Alberta, Today

Katie Bickell’s first novel, Always Brave, Sometimes Kind features a cast of Albertan characters whose lives intersect through the years 1990 - 2016. Set in the urban and rural reaches of Alberta, “Bickell writes an ode to home and community that is both warm and gritty, well-defined and utterly complicated.” Here, Bickell lists 18 novels that pay homage to the contemporary stories, landmarks, events, people, and communities associated with the land and larger community now known as Alberta.

(Author's note: All books are novels set in and referencing Alberta, and all take place within —or can be assumed to take place—within the last 50 years. Sorry in advance to any I might have missed!)

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A Rhinestone Button, by Gail Anderson Dargatz

In the rough-and-tumble farming community of Godsfinger, Alberta, Job Sunstrum lives a solitary existence, raising cattle and farming the land, like his father and grandfather before him. Yet the surrounding pasture do not old much attraction for him. Instead he prefers his humble farmhouse kitchen, where cooking and baking, and even washing dishes, give him deep satisfaction.

If his delight in making almond squares for the church doesn't brand him as odd, his soft blond curls and cherubic face are unmistakable foils for his beefy local peers. Yet something else sets him apart, a phenomenon called synaesthesia—an extraordinary ability to see and feel sound in dazzling colours or shapes. Nowhere is the effect more spectacular than when the Godsfinger Baptist Choir sings.

But Job's religious faith is soon put to a test when his proselytizing brother Jacob, along with his bossy wife and arsonist son, moves back into the family farmhouse. With them they bring the Pentecostal fervor of a visiting evangelist by the name of Jack Divine. At Jacob's urging, the impressionable Job enlists as one of Divine's religious foot soldiers, but his total immersion in Christian life leads him to wonder what his chances are for love of a more earthly nature.

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Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg

Birdie is a darkly comic and moving first novel about the universal experience of recovering from wounds of the past, informed by the lore and knowledge of Cree traditions. Bernice Meetoos, a Cree woman, leaves her home in Northern Alberta following tragedy and travels to Gibsons, BC. She is on something of a vision quest, seeking to understand the messages from The Frugal Gourmet (one of the only television shows available on CBC North) that come to her in her dreams. She is also driven by the leftover teenaged desire to meet Pat Johns, who played Jesse on The Beachcombers, because he is, as she says, a working, healthy Indian man. Bernice heads for Molly’s Reach to find answers but they are not the ones she expected.

With the arrival in Gibsons of her Auntie Val and her cousin Skinny Freda, Bernice finds the strength to face the past and draw the lessons from her dreams that she was never fully taught in life. Part road trip, dream quest and travelogue, the novel touches on the universality of women's experience, regardless of culture or race.

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Book Cover Chorus of Mushrooms

Chorus of Mushrooms, by Hiromi Goto

Since its publication in 1994, Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms has been recognized as a true classic of Canadian literature. One of the initial entries in NeWest Press’ long-running Nunatak First Fiction Series, Hiromi Goto’s inaugural outing was recognized as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes as the Best First Book in the Caribbean and Canadian regions that year, as well as becoming co-winner of the Canada-Japan book award. Goto’s acclaimed feminist novel is an examination of the Japanese Canadian immigrant experience, focusing on the lives of three generations of women in modern day Alberta to better understand themes of privilege and cultural identity.

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Come Back, by Rudy Wiebe

Hal Wiens, a retired professor, is mourning the sudden death of his loving wife, Yo. To get through each day, he relies on the bare comfort of routine and regular phone calls to his children Dennis and Miriam, who live in distant cities with their families. One snowy April morning, while drinking coffee with his Dené friend Owl in south-side Edmonton, he sees a tall man in an orange downfill jacket walk past on the sidewalk. The jacket, the posture, the head and hair are unmistakable: it's his beloved oldest son, Gabriel. But it can't be—Gabriel killed himself 25 years ago.

The sighting throws Hal's inert life into tumult. While trying to track down the man, he is irresistibly compelled to revisit the diaries, journals and pictures Gabe left behind, to unfold the mystery of his son's death. Through Gabe's own eyes we begin to understand the covert sensibilities that corroded the hope and light his family knew in him. As he becomes absorbed in his son's life, lost on a tide of "relentless memory," Hal's grief—and guilt—is portrayed with a stunning immediacy, drawing us into a powerful emotional and spiritual journey.

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Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning, by Audrey J Whitson

Three years into the second millennium, Majestic, Alberta is a farm town dealing with depressed crop prices, international borders closing to Canadian beef, and a severe drought. Older farmers worry about their way of life changing while young people concoct ways to escape: drugs, partying, moving away. Even the church is on the brink of closing.

When local woman Annie Gallagher is struck by lightning while divining water for a well, stories of the town’s past, including that of Annie and the grandmother who taught her water witching, slowly pour forth as everyone gathers for her funeral.

Told through the varied voices of the townspeople and Annie herself, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning reveals Majestic to be a complex character in its own right, both haunted and haunting. Here, Audrey J. Whitson has written a novel of hard choices and magical necessity.

