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Getting to know Canada by reading its great books. (ayzek/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Getting to know Canada by reading its great books. (ayzek/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Canada Day

Booked: A literary travel guide for the stay-at-home vacationer Add to ...

Planning to tour Canada this summer? To help you plan your getaway, Globe Books asked some of the country’s finest writers to recommend the book they think best explains their home turf. The result is a literary travel guide that’s got us covered, coast to coast to coast.

ALBERTA

Todd Babiak recommends The Studhorse Man , by Robert Kroetsch.

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I once thought Alberta was too new to sustain fiction. This was, of course, stupid. Edmonton has been a centre for trade and ceremony for at least 8,000 years. I was living in Montreal when I discovered The Studhorse Man , a wild and lusty novel that creates an Edmonton and an Alberta of the imagination. The High Level Bridge, downtown taverns, urban forests, even the legislative building are places of mystery and sex and betrayal and heartbreak – as authentic as Saint Urbain Street.

Todd Babiak’s new novel, Come Barbarians, will be published in September.

Esi Edugyan recommends Green Grass, Running Water , by Thomas King.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of this delightful novel. It is as difficult to summarize as life itself. Among other things, it tells the twin stories of an unconventional Blackfoot family in Alberta, stubborn and loveable and quarrelsome, and of four mysterious figures who just may be the first men on earth, or perhaps the last survivors of those imprisoned at Fort Marion, Florida, following the Red River Wars. When these two “families” meet, on the Blackfoot reservation for the Sun Dance, an extraordinary collision of humour, magic and satire emerges. I first read this book in my early 20s, and have returned to it several times since, in delight and wonder. It does not age.

Esi Edugyan is the author of Half-Blood Blues, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

BRITISH COLUMBIA

Marjorie Celona recommends Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr.

For the long-limbed trees and watery landscape of Vancouver Island, read Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Setting aside, who can resist a woman who lived in a caravan in Goldstream Park with a pack of dogs and monkey and shunned the human race except to attend her own art openings? Only a genius could both paint and write my/her home.

Marjorie Celona’s debut novel, Y, was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Charlotte Gill recommends The Curve of Time , by M. Wylie Blanchet.

When Blanchet’s husband died in 1926, she did an unexpected thing. She climbed aboard the family’s 25-foot boat with her five children and embarked on what must be one of the most remarkable homeschooling adventures ever put to paper. For 15 years, the family spent their summers cruising the remote bays and inlets of British Columbia at a time when many of the province’s wilder maritime corners had no navigational charts (let alone GPS). The book is fascinating record of the family’s encounters with wildlife and stunning geography, First Nations villages and logging camps. Blanchet, once an urban private-school girl, proves herself a fiercely capable single mother and outdoorswoman. A West Coast classic.

Charlotte Gill’s most recent book is Eating Dirt, which won the B.C. National Award for Non-Fiction.

MANITOBA

David Bergen recommends The Diviners , by Margaret Laurence.

Christie, the town garbage man, talks to his adopted daughter Morag about garbage. “I see [what people] throw out, and I don’t care a shit, but they think I do, so that’s why they cannot look at me. They think muck’s dirty. It’s no more dirty than what’s in their heads. Or mine. It’s christly clean compared to some things.” Christie gets the best lines in this book. And he dies, as Christ-figures tend to do. Morag is the novelist. She will be great. But first she will be educated about class division, books, writing and sex. Christie and Morag. Garbage man and writer. The ties that bind. No wonder folks tried banning this book. The book is a nuisance. From the Nuisance Grounds. Where the garbage goes. But Morag rises above it all. She is smart and vulgar and skeptical, especially of herself, and she has no patience for arrogance, even if she carries within herself a smidgen of arrogance. She is very much like the place she comes from, Manitoba.

David Bergen’s most recent novel is The Age of Hope. He won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for The Time In Between.

John K. Samson recommends City Treaty: A Long Poem , by Marvin Francis.

The seeds sown in the long winter of Idle No More are blooming everywhere, altering my view of Winnipeg, where I’ve always lived, and changing the way I read the writers who’ve tried to understand this town. The artist and poet Marvin Francis, who died too young in 2005, anticipated this resurgence in his City Treaty, an exuberant collection of songs, interventions, jokes, maps, histories and manifestos labelled a long poem. City Treaty asks us to “make sound that contours land” and “follow the word drummers,” asks us to walk and read and write a better Winnipeg.

John K. Samson is the author of Lyrics and Poems, 1997-2012. He is the singer and songwriter for The Weakerthans and the managing editor of ARP Books.

NEW BRUNSWICK

David Adams Richards recommends several books.

Travel any highway in New Brunswick and you will have a writer to take along. You could stop in Saint John and read the impeccable selected poems of Robert Gibbs; or journey along the Saint John river with Sheree Fitch’s Toes in my Nose or Sleeping Dragons All Around . Along the way you might run into Beth Powning’s The Sea Captain’s Wife , or meet Don Hannah’s Wise and Foolish Virgins . Then in Fredericton meet Michael Pacey and read his brilliant book of poems, The First Step . Travel onward toward Moncton and you will meet the wonderful Acadian writer France Daigle, and her award winning novel Pour Sûr ; or the great Acadian poet Herménégilde Chiasson. Then go on toward the Mighty Miramichi River where other writers abound – so read Herb Curtis’s The Americans Are Coming and his brother Wayne Curtis’s Long Ago and Far Away . Or perhaps Ray Fraser’s The Struggle Outside . A little further to the north you might see Sally Armstrong and pick up a copy of the Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor . And when you travel back toward Fredericton after dark, you will meet before you retire for the night the greatest poet Canada has ever produced: Alden Nowlan. He is a must read for anyone who is a citizen of the world.

