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History's Allure

A recommended reading list by the author of Sisters of the Spruce.

Book Cover Sisters of the Spruce

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My most recent novel, Sisters of the Spruce, is inspired by my late grandmother on my maternal side. A small Japanese-Canadian woman of under five feet, she had a loud, resonant voice and liked nothing more than telling stories about her youth. I can still remember her saying until her death at age 101, “My body is falling apart, but the lip is the last to go.” As Lynne Kutsukake writes in her blurb about my novel, “Drawing on family lore as well as historical research, Shimotakahara has channelled her grandmother’s spirit to create a fearless and plucky heroine.” While some of my granny’s stories were rather dark—such as her accounts of the Japanese-Canadian Internment during the Second World War, when she and her family were imprisoned in a camp at Sandon, BC—her favourite topic was a vibrant and lesser known period before all that, when her life was only just beginning.

During the 1920s, she spent her teens living with her parents and sisters on Haida Gwaii (then called the Queen Charlotte Islands). Her father had secured a position as a foreman at a shingle factory there. During the First World War, the logging industry on these remote islands had taken off, because the Allies had desperately needed Sitka spruces—trees of enormous scale and durability—to build their fighter planes. So by the time my grandmother arrived in Haida Gwaii, logging with the aid of a largely Asian workforce was already well established. She talked extensively about the beauty of the mammoth trees, shimmering waters, and gauzy rainfalls, even after the landscape showed clear signs of being ravaged by the logging industry. She held forth on the many eccentric and ill-fated folks who lived out there, her father prime among them. For girls like her and her sisters, in this predominantly male population, the threat of sexual violence was never far away. Although I’ve set Sisters of the Spruce during the war, a few years prior to my grandmother’s actual arrival, the vivid tales she shared with me during my childhood teased at my imagination over the decades and provided a creative springboard.

Now, I want to share a selection of some of my favourite historical novels, which have similarly offered me inspiration and the delicious feeling of time travel to other cultures and eras. While several of these novels also originate from the authors’ family backgrounds, others took root in different ways. The capaciousness and diverse forms of historical fiction never fail to delight me.


Book Cover The Water Beetles

The Water Beetles, by Michael Kaan

In this moving, understated novel, Kaan writes about a horrific period of history: the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War. Drawing upon a diary kept by his father, who grew up in wartime Hong Kong, Kaan has created an unforgettable boy narrator, Chung-Man. Over the course of the novel, he must flee with his siblings from their genteel life in Hong Kong and embark on a journey of deep suffering at the hands of the Japanese army, punctuated by moments of lyrical reflection: “Often the wind blows, and it smells tender with greenery and rain, and other times it carries the stench of smoke and bloated flesh.” Stirring memories of their lives in the before times edge into his consciousness, as the greenery along this death march reminds him of the lush garden back home. Indeed, memory becomes one of the novel’s central themes, as a present-day version of Chung-Man—now an old man living in Kuala Lumpur—contemplates what he experienced as a boy and struggles to make sense of how it has shaped his life.

The Water Beetles is of particular interest to me because over the past decade I’ve had the privilege of spending long stretches in Hong Kong, due to my marriage to an architect originally from the city. My late father-in-law lived through the Japanese occupation, which uprooted and displaced his family to other parts of Guangdong province. While travelling through that fascinating, uneven region, I’ve found my mind haunted by scenes from The Water Beetles.


