A Bird on Every Tree is Carol Bruneau's latest book, a short story collection whose starred review in Quill & Quire concludes as follows: "This is no mere exercise in voice: this is a reflection of a writer utterly in touch with her stories—not only what they are, but how they are, overlooking nothing in her craft. Bruneau is a master."
Here, Bruneau shares a list of books by other Nova Scotia authors that serve to complicate common perceptions of that province.
Exploring Nova Scotian identity, the stories in my new collection, A Bird on Every Tree, reflect the wanderer’s spirit in most of us, regardless of where we originate. Maritime literature often gets cast as tales of insular, hard-done-by characters living the life down some dirt road, at best, salt-of-the-earth timid folk who don’t stray from home, or, at worst, mean-spirited hicks with a hate-on for things “from away.” Both stereotypes bear a smidge of truth.
But the bigger, truer flipside is that Nova Scotia is and always has been a province of adventurers, people who like living on the edge. From the Mi’kmaq who first navigated Mi’kmaqi’s rivers and coastal waters, the exiled and returning Acadians, the Black Loyalists fleeing slavery in the US, the waves of European settlers who came after the French, and generations of seafarers, to the recent influx of Syrian refugees, the dynamics of migration—tragic and problematic in many cases, joyous in others—shape the complicated milieu that defines us.
Attached as we are to our beautiful home place, we’ve always been situated—challenged—to think globally, particularly as we confront issues, especially of racism, that plague us. Here’s a sampling of books by Nova Scotian writers of various genres that should put the boots to misnomers of quaintness and insularity, books worth reading for this and all kinds of other reasons.
White Elephant, by Catherine Cooper
Shortlisted for this year’s Amazon First Novel Award, the novel follows the journey of a white doctor and his family from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, where they face mounting personal, cultural and political tensions in the midst of civil war. A Nova Scotian who has lived in Prague and Rome and is presently based in New Zealand, Cooper stayed in Sierra Leone for extended periods researching the African settings and the country’s political climate.
And I Alone Escaped To Tell You, by Sylvia D. Hamilton
Recreating the voices of this poet and filmmaker’s ancestors, these eloquent poems relive and re-enact the emotional journey of Black Loyalists fleeing slavery in pursuit of a freedom that eluded them in Nova Scotia (and, as readers of Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes will know, led many to Sierra Leone). As personal witness to the African Diaspora, the collection embraces the obligations and power of poetry in a global recognition of the humanity that underlies colour, nationality and creed.
Seven Grains of Paradise: A Culinary Journey in Africa, by Joan Baxter
In this fascinating memoir, Baxter—a Nova Scotian journalist who has lived and worked in Africa for more than 30 years—explores the culture and politics of food and food security through her experiences and stories gathered from Timbuktu to Sierra Leone, from northern Ghana to Central Africa. Navigating the continents’ varied ecosystems and myriad cultures, hardly a tourist, the writer refuses to romanticize or skirt the realities of poverty and hardship. But in presenting her compassionate, open-hearted view of a diversity and richness many of us have little inkling of, she challenges current Western approaches to third world development in a sensitive, nuanced way.
Generations Re-merging, by Shalan Jodrey
This poetry collection by the Mi’kmaq writer, performance artist and storyteller Jodrey traces the endurance of this Indigenous community’s culture and traditions through memory and an ongoing allegiance with the land itself, amidst social and ecological change. These powerful poems pay homage to the intimate connection between the Mi’kmaq experience and Nova Scotia’s natural environment.
Recognizing the diversity of Nova Scotia’s literary culture, it would be remiss not to mention the acclaimed spoken word poets El Jones, whose work is grounded in the political culture of African Nova Scotians, and Rebecca Thomas, a Mi’kmaq and Halifax’s current Poet Laureate. To date, though, only Jones’s work appears in print, in her collection Live from the Afrikan Resistance.
Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry, by Lorri Neilsen Glenn
Speaking of Poet Laureates, the Prairie-born, Nova Scotia-based essayist and poet was Halifax’s second PL after Sue MacLeod and before Shauntay Grant, who was succeeded by Tanya Grant and then El Jones. In this unusual blend of memoir and poetic commentary, Neilsen Glenn shares what is a deeply affecting spiritual journey through time and place—locales as varied as Venice in winter, Manitoba on hot July days, and Nova Scotia’s misty, mystical South Shore—and through her parallel experiences as an astute reader of literature in its myriad forms.
Watch for her book Following the River: Traces of Red River Women, forthcoming this fall.
Just Jen, by Jen Powley
In this fearless, straight-up memoir about living with severe disability, the Alberta-born, Nova Scotia-based activist and author chronicles her unremitting struggle to live life her way despite a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at age fifteen. Having recently toured the book across Canada (and celebrated a milestone birthday), Powley shows how resilience, honesty and a refusal to whitewash her experiences make for a courageous, inspired and inspiring life—an example for us all, whether disabled or able-bodied.
Valery the Great, by Elaine McCluskey
Down-home familiarity and the wildly quirky collide in this kaleidoscopic collection of stories populated by characters rooted in McCluskey’s nimble imagination. The title piece features a skater 4000 miles from home, performing in a Russian circus with two hockey-playing bears. Based in Nova Scotia, McCluskey, a former journalist, writes with an exuberant sense of the absurd in prose that’s brilliantly, darkly comical. Her locals refuse to see themselves as anything but citizens of the big, wide, exhilarating world.
Like Any Other Monday, by Binnie Brennan
A violist with Symphony Nova Scotia, Brennan blends her experience of performance and a passion for all things Buster Keaton in this finely-wrought lyrical novel set in vaudeville. Based on Keaton’s early biography, the story follows the exploits of characters Billy Pascoe and Lucinda Hart as they strive to win over audiences on the vaudeville circuit in Ontario and the U.S. Based in Halifax, Brennan is no stranger to Hollywood, where she haunts the Keaton archives in Beverly Hills every chance she gets.
A Hero, by Charlotte Mendel
Born in Nova Scotia and now based in a rural part of the province, Mendel has lived and worked in France, England, Turkey, and Israel. Freelancing for the Jerusalem Post immersed her in the politics and culture of the Middle East, which provide the backdrop for this poignant novel of a family’s survival under a dictatorship amidst the turmoil of the Arab Spring. The intimacy of Mendel’s portrait of life in a culture markedly different from that of mainstream Nova Scotia reflects her insider’s experience.
Perfect World, by Ian Colford
A seasoned traveller born, educated and based in Halifax, Colford cracks open the trope about hardscrabble lives here (and anywhere), exploring rather than exploiting it. He does the brave thing, uncovering the roots of family and social dysfunction where these lie in mental illness, revealing them in a compassionate but completely unsentimental way. One of the most chilling and brilliantly understated scenes of violence I’ve ever read forms the heart of this near-perfect novel that treats urban and rural life with straight-up realism and doesn’t waste a word.
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