultimately led to unimaginable loss.
 
Today, as her life ebbs away at Chestnut Park, Joyce ponders the terrible choices she made as a mother and wife and doubts that she can be forgiven, or that she deserves to be. Then a young nursing home volunteer named Timothy appears, so much like her long lost John. Might there be some grace ahead in Joyce’s life after all?

September 26, 2016
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