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Summer Ghosts

A recommended reading list by the author of We Are Already Ghosts

Book Cover We Are Already Ghosts

We Are Already Ghosts is on our July Summer reading list, which means we've got copies up for giveaway until the end of the month!

Head over to our Giveaways page for your chance to win, and to see everything else we've got on offer.


We Are Already Ghosts is at once a summer read set in a cabin on an unnamed, fictional Albertan lakeside and a novel that experiments with narrative form. Set between 1996 and 2011, it follows the Briscoe-MacDougall family through their lives, their loves, their triumphs, and their losses. Passing over the end of the millennium, it tracks, too, the changing world in Canada and beyond.

In this book I am concerned, in part, with challenging the ways in which Alberta is popularly (mis)represented as a place with two large, urban cities—nominally progressive, at least in Edmonton’s case—and a rural landscape that is thought of as conservative. My experience of the province is much more nuanced than that. It is my firm view that we need more complex stories about this place, ones that challenge simplistic understandings. Narratives work to challenge the ongoing colonial politics of the settler state because they refuse to accept the status quo of how this place is spoken about.

These things and more inform this book; I also hope that readers will find this novel to be a meditation on a family’s progress over time in a single place. It is a character-driven novel that seeks to bring readers into a conversation about what it means to live life well in spite of the circumstances. My characters are complex and flawed; I am fond of them in all of their failings.

Many books inspire We Are Already Ghosts, and while 49th Shelf focuses on Canadian ones, it’s also important to know that Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts are key influences, as is Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. One character reads Proust; other characters exchange quotes from Shakespeare. The novel endeavours to be both an enjoyable read and an unapologetically literary book. Some of the texts that I list here are older ones. This focus reflects some of my own reading practices, but it also reflects the ways in which this novel’s historical setting relates to the texts that influence its characters and its form.


Book Cover Beautiful Losers

Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen
While there is much to object to in Cohen’s 1966 novel from a contemporary perspective—his depictions of Indigenous people in this book are ones that I find deeply troubling—it remains an important classic in Canada, one that was also denounced upon publication as being pornographic. One of my characters spends a portion of We Are Already Ghosts reading Cohen’s novel, and Cohen’s complex mixing of the sacred and the profane in his work lies in the background of much of my thinking.


Book Cover The Studhorse Man

The Studhorse Man, by Robert Kroetsch
Back in 1969, Kroetsch published this bawdy, irreverent, hilarious tall tale about Hazard Lepage and his rare studhorse Poseidon. This novel is at once a mad romp across Alberta—from the legislature in Edmonton to the shores of a lake that I take to be Sylvan Lake—and a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. It is a bold book by any measure. I have delighted to have had the opportunity to teach it in a few of my classes over the years. Kroetsch was also one of Canada’s many poet-novelists (like Cohen and others on this list), and the ways in which he captures landscape have stuck with me over the years.


Book Cover Love a book of remembrances

Love: A Book of Remembrances, by bpNichol
Everyone should read the poetry of the late bpNichol for so many reasons. It is playful, meditative, joyous, and deep. Nichol was a master of transforming language through working with it in many, many permutations. The structure of We Are Already Ghosts was inspired in part by one of the comic-book-style pieces in Nichol’s 1974 book Love: A Book of Remembrances. Nichol plays with the letter “H” in much of his work, and in this case a three-dimensional rendering of that letter gave me the inspiration to create the overall shape of this novel as one that comes full circle over four different summers (each summer representing one of the descenders in Nichol’s piece). bpNichol’s playful spirit shows up in many places in the book and there is one direct quote from his work that eager Nichol readers might spot.


Book Cover Bear

Bear, by Marian Engel
Marian Engel’s 1976 Bear is a classic, notorious book that also won a Governor General’s Award. It is a short novel that recounts an archivist’s time in a remote cabin in Ontario going through a quirky old library. Over the course of the novel, she develops an increasingly close relationship with a bear that is kept on the property. The notorious part has to do with just how close that relationship becomes. While nothing quite so saucy occurs in my novel (at least in an inter-species context), I hope that some of that sensibility concerning the landscape has translated between these two cabin-based novels. I also have an abiding love of bears, and they show up when my characters go to the dump. (I also have deep love for dumps, but that’s another story.)


Book Cover Judith

Judith, by Aritha van Herk

Judith, which won the Seal First Book Award shortly after its publication in 1978, is a novel that made me also want to challenge how Alberta is depicted and understood when I first read it. A novel about a woman who struggles against dominant masculinity and urban norms to be a pig farmer, this is a book that asks important questions that still are not resolved. Aritha van Herk, moreover, has written so well and so meaningfully about Alberta for a long time; she is the editor of the series in which We Are Already Ghosts appears, and it is a deep honour to have my book included therein.


