The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader

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When I left Canada in 2000, I had to make hard choices about the books I took with me. It wasn’t only the stories contained within the covers that impacted my choice, but the circumstances surrounding their reading—the memories associated with the books or the emotions they conjured. Two years into my new life in England I was chatting about books with a woman I met at a baby group. She mentioned short stories, I mentioned Alice Munro and the next week I loaned her my three Munro hardbacks. I never saw my books again. I was bereft, as though a piece of me was lost.

The longer I’m gone, the more I cherish Canadian literature, perhaps even more so during this pandemic. I can’t travel back home, but I can revisit my past in the company of a good book. I have many favourite Canadian books; here are just a few pieces of me. And while I absolutely recommend them, I’m no longer sure I would ever lend them…

*****

Le chandail de hockey, by Roch Carrier

Growing up in Sudbury in the 1960s, hockey was king. We watched Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night with my dad. The rest of the winter, my brothers played hockey while my sister and I watched. Girls didn’t play hockey, then. C'était comme ça. We lived on a lake and up and down the shoreline, parents made ice rinks, with varying degrees of love and skill. Pick up games were legion, both on the frozen lake and on the road. (“Car.”)  By the time Le Chandail de hockey was published, my Sudbury childhood was long over. I was in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, studying French at university. But the story, with its twin deities of hockey and the Catholic church took me right back to my chapped cheek Sudbury days. I also admired Carrier’s use of the long-standing rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens as a metaphor for French-English relations, something I touch on briefly in my debut novel.

*

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, by W.J. Kirwin, G.M. Story, and J.D.A. Widdowson

While I was living in Newfoundland and Labrador The Dictionary of Newfoundland English was published. Until then my dictionaries had been limited to English and French-English varieties. But as an avid reader, a linguist and a logophile, I was fascinated by the dictionary, so much so, that it features in my novel. This is Rachel my main character, a few chapters in: 

“The discourse on arse went on for two columns and the entry for seal, and related words and expressions, lasted more than seven pages. A bazz was a blow or a slap. To blear was to utter prolonged complaints. Blearing. Is that what I’d been doing about Little Cove and its people?”

The dictionary is now available online but I recommend the physical book for casual browsing. 

*

The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch

In the late 1980s I taught primary French immersion, first in Lindsay and then Bramalea, Ontario. One of my greatest joys was reading to my pupils, in French and English. The Paperbag Princess was a firm favourite on either side of the desk. Michael Martchenko’s illustrations were a wonderful accompaniment to Munsch’s text. I loved the feminist reworking of the "prince saves the princess" trope and the book’s message that we shouldn’t judge someone by their appearance. Decades later, I bought a spanking new copy for my very English daughter who loved it even more.    

*

A Trilogy of Performances, by Sandra Shamas

In the 1990s I became a Sandra Shamas groupie. A few of my friends and I saw an early performance of My Boyfriend’s Back and There’s Going to Be Laundry in Toronto and were immediately hooked, returning a second night to watch it all over again. We attended the show and its two sequels (My Boyfriend’s Back, The Cycle Continues & Wedding Bell Hell) multiple times, riffing the lines off each other. As the titles confirm, the trilogy chronicles the ups and downs of a relationship. But Shamas is also brilliant on female friendship, dysfunctional families and feminism. And for me there was an added bonus—Shamas and I shared the same home town. Her anecdotes about hockey moms, the pouring of slag and the Bamboo Gardens restaurant were straight out of Sudbury. When the scripts were eventually published, one of my fellow groupies bought me a copy. I pulled it down from the shelf recently, and the laughs are still there, especially welcome these days.

*

February, by Lisa Moore

In 1982 the Ocean Ranger drilling rig sank in a storm off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador with no survivors. I vividly recall the shock, disbelief and grief that permeated the university campus and the entire province in the sad days that followed. When Lisa Moore’s novel was published, I’d been gone from Canada for ten years, and Newfoundland and Labrador much longer, but I knew I had to read it. Only the Kindle version was available in the UK at the time. Both the writing and the language were gifts. Despite the sadness that permeates the novel, I thrilled to Moore’s depiction of the marvellous St John’s dialect. A pregnant Helen calls a taxi, feeling queasy. Once inside the car, she vomits and one of St John’s legendary taxi drivers says “Nice one, Missus…. Heave it out of you, my love.” A frustrated Helen says to her children “I expect you to come when I Jesus call you,” recalling how a friend’s mother used to talk. The novel plunged me straight into my St John’s days as a high school and then university student. Last year, I came across a paperback copy in a charity shop in my small English town. Naturally I bought it.