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Good to a Fault, by Marina Endicott

In a moment of self-absorption, Clara Purdy's life takes a sharp left turn when she crashes into a beat-up car carrying an itinerant family of six. The Gage family had been travelling to a new life in Fort McMurray, but bruises on the mother, Lorraine, prove to be late-stage cancer rather than remnants of the accident. Recognizing their need as her responsibility, Clara tries to do the right thing and moves the children, husband and horrible grandmother into her own house—then has to cope with the consequences of practical goodness.

As Lorraine walks the borders of death, Clara expands into life, finding purpose, energy and unexpected love amidst the hard, unaccustomed work of sharing her days. But the burden is not Clara's alone: Lorraine's children must cope with divided loyalties and Lorraine must live with her growing, unpayable debt to Clara—and the feeling that Clara has taken her place.

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Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King

Strong, sassy women and hard-luck hard-headed men, all searching for the middle ground between Native American tradition and the modern world, perform an elaborate dance of approach and avoidance in this magical, rollicking tale by Cherokee author Thomas King. Alberta is a university professor who would like to trade her two boyfriends for a baby but no husband; Lionel is forty and still sells televisions for a patronizing boss; Eli and his log cabin stand in the way of a profitable dam project. These three—and others—are coming to the Blackfoot reservation for the Sun Dance and there they will encounter four Indigenous elders and their companion, the trickster Coyote—and nothing in the small town of Blossom will be the same again…

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Mad Cow, by Alexis Kienlen

Told from two points of view—a mother and her daughter—Mad Cow examines farming life in small-town Alberta, a life fourteen-year-old Allyson wants only to escape. Meanwhile her mother, Donna, dealing with her own assortment of problems and setbacks, soldiers on through the daunting days. But when a strange affliction starts picking off the local cattle, everything changes, and when tragedy strikes the extended family, life as they know it is seemingly over forever. Now Donna and Allyson must work together to keep the family and the farm intact, all while dealing with overwhelming grief and the fact their once thriving livelihood is failing.

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Molly of the Mall: Literary Lass & Purveyor of Fine Footwear, by Heidi L.M. Jacobs

Aspiring novelist Molly MacGregor’s life is strikingly different from a literary heroine’s. Named for one of literature’s least romantic protagonists, Moll Flanders, Molly lives in Edmonton, a city she finds irredeemably unromantic, where she writes university term papers instead of novels, and sell shoes and the Largest Mall on Earth. There she seeks the other half of her young life’s own matched pair. Delightfully whimsical, Heidi L.M. Jacobs’ Molly of the Mall explores its namesake’s love for the written word, love for the wrong men (and the right one), and her complicated love for her city.

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Odori, by Darcy Tamayose

In the spring of 1999, Mai Yoshimoto-Lanier falls into a coma after her husband loses control of the old Ford and drives over a bridge into the Belly River. Eddie dies. But Mai falls into the world of her great-grandmother on the island of Hamahiga somewhere between heaven and earth.

Odori is a novel that navigates through the glorious Ryukyuan Kingdom and the Golden Era of the Sho Dynasty, through bloody World War II Okinawa, and over parched prairies of Southern Alberta’s Rainmaker Hills—all the while exposing human sorrows, indignities, idiosyncrasies, failed faiths, splintered spirits, and an island culture so resilient, so embedded it becomes mythical. It tells of Mai’s journey into the world of an old kataribe storyteller, the ghost of her great-grandmother, where she hears of Tree Gods, Sky Gods and human lumps of clay—where her mother’s poignant war letters tell of sights and sounds that singe a child’s soul. In this dream world she has fallen into, Mai allows her basan’s tumble of words to fall gently on her ear as she creates painting after painting, sketch after sketch.

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The Complex Arms, by Dolly Dennis

Adeen is the resident manager of the Complex Arms, an apartment building in the Mill Woods neighbourhood of Edmonton. With no help from her deadbeat husband, Frosty, who sees himself as the next big thing in Nashville, she struggles to maintain the building while coping with the needs of a daughter with disabilities.

As a distraction from her problems, Adeen grows more and more involved in the lives of her tenants, forming relationships and building a community. But when a natural disaster hits, the lives of the Complex Arms’s residents will never be the same.

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The Garneau Block, by Todd Babiak

The Garneau Block follows the knowable citizens of the adored and hated city of Edmonton, capturing what we connect to in local stories and what is universal about modern life. Here, in what can only be described as a storytelling tour-de-force, we meet the warm, endearing, and delightfully flawed residents of a fictional cul-de-sac in the city’s Garneau neighbourhood just after the scandalous death of a neighbour and the sudden news that their land is about to be repossessed by the university. 