Book Cover Monoceros

Monoceros, by Suzette Mayr

Mayr’s novel The Sleeping Car Porter recently won the Giller Prize, and I love that book, but I also really want to recommend that readers spend time with her 2011 novel Monoceros, winner of the W.O. Mitchell Prize. Monoceros is a novel that begins—but does not end—with a young queer person dying by suicide. The novel follows the ripple effects across the Calgary high school that the student attended and the community beyond. It is sad and tragic, but also challenges society’s fixation on queer tragedy as being the end of the story. This novel is one that captures much of Calgary’s complexity, richness, and texture.


Book Cover Autobiography of Childhood

Autobiography of Childhood, by Sina Queyras

I have huge respect for the poetic skill and tremendous acumen of Sina Queyras across many projects. There is a small quotation from Queyras’ poetry collection Expressway in my novel, and the essay “Lyric Conceptualism, A Manifesto in Progress” was one of the pieces that inspired me to endeavour to write a novel that blends a conceptual structure with a lyrical approach. But it is perhaps Queyras’ 2011 novel Autobiography of Childhood that has touched me the most over the years. Its quiet, meditative approach is something that has inspired me greatly in this project.


Book Cover The Response of Weeds

The Response of Weeds: A Misplacement of Black Poetry on the Prairies, by Bertrand Bickersteth
I had the distinct pleasure of editing this book for NeWest Press, and I can’t recommend it enough. It won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the Fred Cogswell Award, and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award, among other citations. My work challenges aspects of writing about prairie spaces, but writing about Black experience is beyond my capabilities. I heartily recommend Bickersteth’s book as a vital poetic exploration of place and Black history and presence on the prairies. The book works by thinking across Alberta’s watersheds in order to unwrite, rewrite, and challenge what readers may think they already know. The Response of Weeds, in so many ways, takes the conversation about this place further than ever I could.


Book Cover A Minor Chorus

A Minor Chorus, by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Billy-Ray Belcourt’s writing often situates itself in northern Alberta, and therefore further north than the imagined setting of We Are Already Ghosts, but there is still much that resonates about the settings in this novel. Winner of the Ethel Wilson Prize, A Minor Chorus provides a very welcome way of thinking about landscape and loss. Belcourt’s Cree sensibilities infuse this meditative, theoretically driven, thoughtful novel about a protagonist abandoning a thesis project in a search to find other ways of being in the world. I encourage everyone who welcomes a more complex understanding of what it means to live in treaty 6, 7, and 8 territories (the treaties that cover most of the land that is also known as Alberta) to read Indigenous texts connected to these places. Belcourt’s novel is one that I am very keen to recommend to more readers.


Book Cover Oldman's River

Oldman’s River: New and Collected Poems, by Sid Marty

To end with poetry (and also a book that I was lucky enough to edit for NeWest Press), Sid Marty’s Oldman’s River is an extended meditation on rural Albertan places. It very recently won the inaugural Al and Eurithe Purdy Poetry Prize. Marty—a former park warden and a long-time rural resident of southern Alberta—has for many decades been chronicling the environments about which I write. He has been doing this work for much longer than I have and so I defer to him on many, many things. Marty’s voice is iconoclastic, railing against unthinking forms of “development” from all sides of the political spectrum, while noting, too, the limitations of urban mindsets. Marty provides a crucial corrective voice that can allow us to see rural Alberta in a new light.


Book Cover We Are Already Ghosts

Learn more about We Are Already Ghosts:

The Briscoe-MacDougall family retire to their lakeside cabin each summer. This annual vacation is at time to unwind and refresh, a time to relax away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

We are Already Ghosts joins the Briscoe-MacDougalls in the summer of 1996 and returns to them at five-year intervals. William, Clare, Helen, Michael, John, Doug, Mike, Jéanne, Françoise, Celeste, Daphne, Benjamin, and Mackenzie the dog live, grow up, and grow old as the world changes in small ways and in devastating ones. The shock of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan tear across the globe; the Great Recession steals jobs, savings, and houses; and the politics of colonial Canada come evermore into focus. Marriages are made and marriages fall apart, babies are born, lives end, careers are made and broken, the trash gets taken to the dump, the trees bud and then they lose their leaves. The cabin remains and the family returns, year after year.

Impeccably written, crisp, and direct, We are Already Ghosts is a turn-of-the-millennium family epic that documents and challenges Canadian life. Author Kit Dobson writes in conversation with the literary tradition, creating a narratively complex, compelling, and smart novel that is a pleasure to read yet lingers in the mind long after the covers are closed.

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