The 13 Worst Holidays in Canadian Literature

If you've been away on holiday this summer, you might find some of your story in these unfortunate adventures—but hopefully not too much. And if you haven't been able to go anywhere, you can pick up these books to glad you didn't. 

*****

The Bear, by Claire Cameron

About the book: Told in a voice reminiscent of Room, this nail-biting tale of psychological suspense shows two small children fighting for survival in the wilderness after a terrifying bear attack.  

The black dog is not scratching. He goes back to his sniffing and huffing and then he starts cracking his bone. Stick and I are huddled tight. . . . It is dark and no Daddy or Mommy and after a while I watch the lids of my eyes close down like jaws.

Told from the point of view of a six-year-old child, The Bear is the story of Anna and her little brother, Stick—two young children forced to fend for themselves in Algonquin Park after a black bear attacks their parents. A gripping and mesmerizing exploration of the child psyche, this is a survival story unlike any other, one that asks what it takes to survive in the wilderness and what happens when predation comes from within.

What goes wrong: If you're making a list of what NOT to pack on your next family camping excursion, a homicidal black bear should probably top the list. Unfathomable, brutal, heartrending etc., but this novel still managed to be an international sensation and was nominated for the Baileys Prize in 2014. 

*

The Troop, by Nick Cutter

About the book: Once every year, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a weekend camping trip—a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story around a roaring bonfire. But when an unexpected intruder stumbles upon their campsite—shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry—Tim and the boys are exposed to something far more frightening than any tale of terror. The human carrier of a bioengineered nightmare. A horror that spreads faster than fear. A harrowing struggle for survival with no escape from the elements, the infected…or one another.

Part Lord of the Flies, part 28 Days Later—and all-consuming—this tightly written, edge-of-your-seat thriller takes you deep into the heart of darkness, where fear feeds on sanity…and terror hungers for more.

What goes wrong: EVERYTHING! In general, when your summer getaway starts being compared to Lord of the Flies AND 28 Days Later, it's time to go home. Check out our interview with Nick Cutter from 2014

*

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning

About the book: I woke up with Moses Henry’s boot holding open my jaw and my right eye was looking into his gun barrel. I heard the slow words, “Take. It. Back.” I know one thing about Moses Henry; he means business when he means business. I took it back and for the last eight months I have not uttered Annie Mukluk’s name.

In strolls Annie Mukluk in all her mukiness glory. Tonight she has gone traditional. Her long black hair is wrapped in intu’dlit braids. Only my mom still does that. She’s got mukluks, real mukluks on and she’s wearing the old-style caribou parka. It must be something her grandma gave her. No one makes that anymore. She’s got the faint black eyeliner showing off those brown eyes and to top off her face she’s put pretend face tattooing on. We all know it’ll wash out tomorrow. 

— from "Annie Muktuk"

When Sedna feels the urge, she reaches out from the Land of the Dead to where Kakoot waits in hospital to depart from the Land of the Living. What ensues is a struggle for life and death and identity. In “Kakoot” and throughout this audacious collection of short stories, Norma Dunning makes the interplay between contemporary realities and experiences and Inuit cosmology seem deceptively easy. The stories are raucous and funny and resonate with raw honesty. Each eye-opening narrative twist in Annie Muktuk and Other Stories challenges readers’ perceptions of who Inuit people are.

What goes wrong: This whole collection is fantastic, but the story with the bad trip is "Husky, inspired by the life of trapper and HBC Factor "Husky" Harris whose visit to Winnipeg with his three Inuit wives, Tetuk, Alaq and Keenaq, is written about in history books. In the story, naturally, the group and their children make an impression at their hotel, and the racism of hotel staff leads to a fight that lands Husky in the hospital. The violence doesn't end there and the women are further victimized—but then they enact the most beautiful justice. 

*

Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Adderson

About the book: Ellen McGinty: sexy, impulsive, loud-mouthed, chock full of regrets. In middle age she sells the house she raised her daughters in, slips off the shell of her old life, and steps out for a first, tentative foray into real contentment—directly into the path of a man twenty years her junior. Her story explodes into multiple points of view. Through the eyes of her lover, Matt, her ex-husband, Larry, her two daughters (one a former addict), her grandson, and her friends, we watch Ellen negotiate her tumultuous life as the pieces of who she is finally come together. In its entirety, Ellen in Pieces explores love in its varied forms, the nature of regret (and the possibility of recovery from it), and that greatest human test, mortality.

Exquisitely written, absorbing and intelligent, this new novel by Caroline Adderson shows her at the top of her form. Ellen in Pieces is a deeply affecting story, an emotional mirror for all our lives.

