Recommended Reading List
9781773053387_cover
Download list
Please login or register to use this feature.

2019 Governor General's Literary Award Finalists

By kileyturner
0 ratings
rated!
rated!
tagged: awards, GGbooks
These are the finalists for the (English-language) Governor General's Literary Awards. Missing is Catherine Hunter's St. Boniface Elegies, which is not in our database.
Sea Trial

Sea Trial

Sailing After My Father
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

My father’s effects were like flotsam on a beach, each wave leaving something behind as he weakened and died, until the beach was littered with his life. 

And there were so many John Harveys. The prairie kid who was happiest snaring gophers with his friends and crawling underneath the boardwalk on Main Street, who left home at sixteen and never came back, not even for his father’s death. The disillusioned high school teacher who borrowed money, went back to school and became a doctor. The photographer who filled our house with the smell of developers and fixers, and our family albums with images that were much more than snapshots. And the trophy-winning violinist and peripatetic physician who kept searching for the place where medicine was practised the way he thought it should be.

Getting a handle on a life like this one seemed impossible; there was always going to be something you couldn’t quite grasp. After he died, I took a lot of that flotsam into my own home and went gamely through it, sometimes laughing, occasionally crying. I spent a month classifying, labeling, judging, before distributing and disposing. Worst of all were the drop-offs at the Sally Ann, roaring away from the beaten chair and the obsolete stereo abandoned on a wet sidewalk.

For sheer tonnage, the photographs dominated, and that seemed fitting. Photography and music had been the passions that never faded, and he had left many pounds of meticulously labelled negatives and prints. Among the best were the black and white portraits of his fellow physicians, hand-made sixteen-by-twenties he had shot in a hallway, or an operating room, or the smoke-laden Doctors’ Lounge. My favourite bore a caption that typified the mordant sense of humour that my father tried to suppress, but never really could: in this portrait, the doctor is grinning, a cigarette in one hand and the other hand aloft, the thumb and first finger measuring off an inch or so of air.

“Just a small one,” the caption reads. “I have to operate.”

He also left bits and pieces from most of our boats. I went through mountains of nautical detritus in the freezing-cold shed behind his house, high-stepping over rusting garden tools and reaching around scary bottles of thirty-year old pesticide to get at the treasures. Rotting cardboard boxes rained hundreds of dollars worth of bronze nuts and bolts on my shoes. I unearthed a priceless collection of teak scraps left over from the costly rebuilding of a doomed deck; cans of questionable kerosene and long-solidified spar varnish; the rope and wood boarding ladder he’d made during his fear-of-falling overboard phase (this coincided with his fear-of-head-injury phase, when he wore a red motorcycle helmet while driving his convertible). One boat in particular was responsible for much head-scratching and even the need for a German-English dictionary: from Stortebeker III I discovered old Admiralty charts of Raoul Island, where HMS Bounty’s Captain Bligh and his men first made land after being cast adrift by the doomed Fletcher Christian, ceramic jars with cork-lined lids marked “Kaffee” and “Kakao” and even, stuffed into a black plastic back that showered me with rat droppings when I tugged it out of a high-up cranny, a threadbare Nazi flag. Stortebeker III had been built in 1937, in Bremen; there was no lead in her keel.

But the boat stuff was not so difficult to deal with. A lot of it, like the screws and the teak, went directly into my own boat stores, with silent thanks that I would never have to buy it. The coffee and cocoa containers were washed out and refilled. The rest of the household goods found their way to new homes, or to family shelves where they could bide their time for as long as it took for their new owners to die. I donated the doctors’ portraits to the Victoria Medical Society.

That left the papers.

My father’s papers (and there were a lot of them) were sealed in already-labeled cardboard boxes. I left those for last, finally working through them with a growing sense of dread. Most of them were no problem: letters, newspaper clippings about his early triumphs as a violinist, pristine instruction manuals for his many cameras, his own short stories and essays and even a few tentative poems. But there was one box I didn’t want to find. For a while I even thought it might not be there at all, that he might, in the final months before he was exiled to the nursing home and lost control over his own possessions, have managed to get down on his knees and enter the vile crawlspace beneath the kitchen, where I knew it was stored. I imagined him navigating shakily past the trap with the liquefying rat and the jumble of mouldy boat cushions, making it finally to the leaning pile of cardboard boxes to delete the one I feared.

I found it, of course. He could never have disposed of it even if he’d wanted to: it was too heavy. I shoved the box to one side, ignoring it until that’s all there was on the workbench: labeled like all the rest (he was a labeler), but more carefully than the others, the single word LEGAL written on one of those white adhesive rectangles with a red border, then licked and smoothed hard onto the cardboard so there would be no mistake about what was inside. The pain its contents represented had been impossible to contain, but at least the evidence was secure. Until now.

