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My book, The Broken Heart of Winter, is informed by the Acadian expulsion, what is known amongst Acadians as Le Grand Dérangement, the great disruption of 1755. I’m interested in disruption, or more accurately, in tracing its aftershocks back to the source and finding parallels in the present. I admire a writer who enters the ruins with curiosity and courage, engages with our flawed and tender human ways with honesty. I enjoy a book that lingers in my mind after I’ve turned its last page so that I feel as if I’ve been somewhere and back, and learned something about the world, about myself, along the way. I don’t mean a book has to give an account of a historical catastrophic event like a war or the Acadian expulsion to be worth reading. Aren’t our private lives often a microcosm of public historical events—struggles for power, occasional cruelty, and always loss? Therefore, some books in the following list are informed by big historical events while others enact their drama on the private scale.
No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod
I suppose I was first attracted to MacLeod because his stories were those of my father’s Cape Breton Island home. But what hooked me on this writer is the poetic and hypnotic prose in his two collections of short stories. He wasn’t prolific in his 77 years—he died in 2014—but he wrote in a voice that inhabits the conscience. I fell into the only novel he wrote, No Great Mischief. I will never forget how the parents of the narrator disappeared one frozen night beneath the ice off Cape Breton, or the scene in which the older brother fastens his infected tooth to a fishing line that is attached to a horse to wrench it free. The Highland Clearances and their emigrations haunt every line of this novel though it takes place in the 1980s. It’s the story of an Ontario orthodontist who regularly visits his alcoholic brother in a skid row apartment in Toronto. With this brother and his twin sister who lives in a “modernistic house in Calgary,” he recalls the family history going back to his great-great-great-grandfather who came to Canada in 1779. In the compassionate way that MacLeod invokes the hardships that have befallen his character’s clan, he makes the past matter.
February, by Lisa Moore
Another fine East Coast writer from St John's, Newfoundland, is Lisa Moore, who I first discovered through her short stories. Her writing is raw and real. February, her 2009 novel, is based on the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982. From the start of the book, I’m completely with the pragmatic Helen O’Mara who loses her husband in this disaster. "People hoped for three days. Some people did. Not Helen. She knew they were gone, and it wasn't fair that she knew. She would have liked three days." The narrative pivots back and forth in time across Helen’s life with all its centrifugal force emanating from the Ocean Ranger disaster. This is not unlike the experience of grief, when linear time loses its ironclad hold on us, and life becomes disorienting. The story touches down in the fictional present where her son reveals he’s about to become a father with a woman he barely knows, and where Helen begins to renovate her house and have a relationship with the carpenter who does the work. You begin to feel that this woman has landed a little beyond her grief.
The Small Things that End the World, by Jeanette Lynes
A narrative told in three time frames through the perspective of three women and a past incident reaching its tendrils into the present is what drew me to this novel. The story begins in 1954 with fourteen-year-old Sadie who’s babysitting when Hurricane Hazel, one of the most damaging storms in Canadian history, whams into the house. In the following harrowing scenes, she manages to save the baby Faith while losing the other child to the rising waters. Faith and Sadie’s parents die in the disaster. Sadie, driven by guilt and grief, heads to her grandmother’s farm with Faith, where the older woman learns of her granddaughter for the first time. All manner of tangled truths and secrets follow in the name of coping with the aftermath of the hurricane. Redemption is ultimately found through the revelation of these truths. All three women, Sadie, Faith, and Faith’s daughter Amber, have their own distinct voices. They demonstrate the kind of resilience I need to see manifest in characters in order to keep reading.
The Break, by Katherena Vermette
It’s impossible to consider contemporary narratives impacted by the past without including Indigenous writers. A swath of hydro land cutting through the north end of Winnipeg is referred to as "the break," and it’s here in this novel of the same name a violent crime is committed that sets the story in motion. The mystery around the identity of the perpetrator carries the story forward, but it’s not only this that makes for a propulsive read. The title is a powerful metaphor for the disrupted lives and horrendous losses experienced by the women in four generations of a Métis family. With the strong bond between these women their voices, though distinct, become a chorus, sometimes discordant, sometimes soothing. The way in which they face the challenges of their life without self-pity makes you want to be in their company page after page. You can only hope that some of their strength and their compassion for one another will rub off on you.
Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Adderson
I’ve always been drawn to the velocity behind this author’s whip-smart voice, but never so much as in Ellen in Pieces. Though not without a throughline, the book’s structure feels at times as fragmented and messy as does Ellen’s life, and just as true to the human experience. Each chapter is a self-contained account of the stories that come together to make up Ellen: the philandering ex-husband, the daughter struggling with drug addiction, the other daughter who is pregnant, the arrival of an estranged father, the much younger lover. Ellen is impetuous and brash, funny and full of anger and deep affection for the people in her life. She makes mistakes and she has regrets. She’s genuine. You feel that a person such as Ellen could weather any of life’s upheavals until she receives news that may be the ultimate threat to a woman with a life force such as hers. By this time in the book, we are so enthralled with her and those who love her we count ourselves amongst them.
The Order of Good Cheer, by Bill Gaston
I picked this one because of Champlain, but also because Gaston is a consistently decent writer who has a way of creating worlds and making his characters breathe off the page. Andy Winslow comes to life as a somewhat depressive well-read working-class guy with a fascination for Champlain. He lives in Prince Rupert, a place I’d never been until two years ago because it’s so far up the BC coast from my home on Vancouver Island. In a parallel narrative, around four centuries before Andy, on Canada’s opposite coast, Champlain establishes his colony at Port-Royal in what is now Nova Scotia. It so happens that this is the place where a few years after Champlain appeared, so, too, did the first LeBlanc, my ancestor and one of Acadia’s earliest inhabitants. In 1606 Champlain created the “Order of Good Cheer,” which involved entertainment and food, the idea being it would keep his men alive through the harsh winter. Champlain decides, as does Andy, that a way to ward off ruination either by scurvy in Champlain’s case, or despair from climate change and its impact on his community in Andy’s, is to feast. The past reaches into the present in this book in that since the time of Champlain settlers have spread like an invasive weed to the opposite shores of this vast country, including Andy’s home, and brought with them through colonization, the threat of climate change.
Notes from Exile, by Clive Doucet
This memoir, published in 1999, was one of my first introductions to Acadian history. Doucet weaves the history of the expulsion with memories of visiting his grandfather’s farm on Cape Breton, then he goes on to recount his attendance at the first Acadian Retrouvailles in 1994. Doucet’s family was Acadian on his father’s side and English on his mother’s. The book in his own words, is “a meditation on identity,” in which he explores what it means to be “a people without a nation.” As a gentle and personal introduction to Acadian society, this book is worth a read.
Acadian Driftwood, by Tyler LeBlanc
This is the book I wish I’d had when my interest in the Acadians was first piqued, and not only because LeBlanc and me are both descended from Daniel LeBlanc and Françoise Gaudet who settled in Acadia in the middle of the seventeenth century. Published in 2020, it’s a work of compelling creative nonfiction based on impeccable research. The author has personalized the story of the Acadian deportation by tracing each member of those in his family line who were alive at the time. Each chapter of the book is devoted to one of the family member’s experiences during the years following the expulsion. Their individual fates provide a cross-section of the fate of all Acadians at that time, and the startling well-researched details LeBlanc employs bring a heart rendering immediacy to the prose.
Lise, Appoline and Anne are related, though they live on opposite coasts at different moments of time, with the vast geography of Canada and decades of change in between. The three women are linked by generations of hardship, displacement, and an eighteenth-century French musket that has been passed down through the LeBlanc family since the time of the Acadian expulsion. In contemporary Victoria, BC, Lise’s estranged son, Daniel, reappears in Nova Scotia just when she’s making significant changes in her life, including a nasty divorce from Daniel’s father. Upon learning that her son is living with a distant relative Lise barely knows and causing enough trouble to draw the attention of the authorities, Lise goes to him and begins to unravel a family history that brings about unintended consequences. In 1832, on Isle Madame, Nova Scotia, eighteen-year-old Appoline is left by her older brother to overwinter in an isolated cove, where she’s in charge of five members of her family ranging in age from ten to ninety-nine. Grand-mère, the family matriarch, refuses to leave despite the wishes of her family. Tension grows between Appoline and her younger sister, coming to a head when the sister brings home a young ‘Jersey man.’ Finally, Grand-mère tells her own story of the Acadian expulsion of 1755. Her memories follow a group of Acadian fugitives on their flight into what is now northern New Brunswick, seeking refuge at the infamous Camp D’Espérance. In each successive generation, the imprint of the expulsion perpetuates further suffering, severs a connection to the past and contributes to the gradual erosion of cultural identity. Nevertheless, these three women are resilient in the face of great obstacles. The Broken Heart of Winter speaks to the capacity of the human spirit to love, to adapt, and to carry on.
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