What goes wrong: Well, to be honest, every holiday goes a little wrong for Ellen. But the chapter we're talking about her is “Ellen-Celine, Celine-Ellen,” in which Ellen travels to Europe with her friend with whom she shares a complicated history. There is too much hiking, no-fun Celine is sanctimonious and doesn't eat while Ellen gorges on croissants, and then they both end up being wooed by the same man and it all gets very tangled. 

*

Almost There, by Curtis Gillespie

About the book: We all have memories of family vacations: the cross-country marathon drive, the camping trip, a couple lazy weeks at the lake, a helter-skelter month in Europe, four days in Disneyland. The variations may be endless, but the common denominator is that there are always stories to tell. 

The family vacation, with all its funny, sad, relaxing, stressful, frustrating, and exhilarating moments, shapes us, and helps us create an understanding of who we are and of those we travel with. In his humourous new book, Almost There, award-winning writer Curtis Gillespie explores the meaning of our family vacations, the memories created by them, and how we use these memories to define our relationship with our families and ourselves. 

Using his own history of family vacations as a backdrop, Gillespie explores how the meaning and symbolism of the family vacation has shifted throughout the decades. For years, families drove across the country or relaxed at a lakeside cottage. Now even the middle-class travel with their nannies or go on a Disney cruise … or take their nannies with them on a Disney cruise. As he sifts through memories and explores family vacation history, Gillespie ultimately discovers that not only is how we choose to vacation an expression of who we are as individual families, but that the very nature of the family vacation reflects, and sometimes even predicts, societal change. 

The family vacation is something we all share; the laughter, the tears, the moments, the memories. In Almost There, Curtis Gillespie reminds us how important these moments in our lives are, and how important they will continue to be.

What goes wrong: I've never forgotten one extraordinary moment in this great blend of non-fiction and memoir, and it's a moment from one of Gillespie's family vacations when he was a child. The station wagon is all packed for a long cross-continental drive, and there is this incredible box of comic books to entertain the children on the way and it's going to save them from the boredom of the journey. No box of anything has ever been more sacred. And then not just after their departure, one of the kids gets sick and proceeds to vomit profusely into the box of comic books, and that was the end of that. 

*

Don't I Know You?, by Marni Jackson

About the book: What if some of the artists we feel as if we know—Meryl Streep, Neil Young, Bill Murray—turned up in the course of our daily lives?

This is what happens to Rose McEwan, an ordinary woman who keeps having strange encounters with famous people. In this engrossing, original novel-in-stories, we follow her life from age 17, when she takes a summer writing course led by a young John Updike, through her first heartbreak (witnessed by Joni Mitchell) on the island of Crete, through her marriage, divorce, and a canoe trip with Taylor Swift, Leonard Cohen and Karl Ove Knausgaard. (Yes, read on.)

With wit and insight, Marni Jackson takes a world obsessed with celebrity and turns it on its head. In Don't I Know You?, she shows us how fame is just another form of fiction, and how, in the end, the daily dramas of an ordinary woman’s life can be as captivating and poignant as any luminary tell-all.

What goes wrong: This book is rich with the incredible and sometimes painful revelations that come with awkward journeys—Rose might make a fine companion for Adderson's Ellen, actually. But here I will pinpoint the chapter "Bob Dylan Goes Tubing," in which actually Bob Dylan ("a pale little guy with a pencil moustache, in a Tilley hat") shows up at the cottage...and doesn't leave. It starts off okay, but then they realize that he's eating all their food and infringing upon their privacy ("Eric and I had to make love like hostages, scarcely moving..."). He also cheats at Scrabble. THE WORST. 

*

Not Being on a Boat, by Esme Claire Keith

About the book: Rutledge, an aging, divorced man, has treated himself to a Cruise on the Mariola. The Cruise is not just any cruise. It’s the whole shebang. It's around the world. It’s a lifestyle change: G & Ts and tuxedos and cigars and cognac galore. The service is top-rate. And Rutledge’s steward, Raoul, is a good kid.

But then a day trip to a Caribbean port ends in commotion. Some people don’t make it back onto the ship. Rutledge, nonplussed, makes use of the vacant machines in the Fitness Room and the unoccupied loungers on deck. But soon, crew members seem few and far between, and the menu in the Captain’s Mess significantly diminished. Rutledge gets the feeling that something is amiss. And that’s just unacceptable.

Welcome aboard Esme Keith’s debut dystopic novel, a cunning parody of modern day luxury and the coveted “all-inclusive” vacation, from the refreshingly blunt point of view of a man unable to see beyond his own needs, with hilarious results.

What goes wrong: Full disclosure, a luxury cruise is actually my idea of a nightmare, but Keith takes the nightmare to epic proportions as Rutledge's journey turns into a zombie-filled end-of-days scenario in this very clever satire. 

