The problem with lists is that they’re too exclusive. Ten Canadian books? I’m almost sixty, and have been reading Canadians all my life, beginning with The Hardy Boys. My Mom’s friend Lorna gave me The Tower Treasure for Christmas in 1966, when I was five.
But if I can only choose ten books, I’ll have to leave The Hardy Boys off the list.
My new novel The Beautiful Place is an homage to Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House, so that’s where I’ll kick things off.
Sinclair Ross published As For Me and My Housein 1940, just after the great depression, the dustbowl years on the prairies. The first time I read it was in 1981, when I was nineteen. I had recently decided I was going to be a writer and bought the New Canadian Library edition at Safeway in Swift Current while Mom was shopping for groceries. The story, and the stories in his collection The Lamp at Noon, were immediately familiar to me from the stories my father had told me about “the good old days” when he was growing up. My grandfather was a pioneer, and my father grew up in the farmhouse my grandfather had built and where I grew up.
The novel is in the form of the diary of Mrs. Bentley, the wife of the minister in a small prairie town called Horizon. That town was based most closely on the town of Abbey, where Sinclair Ross got his first job at the Royal Bank when he was still a teenager. Abbey is only an hour’s drive from the farm where I grew up. I loved the way that reading the minister’s wife’s diary put me in the position of voyeur, making me feel I was peering into my father’s childhood and seeing things he would never have revealed to me.
I loved the way that reading the minister’s wife’s diary put me in the position of voyeur, making me feel I was peering into my father’s childhood and seeing things he would never have revealed to me.
Alice’s Munro’s Who do You Think You Are? gave me at least the illusion of a similar vicarious sideways view into my mother’s childhood. Mom grew up on a farm in Bruce County, Ontario, not far from Wingham, where Munro was born less than two years after Mom. I love every one of Munro’s books, but I’ll choose this collection because it made the deepest impression on me, probably because it was the first I read.
These are Rose’s stories, and the first few, set in a small Ontario town, parallel my mother’s path, right up to when Rose goes off to University in a small Ontario city. However, from there the stories veer closer to my trajectory, as Rose marries, moves to British Columbia, starts a family, divorces, and develops a career as an actor, while continually returning to the town where she was born.
Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed was my keyhole into my storm-stayed-mother’s past. My best friend in elementary school was Larry Penner, and whenever a blizzard blew up, making it dangerous for the school bus to take my sister and brother and me home, I would stay the night at Larry’s house. Larry’s father was Corny Penner, and his mother’s maiden name was Susie Adams. My father remembered Susie and her Metis family from when she was a child growing up near Darlings Beach at Lac Pelletier.
Maria Campbell is a descendant of Metis leader Gabrielle Dumont, giving her a direct connection to Saskatchewan’s history and to a time before the settlers. Evidence of this time was etched by wagon tracks across our Big Pasture (the original Pelletier Trail, which led on south to Fort Benton in Montana) and also revealed by the arrowheads we still found in our fields. As I read Campbell's harrowing story, I drew a connection to my other mother, Susie Adams, and ever more tenuously to myself. The division between Campbell’s indigenous and settler past haunted her, in ways that I’m sure also haunted Larry’s mom, though her story avoided the darker twists suffered by Campbell in her powerful memoir.
When I started writing, I was a big Michael Ondaatje fan, and Coming Through Slaughterwas the book I most admired. The view it gave me was of a world completely foreign to mine, New Orleans as the century turned, at the beginning of Jazz. The way Ondaatje tells Buddy Bolden’s story is still fresh and exciting: balancing between poetry and prose, between fiction and non-fiction.
Mavis Gallant’s stories also revealed an exotic world to me. It’s difficult to choose one book by Gallant, but I’ll recommend Home Truths. The Linnet Muir stories begin with the sentence, “My father died, then my grandmother; my mother was left, but we did not get on.” Tolstoy would have been proud of that sentence.
The story etched most deeply in me is “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” because of the portrayal of Agnes Brusen, child of Saskatchewan who washes up in Geneva. At nineteen I flew off to Geneva to visit my aunt and my cousin who were trick-roping in a nightclub there. I felt I knew exactly how out of place Agnes Brusen felt.
My decision to become a writer, made on November 7, 1980, was inspired by a writing workshop at a convent in Ponteix, Saskatchewan. That’s where I met Jack Hodgins, whose novel The Resurrection of Joseph Bournewon the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1980. This magic realist vision of Vancouver Island is too good to be missed, though it is now missed by most.
Later Jack Hodgins was my Professor at the University of Victoria, and I made a pilgrimage to Port Alice, the strange little town on the west coast of the island that served as a model for the fictional Port Annie.
A young writer named Guy Vanderhaeghe burst onto the Canadian Literary scene in 1982 with his debut story collection Man Descending. Alice Munro called the stories “wonderful!” and they are. It was important and inspiring for this young writer to read such carefully rendered and vivid tales about the place I came from. Man Descending won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1982 and I met Guy Vanderhaeghe that Christmas as I was passing through Saskatoon on my way home from Victoria.
In 1985 Sharon Butala’s first story collection Queen of the Headacheswas published by Coteau Books and nominated for the GG. Sharon had been in Jack Hodgins’ class at that workshop in the convent in Ponteix. She and I became friends, attended many workshops, and exchanged our work—my juvenile fiction for her exquisite prose—and It was incredibly exciting to find the stories I’d seen evolving now bound between covers and celebrated. I believe Sharon Butala is one of Canada’s finest short fiction writers.
Katherena Vermette’s The Breakhas the power of James Welch’s and Louise Erdrich’s novels. Welch and Erdrich come from the other side of the Medicine Line and so can’t be listed here, but Vermette is from Winnipeg, and her novel paints a portrait of that city I haven’t seen before. Stella, a young Metis mother, lives next to The Break, a swath of prairie interrupting the city in a way that confronts her with her own divided past. Vermette’s rich cast of characters get inside you and will not leave.
I’ll finish with Days and Night in Calcutta, an excellent memoir by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise, two writers who claimed citizenship on both sides of the border, but when they wrote this book they were Canadians. It tells the story, in alternating points of view, of the year they spent in India with Mukherjee’s family. The title is a reference to Satyajit Ray’s film Days and Nights in the Forest, and that title refers to Sita and Ram’s forest exile in The Ramayana. My wife Ranjini George and I are working on our own pilgrimage narrative, Days and Nights in Tokyo, and this book is one of our inspirations.
Lee Gowan’s new novel is an audacious sequel to Sinclair Ross’ prairie classic, As for Me and My House. The Beautiful Place is about a man who is in trouble in love and work—a darkly funny cautionary tale for our times.
The man we know only as Bentley is facing a triple threat—in other words, his life is a hot mess every way he looks. Like anyone who feels that he’s on the brink of annihilation, Bentley thinks back to his misspent youth, which was also the year he met his famous grandfather, the painter Philip Bentley, for the first time. To make matters worse, he has inherited his grandfather’s tendency to self-doubt, as well as that cranky artist’s old service pistol. Our hero is confused about so much. How did he end up as a cryonics salesman—a huckster for a dubious afterlife—when he wanted to be a writer? And who is the mysterious Mary Abraham, and why is she the thread unravelling his unhappy present? What will be left when all the strands come undone?
Lee Gowan’s The Beautiful Place is the best kind of journey: both psychological and real, with a lot of quick-on-the-draw conversations and stunning scenery along the way —and only one gun, which may or may not be loaded.