My debut novel, The Raw Light of Morning, is the story of Laurel, a fourteen-year-old girl, who discovers that her greatest strength isn’t her tough exterior but her fragility. Laurel struggles to overcome a childhood of domestic violence. She’s determined, fierce, but in order to move on from her past she has to open up and allow herself to be vulnerable with those who care about her, and through that vulnerability, remember what it is to love.
Here, I’ve listed some of my favourite Canadian books that are filled with fierce, vulnerable, and unforgettable characters.
Outlander, by Gil Adamson
It’s 1903, and 19-year-old Mary Bolton is newly wed to a rough, horrific man. She stabs him in the thigh, watches him bleed to death then runs away to the Rocky Mountains. Mary had a genteel upbringing. Parents who taught her about sonatas and études, the art of a good menu, the importance of parasols. This is the education that pervades her thoughts as she steals a horse, encounters a grizzly, and scours the mountains for food. She is near death when she meets the Ridgerunner, a mountain hermit also on the run from the law. Romance ensues. The kind of deep, tender, and long-lasting romance that befits a character as fierce, fragile, and unforgettable as Mary Bolton.
Sweetland, by Michael Crummey
This is my favourite book by Crummey. I love them all, but Moses Sweetland captured my heart. After the death of the Newfoundland fishery, Sweetland’s tight-knit island community is slated for resettlement by the government. Each family is offered $150 000 to move elsewhere, but for the offer to take effect, every resident must go. 69-year-old Sweetland refuses. Instead, he fakes his death and returns to live on the island alone. Sweetland is larger than life and shockingly real. Self-righteous and humble, simple and wise, reflective and funny, fiercely tied to his homeland and achingly vulnerable because of it. This is a haunting tale of loneliness, abandoned homes, ghosts and graveyards. It is about the weight of regret as the chance to right old wrongs fades into the past and takes Sweetland along with it.
Nowadays and Lonelier, by Camella Gray-Cosgrove
Written in St. John’s, what Gray-Cosgrove calls, “a shock of a city,” her debut short story collection explores Vancouver’s underbelly. I love this coast-to-coast connection. How the character of one city draws out the character of another, perhaps one more carefully hidden in back alleys and side-road apartments. She writes about sex-workers and their children, callous lovers, egomaniacal painters, pedophile priests, alcohol and drug addicts, and the crushing cycle of poverty. Underneath these tough stories is a sense of longing, an undercurrent that reaches for connection, comfort, and it’s in these rare, fragile moments when the undercurrent hits the surface and characters are shown at their most vulnerable, that unexpected beauty is revealed. Oh, and if that isn’t enough, her title story is a nod to short story writers. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson
Jared. I just love him. Compassionate, caring, kind, he wears his vulnerability on the outside like a leather jacket. He’s sixteen years old, sells gourmet pot cookies, lives in his mother’s basement, tries to go to school, stay fed and help people out while holding his nightmare world together. A world that grows so nightmarish as to include were-otters that chew his toes and a girlfriend that is a witch, just like his mom. There’s a lot going on in this book. It’s messy, but Jared is so steadfast that you don’t doubt him for a second. Read the whole trilogy. It’s great.
American War, by Omar el Akkad
Akkad’s debut novel fits on this list by not fitting at all. This book takes place in 2070, during the second civil war. Americans have been fighting themselves for so long that their politics and goals are hazy. Instead of a character who finds strength in her fragility, we have Sarat, a woman whose fragility is completely stripped away. What we are left with is not toughness, or attitude, or anger, so much as a void. When all vulnerability is lost, meaning is lost, sense of self is lost, hopelessness sets in and Sarat will do just about anything to feel agency and purpose. She becomes determined to do as much damage as possible, even if it means destroying herself in the process.
This Is How We Love, by Lisa Moore
When you read Lisa Moore, you are at the mercy of Lisa Moore and this is my favourite of her books so far. In what appears to be an effortless maneuvre, she ties your heartstrings into impossible knots, then deftly unfurls them, leaving you breathless and exhausted. This book is a web of relationships. It’s the story of a mother’s love for a brutally injured son, love for family, friends, parental love without any blood relation whatsoever; step-parents, foster parents, the kid across the street. We don’t get to choose who we love, or how, but it ties us together for life, even when we don’t want it to. This Is How We Love exposes your own vulnerability as you read, and at the same time, shows you the strength you carry inside it.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John-Mandel
A deadly virus, disparate groups of survivors, starvation, loneliness, and a zealot prowling the land delivering justice in a dystopian future. Kristen was eight at the turn of the apocalypse and fifteen years later, she works with the Travelling Symphony, a troupe that performs Shakespeare as they roam from town to town through the backcountry of the Great Lakes region. For Kristen, the new reality is hardest for those old enough to remember how the world was Before. "The more you remember, the more you've lost." The greater the trauma, yet, it is nostalgia and yearning that makes Kristen a great actor, draws people together and brings hope that transcends the darkest moments. I take comfort in the idea that when the world is razed to the ground, something beautiful will rise up in its place.
No Man’s Land, by John Vigna
Speaking of a world razed to the ground, let’s go all the way back to the Rockies in 1887. In No Man’s Land, fourteen-year-old Davey is an orphaned girl in the care of a group of violent and evangelically led rag tags who burn, pillage, and destroy everyone and everything in their path. Vulnerable and heartbreakingly innocent, trapped in a landscape that is as traumatic as it is traumatized, Davey fiercely holds on to her faith in humanity, and through that, faith in herself. There is no escape route for Davey, but along the way she gathers enough scraps of light from the few people who show her kindness that she can pass hope on to someone else. Someone she loves who may have a better chance, someday, at building something beautiful out of a dark world.
Learn more about The Raw Light of Morning:
The Raw Light of Morning is a powerful debut novel about women and children finding humour and love in the aftermath of domestic violence.
Fourteen-year-old Laurel Long does something unimaginable. In a house at the back end of Woods Road, she commits an act of violence that alters the course of her life. Laurel finds herself living in Stephenville, a small town on Newfoundland’s west coast, trapped in a system of poverty and generational neglect, haunted by trauma. Laurel needs a fresh start, and education is her ticket out, but when her past starts to catch up with her, she must decide how far she will go to protect herself and the ones she loves.
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