Book Cover Cat's Eye

Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood

On the cusp of adolescence, I borrowed my mother’s copy of Cat’s Eye. This was the first Atwood novel I’d ever read, and it remains my favourite to this day. The sadistic, off-kilter dynamic between the two main characters, Elaine and Cordelia—sometimes best friends, other times rivals and each other’s worst tormentors, as the balance of power shifts between them over the course of their teens—left an indelible impression on me. While the historical details of growing up in 1940s and 50s Toronto were interesting enough, I sensed something almost timeless about the “tough, crayon-red” mouths of the two girls shucking off the way their mothers wanted them to appear. When I reread Cat’s Eye a few years back, I was struck by how the present-day sections, in which Elaine has established herself as a celebrated painter, had taken on for me a secondary historical resonance. These scenes brought back a 1980s Toronto of my own childhood, when King Street was still edgy and run-down, filled with abandoned warehouses and artists’ lofts.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of reading Israeli novelist Hila Blum’s How to Love Your Daughter, which engages in a skillful intertextual way with Cat’s Eye, bringing to the fore Elaine’s dynamic with her mother. Blum’s novel is no less a master class in the dissection of a tortured female relationship.


Book Cover Soucouyant

Soucouyant, by David Chariandy

Mysteries of memory and forgetting are at the core of Chariandy’s elegant, elliptical novel. Soucouyant opens with quiet, unsettling scenes of domesticity in a “shipwreck of a home” near the Scarborough Bluffs, where an elderly Trinidadian woman named Adele languishes in dementia to the extent that she fails to remember the son who has returned to care for her. A subtly ominous feeling pervades this novel, which renders in precise strokes an immigrant household where the Canadian dream has fallen short and ghostly traces of a Caribbean past are inescapable, as instanced by Adele’s mumblings about folk magic and remedies. When the narrator awakes in the middle of the night, the “house has taken on some brutal energy, and dust motes have turned the slanting moonlight from the window into solid beams.”

It turns out that his mother’s forgetfulness has been going on since his childhood. This stands perhaps as a consequence of her decades of overwork running a daycare in Canada, as well as a mysterious trauma going back to her youth in Trinidad. Fragments of Caribbean folklore—such as a shape-shifting evil spirit called the soucouyant—surface in Adele’s dementia-ridden speech and provide clues to a life in a continual state of erasure.


Book Cover The Electrical Field

The Electrical Field, by Kerri Sakamoto

Novels about the Japanese-Canadian Internment and its aftermath have a special significance for me, since my grandparents lived through this traumatic period of history. Kerri Sakamoto’s The Electrical Field, which I first read over twenty years ago, continues to haunt my imagination. The novel is set in a bleak suburb of 1970s Toronto, where “the glinting electrical towers marched like giants past the houses and into the distance.” In this improvised neighbourhood, a variety of eccentric and troubled Japanese Canadians live in close community. The internment, which some 30 years earlier uprooted them from their idyllic hometowns in British Columbia and landed them in squalid camps for the duration of the Second World War, is never far from their memories. The main character—an idiosyncratic, unmarried woman compelled to take care of her elderly, cantankerous father—finds her world upended when her Japanese friend and the friend’s Caucasian lover turn up murdered. This prompts a long-awaited reckoning with the collective past.


Book Cover AFterimage

Afterimage, by Helen Humphreys

Victorian photography and its relationship to modernism has been a longstanding interest of mine, going back to my days at grad school. Afterimage explores this among other intriguing subjects through the story of an Irish maid of exceptional talents, Annie Phelan. Brought to England as a young child after the death of her family and made to work, she has become against all odds a young woman who is literate and artistically inclined. From the moment of her arrival at the grand house of her new employers, the reader senses Annie’s longing to participate in their genteel world in a role other than servitude, through her eye for aesthetic detail and keen observations, such as the “dry clicks of insects busy in the hedgerow.” Her employers are Isabelle and Eldon, an unconventional, childless couple whose marriage Annie gets thrust into. Precursors to the Bloomsbury coterie, Isabelle is an artist seeking to make a name for herself by experimenting with the new medium of photography, and Eldon’s passion is mapmaking. Annie becomes a muse and object of attraction for both husband and wife, bringing creative rejuvenation. When she poses in a variety of historical costumes for Isabelle’s elaborate photo shoots, Annie proves a particularly expressive and stirring model. Yet ultimately, she longs for some autonomy and recognition for her role in this unique collaboration. As the novel races toward its climax, issues of class, desire, and what it means to do the work of art are sensitively examined.