When mysterious signs begin to appear duct-taped to trees saying only LET’S FIX IT, the block—including a sacked university professor, a once-ambitious, knocked-up haiku expert living in her parents’ basement, an aging actor whose dreams are slipping away, and a quiet but polite stranger—is galvanized to band together in a wild attempt to save their homes. And when regular people put their dreams in motion, anything can happen—namely, political machinations, personal revelations, a public uproar, and unforeseen love

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The Heavy Bear, by Tim Bowling

In Tim Bowling’s novel, The Heavy Bear, we spend an intense late-summer day in downtown Edmonton with our narrator, an unassuming college instructor who just happens to be named Tim Bowling. Haunted by the “slender sadness” of the world and looking for a way to shake off the trivial frustrations of modern life, Bowling’s Tim Bowling finds himself pulled into an escapade involving an antique toy, a “liberated” capuchin monkey and an eager young student who our narrator likens to Pippi Longstocking. Advised by the bear-shaped spirit of American poet Delmore Schwartz and guided by the ghost of silent film star Buster Keaton, this Tim Bowling stumbles through his adventure until he stands free of his ghosts and finds himself willing to rejoin the bustling current of our clamorous age.

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The Melting Queen, by Bruce Cinnamon

Every year since 1904, when the ice breaks up on the North Saskatchewan River, Edmonton has crowned a Melting Queen—a woman who presides over the Melting Day spring carnival and who must keep the city’s spirits up over the following winter. But this year, something has changed: a genderfluid ex-frat brother called River Runson is named as Melting Queen. As River's reign upends the city's century-old traditions, Edmonton tears itself in two, with progressive and reactionary factions fighting a war for Edmonton's soul. Ultimately, River must uncover the hidden history of Melting Day, forcing Edmonton to confront the dark underbelly of its traditions and leading the city into a new chapter in its history.

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The Shore Girl, by Fran Kimmel

Rebee Shore's life is fragmented. She's forever on the move, ricocheting around Alberta, guided less than capably by her dysfunctional mother Elizabeth.

The Shore Girl follows Rebee from her toddler to her teen years as she grapples with her mother's fears and addictions, and her own desire for a normal life. Through a series of narrators—family, friends, teachers, strangers, and Rebee herself—her family's dark past, and the core of her mother's despair, are slowly revealed.

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The Unfinished Child, by Theresa Shea

When Marie MacPherson, a mother of two, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant at thirty-nine, she feels guilty. Her best friend, Elizabeth, has never been able to conceive, despite years of fertility treatments. Marie's dilemma is further complicated when she becomes convinced something is wrong with her baby. She then enters the world of genetic testing and is entirely unprepared for the decision that lies ahead.
Intertwined throughout the novel is the story of Margaret, who gave birth to a daughter with Down syndrome in 1947, when such infants were defined as "unfinished" children. As the novel shifts back and forth through the decades, the lives of the three women converge, and the story speeds to an unexpected conclusion.

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Book Cover Project Compass

Project Compass, by Robert Strong, Lizzie Derksen, Matthew Stepanic, and Kristina Vyskocil

Project Compass is an experiment. A novel written from four different perspectives. Four people wake up on the morning of the longest day of the year, each from a different corner of the city. A mother estranged from her family, a student leapfrogging from online hookup to online hookup, an old man with a tenuous grasp on the truth, a young woman trying to put the pieces of her life back together. They traverse the city on paths that are not certain, ultimately pulling them towards the center, towards a future even more uncertain.

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Who by Fire, by Fred Stenson
The heart of this moving story belongs to Tom Ryder—a man whose expectations for the future and assumptions about his own strength and power are persistently and devastatingly undermined by the arrival of a sour gas plant on the border of his southern Alberta farm in the early 1960s. The emissions from the plant poison not only his livestock but the relationships he has with his family, most especially with his wife, Ella. The family is left without viable legal recourse against the plant, and Tom must watch his farm dwindle away, his sense of himself dwindling away with it.

The novel moves into the present with the story of Tom's son, Bill, who reacts to his father's disappointments by rising through the managerial ranks of an oil company in Fort McMurray, hiding from his guilt in the local casino. Bill pushes himself towards a crisis in conscience through a relationship he has with a Native woman whose community is threatened by the actions of his company.

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About Always Brave, Sometimes Kind:

An exciting debut novel told in connected short stories that captures the diverse and complicated networks of people who stretch our communities—sometimes farther than we know.

Set in the cities, reserves, and rural reaches of Alberta, Katie Bickell’s debut novel is told in a series of stories that span the years from 1990 to 2016, through cycles of boom and bust in the oil fields, government budget cuts and workers rights policies, the rising opioid crisis, and the intersecting lives of people whose communities sometimes stretch farther than they know.

We meet a teenage runaway who goes into labour at the West Edmonton Mall, a doctor managing hospital overflow in a time of healthcare cutbacks, a broke dad making extra pay through a phone sex line, a young musician who dreams of fame beyond the reserve, and a dedicated hockey mom grappling with sense of self when she’s no longer needed—or welcome—at the rink.

Always Brave, Sometimes Kind captures a network of friends, caregivers, in-laws, and near misses, with each character’s life coming into greater focus as we learn more about the people around them. Tracing alliances and betrayals from different perspectives over decades, Bickell writes an ode to home and community that is both warm and gritty, well-defined and utterly complicated.

October 8, 2020
Books mentioned in this post
Always Brave, Sometimes Kind

Always Brave, Sometimes Kind

A Novel
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Molly of the Mall

Molly of the Mall

Literary Lass & Purveyor of Fine Footwear
edition:Paperback
More Info
The Unfinished Child

The Unfinished Child

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
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