*

When the Saints, by Sarah Mian

Books have always been discussed and dissected in my family. My mother used to describe herself as a book pusher; my sister and I regularly swap recommendations by FaceTime and email. A few years ago, my sister raved about When the Saints which she’d borrowed from the library. It wasn’t available in the UK, so she borrowed it again to coincide with a trip I made to Toronto that same year. I loved everything about this book—the Maritime setting, the voice, the sarcasm and hello? Five-year-old Janis stole the show. I was writing my own novel at the time and greatly admired Mian’s style. So much so that I bought a copy to take back to England, fangirling on Mian’s website to let her know that Tabby and Janis were headed overseas.

*

Just Like Family, by Kate Hilton

To access CanLit in the UK, I often need to be creative. Just Like Family was “currently unavailable” when I was currently desperate to read it a few months ago, perhaps due to the pandemic. Luckily, I found it on Audible. This novel reminded me of the years I worked on Bay Street in Toronto. I could relate all too well to Avery’s relentless work schedule and conflicting loyalties. Hilton also writes movingly about 9/11 and the ex-pat’s desire to go home in its aftermath. Reading it during the pandemic, which has prompted similar desires to reunite with family, made it all the more poignant. Most of all though, this book made me nostalgic for my old life in Toronto, my much-missed friends, and summers at the beloved family cottage (now sold).

*

The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon

Recently someone described Higdon as an author of Newfoundland descent who hooked rugs. Rug hooking occurs in my novel and I’d recently tried the craft myself, so I went straight to Higdon’s website to inspect her handiwork. When I compared her beautiful rugs to my amateur attempt, I chose to be inspired, rather than discouraged. Then I clicked on the link for The Very Marrow of Our Bones, read the reviews, swooned at the gorgeous cover, and you know where this is going—over to Google which confirmed the book was available in the UK. Higdon’s sprawling family saga is set mostly in British Columbia with a detour to Newfoundland and Labrador near the end. But reading about the “Habs” and “Don Messer’s Jubilee” made the decades tumble away, as did the small town 1960s childhood Higdon describes in flashback scenes. I recognized the squabbling siblings and endless summer afternoons when no one knew or cared what the kids were up to. Once again, I was in Sudbury, off on childhood adventures that ended only when the street lights came on. When I finished the novel, I re-read the opening chapter, full of admiration for how the seeds planted there by Higdon had later blossomed. And like many novels with decades old secrets, I have questions. If you read this novel, we need to talk.

*

Unless, by Carol Shields

I often re-read books. Sometimes comfort skimming, sometimes immersing myself completely. I read Unless shortly after its publication, but when I re-read it last month the experience was profoundly different, right from the opening sentence: “It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now.'' Did the pandemic make me feel Reta’s sorrow more deeply? (Oh, the irony that the title of Danielle Westerman’s poetry book is “Isolation” …) Was it because my children are now closer in age to Reta’s? Not just the troubled Norah but the younger sisters building their lives “upward and outward … editing the childhood they want to remember and getting ready to live as we all have to eventually, without our mothers.” This time round I also better appreciated Shields’ subtle humour about a writer’s life, especially a writer of “women’s fiction.” But I was also dismayed that much of what Shields had to say about feminism and the rights of women and girls remains all too relevant. I could talk about Carol Shields all day, but I’ll stop with this final quote from Unless: "I am attempting to 'count my blessings.' Everyone I know advises me to take up this repellent strategy." Perfection.

*

Placeholder Image

[insert title here] Except I can’t, because the title has yet to be confirmed. I am bursting to tell you about an amazing Canadian novel coming to a bookstore near you in 2022. But I can’t, because it’s not public yet. I’ve been lucky enough to read the manuscript and trust me, it’s a gem. And it occurs to me that [insert title here] is an excellent place to stop. For just as there’s already a rich history of Canadian literature, there is also the promise of further delights to come.

*

About New Girl in Little Cove:

When a new teacher arrives in a tiny fishing village, she realizes the most important lessons are the ones she learns outside the classroom. 

It’s 1985. Rachel O’Brien arrives in Little Cove seeking a fresh start after her father dies and her relationship ends. As a new teacher at the local Catholic high school, Rachel chafes against the small community, where everyone seems to know her business. The anonymous notes that keep appearing on her car, telling her to go home, don’t make her feel welcome either. 

Still, Rachel is quickly drawn into the island’s distinctive music and culture, as well as the lives of her students and fellow teacher, Doug Bishop. As Rachel begins to bond with her students, her feelings for Doug also begin to grow. Rachel tries to ignore her emotions because Doug is in a long-distance relationship with his high school sweetheart. Or is he? 

Eventually, Rachel’s beliefs clash with church and community, and she makes a decision that throws her career into jeopardy. In trying to help a student, has she gone too far? Only the intervention of the ‘Holy Dusters,’ local women who hook rugs and clean the church, can salvage Rachel’s job as well as her chance at a future with Doug.

 

 

 

March 18, 2021
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