The tape yielded after a short struggle, and took some of the cardboard with it; he had sealed the box well. Inside were files, packed tightly, a solid cube of paper. I pulled them out in slippery handfuls, stacked them on the workbench, stomped the torn cardboard box flat; it was as frail, it turned out, as he was at the end. Then I began to go through the piles.

Work quickly, I told myself; be ruthless. You owe it to him to see what’s in here, but you don’t have to read anything. If he would never explain it all to you before, why start now?

The papers smelled of mould and neglect and, because I knew something of their story, of defeat. I began to go through them, a quick scan and then into the recycling box. Files of patients long dead, each in its own named folder. Photocopies of scientific papers from medical journals, none of them more recent than the mid-1980s. Long and ominous-looking transcripts in vinyl three-ring binders warped with age, and a thick bundle of yellowed newspaper clippings that I tossed without even looking. Printouts of some kind of manuscript, the lettering faded, on side-punched computer paper. I glanced and tossed, as though washing my hands of a corpse. It looked like the whole story was here.

And then, after about twelve inches, I gave up and began to go in reverse. The discard pile got smaller again. I couldn’t recycle or even shred this stuff, it was too sensitive. There were names. It must have taken him years to compile this dossier, with trips to the medical library, the archives, the stationery store for the recipe cards where every reference was recorded on its own little rectangle. Hydrocephalus in Children. Complications of Ventriculo-Atrial Shunts. The Practice of Law and the Search for Truth. Most of the reprints were heavily annotated, in orange highlighter or in his own neat hand; some of them were askew on the page. I imagined him, an unwilling student in his late seventies, cramming a heavy textbook over the photocopy machine, leaning on the cover, turning the page and doing it all again. I couldn’t throw this stuff away.

Pretty soon it was all back together again, a toxic little archive reconstructed. I grabbed one of the brand new U-Haul boxes, erected it and shoe-horned the lot back in. Then some packing tape, rather a lot of it, because I never intended to open the box again, and all it lacked was an unambiguous name. I took a felt pen and wrote the one he had already chosen for his own manuscript, on the top and on each side for good measure, so there’d be no mistaking it: THE TRIAL. Then I pushed it out of sight.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Governor General's Literary Awards finalist for nonfiction
close this panel
Tiny Lights for Travellers
Why it's on the list ...
Governor General's Literary Awards finalist for nonfiction
close this panel
To the River

To the River

Losing My Brother
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

In late November, my brother didn’t show up for his first day as manager of the bookstore in Whitehorse. He’d done his training, had physically set the store up. The staff was hired, the systems debugged. All that was left to do was to open the doors. But he didn’t get there.

The next day, December 1, his truck was spotted at a rest stop on the Alaska Highway thirty kilometres south of town, beside the Marsh Lake Bridge that spans the Yukon River. A woman who used to work with him saw it and assumed it had broken down. But she noticed it was still there eight days later and reported it to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who drove out there and found the truck under a light dust­ing of snow, almost out of gas, unlocked, with the window rolled down. More ominously, they found David’s cowboy hat sitting on the ground near the river. They got in touch with his wife Katherine, who phoned my parents.

That’s when my mother called me in Toronto to say David was missing.

“Missing?

“He didn’t show up for work, and he hasn’t been home.”

“How long has he been missing?”

“Ten days.”

My first thought was that he’d fled his marriage and was off somewhere with a woman. The most likely spot was Vancouver. He’d just been there and perhaps he’d been seduced by its beauty. I was concerned, but I assumed he’d lit out, like in a country and western song. My mother and I tried to reassure one another that this was in character, that he’d be back. Though the timing was troubling. Why would he forfeit his new job at the bookstore? By the time I talked to my sister, later that day, I was worried. Wouldn’t he have taken his truck if he was going to Vancouver?

The RCMP searched with dogs and an airplane, and might have searched the river but it was already half covered in ice. Dragging a river is both expensive and environmentally intrusive, and it isn’t done much anymore. The North is filled with missing persons—people who have fled marriages, jobs, eastern complacency, the law, alimony payments and themselves. My brother was now officially one of them.

A week went by and no one in the family heard from him. In that grim lacuna between rumour and information, we waited. I phoned the Whitehorse RCMP, who had listed him as a missing person but hadn’t ruled out suicide or “foul play,” the quaint euphemism still used to cushion the blow.

I called Katherine and asked for the names and num­bers of friends. She only gave me one, but with that I was able to find others. I didn’t know any of them. I called a dozen people and assembled a daisy chain of anecdote and disbelief. A few thought he had staged his death and was living in Vancouver, or possibly Mexico. I called his doc­tor several times, but she didn’t return my calls, probably because of privacy issues. David’s health had never been brilliant—he had a tubercular cough from his lifetime of cigarette and pot smoking, a dreadful diet, and he never exercised. Maybe there was a dire health issue he hadn’t told anyone about.

