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Coming-of-Age Stories that Stand the Test of Time

A recommended reading list by the author of The Celestial Wife.

Book Cover The Celestial Wife

I’ve always been attracted to coming-of-age stories and so it's not surprising that both of my novels have been described as bildungsroman. My new novel, The Celestial Wife, is about a young girl facing a forced marriage who escapes her strict polygamist community and comes of age in the tumultuous 1960s.

I’m attracted to the format because the possibilities for the character, or individual in the case of a memoir, seem limitless to the reader. The central theme of a bildungsroman centres on how someone changes in an environment that is continually challenging them as they grow and develop.

How will the character choose to define themselves? What life events will shape and bend them? How will they deal with and recover from trauma? These are all absorbing questions for the reader that can leave them breathlessly turning pages to the end.

A truly great novel or memoir stands the test of time and here (in order of publication date) are six that have stayed with me for years, and decades in some instances, as captivating and brilliantly written examples of the coming-of-age story.


Book Cover Growing Pains

Growing Pains, The Autobiography of Emily Carr, by Emily Carr

When most people think of the world-renowned artist Emily Carr, they think of her modern, post-impressionist paintings and drawings, but she was also a wonderful writer with a distinct and engaging voice. Told in vignettes, her stories are whimsical and funny, but beneath the charm lies pointed political and cultural barbs. She was an eccentric and struggled for acceptance from her family and society as a whole. The pathos that permeates her life story is the loss of her mother when Emily was 14. Her mother was the one person who understood and protected Emily from her abusive oldest sister and overbearing father. Emily’s life was defined by her mother’s illness and early death. She dealt with it through her art. It became her path to self discovery and independence.


Book Cover Fifth Business

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

I read this book decades ago and it still comes to mind when I think of remarkable coming-of-age stories. It is a quintessential Ontario/Canadian story of two boys, Dunstan Ramsey and Percy Boyd (Boy) Staunton. Ramsey is the aged narrator who claims that, while he led an unremarkable life, he played a vital role in other people’s remarkable stories.

As ten-year-olds, the boys get into a fight and settle the score with a snowball fight. Boy Staunton hides a rock in his snowball but then misses the mark and accidentally hit the next-door-neighbour, a woman in the later stages of pregnancy. The woman is badly injured and goes into premature labour. Her life is forever altered and over time, she slowly looses her grip on reality. The unexpected consequences of that one terrible event echo throughout the boys’ lives and leave the reader both shocked and spellbound to the murderous conclusion. In the end, the reader learns that Dunstan Ramsey was not just a bystander is other people’s remarkable lives, but an active participant when life’s events compelled him to act.


Book Cover The Wars

The Wars, by Timothy Findley

Of all the World War I books I have read, this one stands out for its gut-wrenching portrayal of life in the trenches and for the unusual character of the protagonist, the introspective and caring Robert Ross. Ross is inherently a gentle soul who loves animals and cannot bring himself to harm a single one, so he is absolutely devastated when his beloved sister dies because of his inattentiveness. His mother never really forgives him and suggests he enlist and go to France.

At the front, he soon realizes that he won’t survive if he can’t shoot another human being. In a sad twist of irony, he panics and shoots a German soldier who had been trying to help him. The stresses on him begin to overwhelm and Ross starts to slip into madness. When the day comes that he is ordered to leave horses to burn to death in a barn he must decide if he can kill the captain who gave him the order or let the horses die.


Book Cover The Book of Negros

The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill

I loved that this story started in Africa with 11-year-old Aminata Diallo living a typical life of a young girl in a small village in Niger. The descriptions of her daily routines and the happy life in her community make a shocking contrast to her kidnapping and subsequent three month forced march to waiting slave ships. After a horrendous voyage across the Atlantic, Aminata endures a life of hardship and deprivation in South Carolina until she escapes.

 Because she is highly intelligent and has learned to read and write English, and because she can speak African dialects, she gets a job writing names in The Book of Negroes, which lists formerly enslaved people who served the British during American Revolutionary War and have been granted the right to move to Nova Scotia as free people.

Once Aminata has her freedom, she can’t shake her eternal longing to return to the happy life she once knew in her village in Africa. After years of trying, she finally returns, only to discover that the slave trade is still going strong there and she will never be safe in her homeland.


Book Cover Washington Black

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan is one of those rare writers who can write both a page-turner and a literary novel in one (with a dose of magical realism thrown in). This is a roller coaster of a novel that never rests, the characters moving from Barbados to Virginia, the Arctic, London, Nova Scotia and finally Morocco.

The experiences of young “Wash” Black as a slave on a plantation in Barbados feels visceral to the reader. He suffers the whims of his master and has no control over his present or his future, and so I love the imagery of him escaping the plantation in a hot air balloon. Slave hunters pursue him, and he takes on many incarnations using the skills he has learned to survive, until the uncertain end.


Book Cover From the Ashes

From the Ashes, by Jesse Thistle

Every police officer and crown prosecutor should be required to read this book. It would give them a whole new prospective on many of people that they encounter every day who struggle with homelessness and addiction, and the extraordinary traumas that lead people to crisis.

In this unsparing story of a remarkable young boy, Jesse is abandoned by his mother when he is just a toddler. His drug addicted father’s inept attempts to raise Jesse and his two brothers left me shocked and saddened at every turn of the page. The boys eventually find a home with their paternal grandparents, but after fending for themselves, living with their tough-love grandparents is doomed to failure.

Through it all, Jesse has a thirst for knowledge and an innate understanding of his own intelligence. After years on the street struggling with addiction and resorting to petty crimes, he knows he must turn his life around. He does it though doggedly pursuing an education with the help and support of his wife. Today, he has a career in academia and his bestselling memoir has received a long list a awards and praise.


Book Cover The Celestial Wife

Learn more about The Celestial Wife:

A young fundamentalist Mormon girl facing a forced marriage escapes her strict, polygamist community and comes of age in the tumultuous 1960s in this captivating novel inspired by shockingly true events.

1964. Fifteen-year-old Daisy Shoemaker dreams of life beyond her small, isolated fundamentalist Mormon community of Redemption on the Canada—US border—despite Bishop Thorsen’s warning that the outside world is full of sin. According to the Principle, the only way to enter the celestial kingdom is through plural marriage. While the boys are taught to work in the lucrative sawmill that supports their enclave, Daisy and her best friend, Brighten, are instructed to keep sweet and wait for Placement—the day the bishop will choose a husband for them. But Daisy wants to be more than a sister-wife and a mother. So when she is placed with a man forty years her senior, she makes the daring decision to flee Redemption.

Years later, Daisy has a job and a group of trustworthy friends. Emboldened by the ideas of the feminist and counterculture movements, she is freer than she has ever been…until Brighten reaches out with a cry for help and Daisy’s past comes hurtling back. But to save the women she left behind, Daisy must risk her newfound independence and return to Redemption, where hellfire surely awaits.

For readers of Emma Cline’s The Girls and Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure comes an arresting coming-of-age novel about a fearless young girl’s fight for freedom at a time of great historic change.

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