An east to west and north to south look at Canadian books

History, autobiography, children’s books, and more

Image courtesy of Dancing Cat Books

By: Gabrielle McLaren

In school, we had to read Canadian books all the time for English and French class. I’m not going to lie: most of them were bad and made me want to scratch my eyes out. No more of that! CanLit isn’t just cool because Margaret Atwood’s books got on TV: as it turns out, every region of the country has had some cool books to offer all along.

Newfoundland

  • A Newfoundlander in Canada: Always Going Somewhere, Always Coming Home by Alan Doyle — Great Big Sea was the soundtrack of my family’s road trips, so my parents bounced on their lead singer’s autobiography. As it turns out, Doyle is also a really fun writer who will regale you with stories, the contents of which range from selling cod tongue to learning how to play music.

Prince Edward Island

  • Anne of Green Gables et al by Lucy Maud Montgomery — This one seems nearly too obvious, since Montgomery’s fiery ginger orphan is famous across the world, but as one of the first pieces of children’s literature in Canada, it earns its place. You can alternatively check out Montgomery’s other series Emily of New Moon or read Maud, a young adult (YA) fiction adaptation of Montgomery’s life that highlights just how alike Maud and her protagonist really were.

Nova Scotia

  • The Birth House by Ami McKay — This book, set in the era of the Great War, follows Dora Rare. The first daughter of her family in five generations, Dora grows up with boisterous brothers and forges an unlikely friendship with Madame Babineau, an Acadian midwife. The book is very much a coming-of-age story, although it also deals with women’s issues and a look into the early health-care system in Nova Scotia.

New Brunswick

  • Pelagie: The Return to Acadie by Antonine Maillet — This one’s an oldie but a goody, showered with prizes in the 1970s when it first came out. Pélagie is a widow and a survivor of the Great Disruption, when Acadian farmers were deported from Acadia by British troops. A few Acadians hid from the British, a few were sent back to France, and many others were deported to the Thirteen Colonies or tried making their way to Louisiana. Many spent their whole lives searching for family. Pélagie is one of those who decided to make the trip back home, and that is the story Maillet is telling.

Québec

  • Everything they won’t tell you, Mongo by Dany Laferrière — This book reads like a guide from a Haitian immigrant to a young man arriving from Cameroun, explaining how to understand and fit into Québécois society. While there’s a slew of Québécois fiction out there to read, Laferrière is a cool figure of the French-Canadian literary scene, since he is actually the first Haitian or Canadian member of l’Académie française, the council that regulates the French language.

Ontario

  • The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline — Don’t let its YA classification fool you: The Marrow Thieves follows a group of Indigenous peoples on the run in a dystopian Canada where they are being hunted down by the government for their bone marrow in a world where nobody can dream. Yeah: it’s that dark, that impactful, and that brutally honest.

Manitoba

  • The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy — Originally written in French, The Tin Flute is about the strength of familial love, before anything else. It follows a family struggling to make ends meet in the slums of Montreal, as well as abroad during the Second World War. Gabrielle Roy’s former house in Winnipeg is now a museum.

Saskatchewan

  • The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel — Bet you didn’t know that the guy who wrote Life of Pi lived in Saskatoon, of all places. His other novels haven’t been made into fancy CGI movies with cool tigers (yet), so you might not know this book either. The High Mountains of Portugal combines fantastical elements like hunting for treasure with all-too-real pain like grief. It’s whimsical, quirky, and has that untouchable quality that I loved about Life of Pi.

Alberta

  • Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King — OK, so King isn’t actually Albertan, he’s from California. But he is an amazing author and he did teach at the University of Lethbridge. This book in particular follows the lives of various Blackfoot characters in a timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly narrative that winds between past and present, myth and world.

British Columbia

  • Do Not Say we Have Nothing by (SFU alumna!) Madeleine Thien — Here’s a book set in Vancouver, and also China, as our protagonist Marie tries to put together the story of her family’s passage through various tight spots of history. When I passed this book to my mom, she could only read it bit by bit because she found it rough and dark.

Yukon

  • The Klondike by Zach Worton — My brother’s teacher recommended this book to him when he said he hated history. For starters, it’s a graphic novel — hurray! His book is part-history lesson, part-biography of the key players of the Klondike Gold Rush (which helped to move along the process of Yukon becoming its own territory), and part-gorgeous illustrations of the kind of natural environment all of this took place in. If you’re more of a novel person, you’ll find descriptions of these very landscapes in Jack London’s work as well.

Northwest Territories

  • A Promise is a Promise by Michael Kusugak and Robert Munsch — Munsch heard the story from Michael Kusugak, an Inuit friend he was staying with during a book tour in the Northwest Territories. The two collaborated on penning Kusugak’s childhood encounter with a monster living under the ice.  

Nunavut

  • Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and Liz Amini-Holmes — Fatty Legs follows Margaret, a young Inuit girl who begs to go to residential school to learn how to read. Residential school stories are some of the most horrifying in Canada’s history, and the simultaneously gentle but honest format of children’s literature has given a home to many over the years. Fatty Legs uses text, illustrations, and archival photos to bring this very real story to life. You can also check out Shi-shi-etko, When We Were Alone, or Wenjack to read more.

Non-fiction books