I tracked down the man who’d run the manager training session in Vancouver, who told me that David had done well, had enjoyed it. He was perplexed and said he hadn’t seen any signs of a problem.

I constructed a timeline for David’s last days. He checked into the River View Hotel on November 29 and was (allegedly) seen buying drugs that night. One friend noted he had a lot of cash on him; it turned out he had cashed his last two paycheques. Katherine told me she’d driven around town looking for him and saw his truck parked by the River View. She stopped and went in and found he was registered there and had prepaid with cash. She phoned his room from the lobby and a woman answered, then immediately hung up. Katherine didn’t go to his room. Instead, she wrote a note and left it on the windshield of David’s truck. She thought he’d be home in a day or so, contrite, seeking forgiveness.

I found a former bandmate named Ray who told me David didn’t start drinking until the mid-nineties. David had taken the counterculture to heart and thought pot was hip, while drinking was something that Dean Martin did. But he jumped on the alcohol bandwagon in middle age.

A few years later, it was cocaine as well. “We were in the Bitter Creek Band at first, then just a duo,” Ray said. “Played weddings. When his girlfriend left him, he was in a bad state and getting worse. His liver, I think. Went to the hospital in an ambulance. Doctor told him he had two to four years if he kept drinking. He was drinking on his lunch break at the radio station where he worked, beer and a shot. He also had a problem with girls. He cheated on Anna Mae, cheated on his wife, Katherine. It was the same as his drinking. Never enough.”

Ray said there was a nasty faction in Whitehorse that hadn’t always been there. “Seven, eight years ago, you knew everyone. There wasn’t any violence.” Ray didn’t know what had happened to David, but like the RCMP, he hadn’t ruled out foul play.

“He was very good at hiding his problem,” he said. “A very good actor. He kind of had another life. He wasn’t the guy I knew. He could sure play.”

The portrait that emerged of my brother was filled with contradictions: he had habits that had grown over the last decade; he had been clean for two years; he was finally happy; he was desperately unhappy and feeling trapped. He was faithful, he had affairs, he was in debt.

As the days went by with no word from David, my family contemplated three scenarios. The most optimistic was that he had decided to start a new life. This, alas, was already the least likely, though some of his friends held to it; he was variously reported to have gone to Alaska, Vancouver and Mexico, where he was living the good life. The second was foul play, something that came up repeatedly in my conversations with his friends. The third was that he had taken his own life.

My father went to Whitehorse to look for him, staying at his house with Katherine. At that time of year there were less than six hours of daylight and the temperatures were frigid. He talked to the RCMP, talked to a few of David’s friends and, after several dispiriting days, he returned.My family held an unstated, faint hope that Christmas would bring some news. If he had simply taken off, surely he’d get in touch at Christmas. He would call our mother. But Christmas passed.

By then, the Yukon River had frozen solid; if my brother was in the water, we wouldn’t know until spring. So we waited in our separate cities, my parents in Calgary, my sister in Winnipeg and I in Toronto.I now believed that he had taken his own life. It was the most logical option, given the evidence. If he’d taken off, he would have gone in his truck, and he would have taken some of his instruments with him. If he had been murdered over a drug deal, as several people suggested, why leave the truck out there? It seemed too elaborate a misdirection, and there was no sign of a struggle at the scene. My parents and sister had quietly come to the same conclusion.I went online, looking at suicide sites, reading the literature. I decided to go up to Whitehorse and search for him myself, but it made sense to wait until the ice came off the river.

In the meantime, I kept calling his friends, trying to piece his life together. I tracked down David’s last girlfriend, Anna Mae. They’d been together eight years. She was the girlfriend my mother thought was good for David, an enormously capable woman who could fix things, cook and was good with money. Anna Mae told me she had stood beside him for as long as she could, but she couldn’t bear his infidelities and addictions. She finally left him, then left Whitehorse, moving to a semi-abandoned mining town in northern British Columbia. She told me that while David was engaged to Katherine, he had phoned her, asking her to take him back. Anna Mae sent him a letter, holding her ground; she said she loved him but couldn’t go through all that again.

She sent me a copy of the letter, which was long and heartbreaking. “I know you don’t want to be the way you are and do the things you do,” she wrote to David. “But you have problems. They are your problems. I didn’t cause them and I can’t cure them. Only you can do that, if and when you are ready. It’s like you’re living two different lives. I hope one day you’ll get the help you need. I believe you are a wonderful, caring, loving person, with problems. But those problems are too much for me to handle.”

Anna Mae also told me that David had tried to commit suicide, a surprise. After she left him, he took sleeping pills and lay down on the couch in the basement. He left a note, saying he was leaving everything to his daughter, Ivy. He woke up, though, and crumpled up the note. When Anna Mae found out she called his doctor. He ended up in the hospital briefly.