*

Willem de Koonig's Paintbrush, by Kerry-Lee Powell

About the book: An unflinching and masterful collection of award-winning stories, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush is a career-making debut. Ranging from an island holiday gone wrong to a dive bar on the upswing to a yuppie mother in a pricey subdivision seeing her worst fears come true, these deftly written stories are populated by barkeeps, good men down on their luck, rebellious teens, lonely immigrants, dreamers and realists, fools and quiet heroes. In author Kerry Lee Powell’s skillful hands, each character, no matter what their choices, is deeply human in their search for connection. Powell holds us in her grasp, exploring with a black humour themes of belonging, the simmering potential for violence and the meaning of art no matter where it is found, and revealing with each story something essential about the way we see the world.

What goes wrong: Lots of bad trips in this book too, but let's focus on the title story, in which a couple's disappointing trip ends with the male partner being randomly assaulted at the airport. Which is pretty unfortunate, especially because his partner was coming to terms with the fact that she was going to have to break up with him...and now she can't. And it only gets worse, the kind of bad trip you never properly come home from.  

*

The Road to Atlantis, by Leo Brent Robillard

About the book: Following the coast on their summer vacation, the Henrys stop at the beach to break up the monotony of their road trip. Matty and Nat build castles in the sand as Anne and David take turns minding the children. A moment of distraction, a blink of the eye, and the life they know is swept away forever.

Like shipwrecks lost at sea, each member of the family sinks under the weight of their shared tragedy. All seems lost but life is long. There are many ways to heal a wound, there are many ways to form a family, and as the Henrys discover, there are many roads to Atlantis.

What goes wrong: It's the kind of book you think you can't bear to read—who wants to experience the loss of a child, even vicariously through fiction. But this terrible tragedy on summer vacation is only the beginning of the story and Robillard weaves a beautiful story of what happens next, in the weeks, months, years and decades ahead. Indeed, life is long. Remarkably, there will be other summers. 

Escape Plans, by Teri Vlassopolous

About the book: My father drowned in the Aegean Sea, fifty nautical miles northeast of the port of Piraeus. When it happened, my mother and I were at home in Toronto. It was early evening in Greece, afternoon for us, and I was at school when she found out.

Niko Kiriakos, tentative heir to the ailing Calypso Shipping fleet, always suspected he was cursed. Following his sudden disappearance, his wife, Anna, and daughter, Zoe, are left adrift. Unmoored, they begin to test the boundaries of their lives, struggling with issues of loyalty, identity and what it means to be a family. Spanning years and tracing a route from Niagara Falls to Greece, Escape Plans is an unblinking look at the ties that bind us together and the things that pull us apart.

What goes wrong: This novel has three parts, each with characters who are running away from something—and it's true that a getaway was never the best premise for a vacation anyway. We know in the outset that Niko drowns in the Aegean Sea (not a good thing), his wife Anne is on holiday in Europe in a new relationship whose future she's not wholly invested in, and their daughter partakes upon a road trip that is certainly ill-advised.  

*

White Elephant, by Catherine Cooper

About the book: Physician Richard Berringer, his wife, Ann, and their thirteen-year-old son, Torquil, have abandoned their home in Nova Scotia and moved to Sierra Leone, despite warnings that the West African country is in a civil war. Two months on, things are not going well. Tensions are rising between Richard and his boss; Torquil—who hates Sierra Leone almost as much as he hates his father—has launched a hunger strike; and Ann is bedridden with illnesses that Richard believes are all in her head. While the Berringers battle with themselves, each other and the worlds they inhabit, the narrative repeatedly returns to their past, shedding light on what brought them together, what keeps them together, why they have come to Africa, and why they might not be able to go home again.

What goes wrong: As made clear in Vlassopoulos's novel, you can't outrun who you are, but the unfortunate characters in Cooper's novel discover this too late on their sojourn to Sierra Leone. This compelling book is made all the more delicious by the author's refusal to make her characters not horrible, so that the whole thing has the effect of a train wreck. You absolutely cannot look away, and you're quite sure that they all had it coming anyway. It's kind of perfect. 

*

Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay

About the book: Harry Boyd, a hard-bitten refugee from failure in Toronto television, has returned to a small radio station in the Canadian North. There, in Yellowknife, in the summer of 1975, he falls in love with a voice on air, though the real woman, Dido Paris, is both a surprise and even more than he imagined. 

Dido and Harry are part of the cast of eccentric, utterly loveable characters, all transplants from elsewhere, who form an unlikely group at the station. Their loves and longings, their rivalries and entanglements, the stories of their pasts and what brought each of them to the North, form the centre. One summer, on a canoe trip four of them make into the Arctic wilderness (following in the steps of the legendary Englishman John Hornby, who, along with his small party, starved to death in the barrens in 1927), they find the balance of love shifting, much as the balance of power in the North is being changed by the proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, which threatens to displace Native people from their land.

What goes wrong: Oh, that canoe trip, which breaks the magic spell. Life is full of accidents, some unhappier than others. 

August 14, 2017
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