Book Cover The Break

The Break, by Katherena Vermette

After a young mother witnesses outside her house one snowy night a girl being attacked by hooded figures, she calls the police, only to find her concerns not being taken seriously due to her status as an Indigenous woman. But if in its opening pages The Break appears to be a mystery novel, it soon reveals itself as a more sprawling, experimental work. For what follows is a kaleidoscopic series of chapters told from the perspectives of ten different characters in the largely Métis community. Primarily women, many of these narrators are linked through close familial ties. The most enigmatic among them is a dead woman, who speaks beyond the grave and offers a glimpse of what it might be like to experience one’s body as “only a memory.” As their various stories unfold, swirling around the central mystery of the assaulted girl’s identity, the reader is taken on a gritty journey through a host of social problems including poverty, addiction, sexual assault, gang violence, and homelessness.

The setting—a barren stretch of Winnipeg’s North End, known as the Break—comes alive as a character itself. The novel details the intriguing history of this transient neighbourhood, which housed waves of marginalized European immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century, before becoming a predominantly Indigenous community of “big families, good people, but also gangs, hookers, drug houses, and all the big, beautiful houses somehow sagging and tired like the old people who still live in them.” It’s as though the Break’s disjointed history and urban geography mirror the ruptures that these characters have experienced in their own lives.


Book Cover The Bishop's Man

The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre

When The Bishop’s Man won the Giller in 2009, I picked up a copy with particular interest because I’d heard that it concerned the town in Nova Scotia where I’d taught English at a small Catholic university for a two-year stint and departed from the prior year in a state of burnout and sadness. In reading this striking novel, I felt that I was reacquainting myself with some of the stark, beautiful landscapes and complex, clannish people I’d known rather recently in my professional life. While the protagonist, Father Duncan MacAskill, appears on the surface to be at the helm of a bustling Catholic church, he is in fact very much an outsider, due to the matter of his foreign mother and “bastard father.” Feeling the need to prove himself, he has over the past two decades been pulled into a role of cleaning up the church’s sordid secrets by disciplining wayward priests for their sexual abuse of boys (this mirrors the scandal that had been fomenting in Nova Scotia and other regions and was gaining increased media attention in the early 1990s, the novel’s setting). What remains with me most about this book is MacAskill’s guarded introversion, the emotional cost of doing the work at hand. But after the suicide of a boy he suspects was abused by a priest, MacAskill’s carefully constructed mask begins to crack and a confrontation with the past and his own complicity is brought upon him.


Book Cover Sisters of the Spruce

Learn more about Sisters of the Spruce:

World War One is in high gear. Fourteen-year-old Khya Terada moves with her family to a remote, misty inlet on Haida Gwaii, then the Queen Charlotte Islands, in northern British Columbia, known for its Sitka spruces. The Canadian government has passed an act to expedite logging of these majestic trees, desperately needed for the Allies’ aircrafts in Europe. At a camp on the inlet, Khya’s father, Sannosuke—a talented, daring logger with twenty years of experience since immigrating from Japan—assumes a position of leadership among the Japanese and Chinese workers.

But the arrival of a group of white loggers, eager to assert their authority, throws off balance the precarious life that Khya and her family have begun to establish. When a quarrel between Sannosuke and a white man known as “the Captain” escalates, leading to the betrayal of her older sister, Izzy, and humiliation for the family, Khya embarks on a perilous journey with her one friend—a half-Chinese sex worker, on the lam for her own reasons—to track down the man and force him to take responsibility. Yet nothing in the forest is as it appears. Can they save Izzy from ruination and find justice without condemning her to a life of danger, or exposing themselves to the violence of an angry, power-hungry man?

Drawing on inspiration from her ancestors’ stories and experiences, Shimotakahara weaves an entrancing tale of female adventure, friendship, and survival.

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