I decided not to tell my parents this. I thought it would be better to wait until we had more definitive news about what had happened. My plan was to fly to Whitehorse in the spring, when the ice was off the river. I phoned the RCMP in April to find that the river was still frozen. May was no better. I finally flew to Whitehorse in the first week of June.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Governor General's Literary Awards finalist for nonfiction
close this panel
Cold White Sun
Excerpt

“He cannot stay here!”

I jolted to sitting. Blind darkness.

Muscles tensed, breath stopped. Heart bashing through my chest.

Listening. Ready. …

I filled my lungs to capacity, let the air trickle from them like a small leak from a bicycle tire and patted beside me, feeling for Ishi.

A wall of fabric, warm from my body. No brother. Where was he?

“He has nowhere to go. He has no one.” A man’s voice, clear above the freezing room....We have nothing to hide.”

“We are hiding him, aren’t we? He cannot stay here!”

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Governor General's Literary Awards finalist for young people's literature (text)
close this panel
Stand on the Sky

Stand on the Sky

edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
Governor General's Literary Awards finalist for young people's literature (text)
close this panel
The Grey Sisters
Excerpt

It was nothing really. Her ears closed up and then she felt a discomforting pressure like a rough, heavy hand on the top of her head. She tried swallowing repeatedly to equalize the pressure in her ears and then rummaged in her bag for some gum. She didn’t find any. Instead, she discovered Floppy Monkey stuffed down at the bottom with a spare pair of thick woolen socks.
D must have snuck him into the bag and kept Floppy Giraffe with her. They were ancient stuffed toys knitted for them at birth by their Nonna. They normally lived on the bookshelf, but not when the girls were sick or one of them was traveling solo. Kat smiled to herself. He was almost as good as having her twin sister sitting right there beside her, and she wished she could cuddle with him unnoticed for a minute but that was unlikely. She touched her fingertip to her lips, pressed a kiss onto his poor worn head, and hid him away again.
It was a small plane, and the twenty-eight kids and two teachers filled it completely. That was half of the tenth grade; the other half were building houses for low-income families, but she’d done that in grade nine and quickly realized that she wasn’t compatible with power tools.
Next to her, Jonathan interrupted the contemplation of his heavy book and swept his gaze around the crowded airplane. “G-force,” he said, staring at her with his amber eyes. His heavy-framed glasses magnified them hugely. It was unsettling, like looking at a praying mantis close up. Funny how, even though he and his just-eleven-months-older sister, Spider, shared an undeniable family resemblance — same eyes and brows, same strong features and dark hair — Jonathan hadn’t grown into his face and body yet. It was as if he was wearing a skin suit a few sizes too big and it made him ungainly and awkward. Spider was the opposite of that, sure and graceful in her movements. “You know, gravity.”
Kat grunted. He was always saying weird things and then not explaining them. This time though, he continued. “But are we going up or down? Roller coaster?” He moved his hand in a wave motion and pursed his lips.
She had no answer, nor could she be sure he was even talking to her. More like at her. Spider always said Jonathan was on his own trip, and barely noticed other people. He even referred to them as humans for chrissakes, as if he were from outer space or something. And being so smart, he’d gone straight from eighth grade into tenth — their grade. It was something he never let any of them forget.
Still, they’d all grown up together on the same cul-de-sac and Kat got him, or at least more than most.
“Is your seat belt on?” he asked, poking at her upper arm.
She lifted the corner of her shirt to show him and returned her attention to the thick notebook open on her lap. It was her idea book, stuffed full of images and clippings. Everything and everyone she drew inspiration from. At the moment, she was totally in love with Mexican floral embroidery and Yayoi Kusama’s crazy polka dots. Sometimes when she was snuggled under the covers in her bed, she saw flowers and butterflies imprinted on everything. A glorious world of movement and color.
The plane dipped, propelling her stomach into her neck.
Two rows up, she could see the back of Henry Chen’s tousled head, John Brewster’s hand high-fiving him. The noise of chatter washed over her, transforming the cabin into an even smaller space.
Surely they must be getting close? She estimated they were somewhere near Spectacle Lakes. Her Nonna had told her that they were so blue they were like a slice of heaven.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Governor General's Literary Awards finalist for young people's literature (text)
close this panel
Albert's Quiet Quest
Why it's on the list ...
Governor General's Literary Awards finalist for young people's literature (illustration)
close this panel
comments powered by Disqus

There are two ways to make a reading list

This way:

  1. Click the "Create a New List" button just above this panel.
  2. Add as many books as you wish using the built-in search on the list edit page.

Or that way:

  1. Go to any book page.
  2. In the right-hand column, click on "Add to List." A drop-down menu will appear.
  3. From the drop-down menu, either add your book to a list you have already created or create a new list.
  4. View and edit your lists anytime on your profile page.
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...