Yes, we are only a small province, but bigger than some countries and the diverse universal talent along our shores does prove it well.

David Adams Richards is the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul and Mercy Among the Children, for which he was awarded the Giller Prize. His new novel, Crimes Against My Brother, will be published in 2014.

NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR

Michael Crummey recommends Arctic Twilight: Leonard Budgell and Canada’s Changing North , edited by Claudia Coutu Radmore.

Len Budgell grew up in Rigolet, Labrador, where his father ran the Hudson’s Bay trading post in the 1930s. Len spent his entire adult life as a “servant of the Bay” in northern Labrador and in the Arctic. Arctic Twilight, culled from a decade of letters, is his unforgettable memoir of that world. From isolated postings to starvation camps, from tall-tale hunting expeditions to a dog-sled trip through the Northern Lights in the Torngat mountains, it is the best book about the North I’ve ever read.

Michael Crummey’s most recent book is Under the Keel, a collection of poems. His bestselling novel Galore won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Lisa Moore recommends The Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

If you want to know Newfoundland, start with The Dictionary of Newfoundland English . It’s a work of scholarship that sets out, as it says in the introduction, to mark the lexicon of one of the oldest overseas communities in the English-speaking world. When I leaf through, I look for words I knew in my childhood that have mostly fallen out of use, except when we bring out the defibrillators, and apply them to the heart of the word, making it leap back up, altered, yes, and new. Everybody uses the word colourful to describe the Newfoundland lexicon, but what kind of colour? What is the palette?

Not the colour of hand-tinted photographs, as one might expect. Something far more lurid and saturated with pigment. That weird, unnatural blue-green everything around the bay got painted with in the sixties. The colour in polaroids. The technicolour everything of a seventies childhood in downtown St. John’s, or around the bay. The words in the dictionary that are familiar to me evoke a nostalgia-tinted world, romantic, hard-scrabble, wily, ephemeral. Take sleeveen, a word I used to say about guys with long greasy hair and black leather jackets who oozed a charm so pungent women swooned at their feet and offered to buy them a plate of fish and chips or packs of smokes. I hardly remember to say it now, unless I see it on a T-shirt in a tourist shop. Or maybe those kind of guys are harder to find.

Lisa Moore’s February won the 2013 Canada Reads competition. Her new novel, just published, is Caught.

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES

Richard Van Camp recommends Old Town , by Fran Hurcomb.

My wish for Canadians looking for the perfect welcome to the NWT is Fran Hurcomb’s Old Town: A Photographic Journey Through Yellowknife’s Defining Neighbourhood . This book took 37 years to create with archival photos braided with a memoir and contemporary portraits. Historians and lovers of northern lore will marvel at the care and time Fran Hurcomb took in honouring the city she loves so much. This book is a history lesson and a love letter all wrapped up into one. Just looking at this book makes me homesick! Mahsi cho! Richard Van Camp is a Tlicho Dene author from Fort Smith, NWT. His novel, The Lesser Blessed, has recently been made into a film. His new book for children is Little You.

NOVA SCOTIA

Jessica Scott Kerrin recommends John Kellock Died Today , by Hadley Dyer.

I favour humorous books with quirky characters who are grounded in landscapes near the sea. So I especially enjoyed Johnny Kellock Died Today by Hadley Dyer. It takes place in a historic cemetery, several of which occupy downtown Halifax and are central to the city’s history. If you want to experience a long hot Halifax summer in 1959, then pick up copy and follow witty twelve-year-old Rosalie Norman and David Flynn, an unusual boy whose favorite hangout is a graveyard, as they attempt to solve the mysterious disappearance of Rosalie’s favorite teenaged cousin.

Jessica Scott Kerrin is the bestselling author of the Martin Bridge series of books for young readers. Her new novel, Spotted Dog Last Seen, will be published in August .

Donna Morrissey recommends The Mountain and the Valley , by Ernest Buckler.

The beauty of this novel is that rural pastoral voice found in Nova Scotia. What is said through behaviours hold deeper expression than the spoken word. And given the microcosms found in rural farmhouses, such intimacy is created that all characters are forever speaking without words, and, as with words, miscommunication is often lending itself to pain, conflict and all other emotions motoring humanity. It is how the modern world inserts itself in the midst of one such isolated household that lends such a gripping voice to this novel, and involves the characters in self-study of who they are and how they fit on the world stage, and of what value are those things that have always contained them till now.

Donna Morrissey’s most recent novel is The Deception of Livvy Higgs.

NUNAVUT

Sheila Watt-Cloutier recommends several books.

The first titles I’d recommend to get to know Canada’s north are the beautiful children’s books by Michael Kusugak, an Inuk author. Michael’s stories and wonderful images capture the Arctic and Inuit culture, and mesmerize younger children. I know children who love to have his books read to them night after night. Coming later this summer is The Meaning of Ice: People and Sea Ice in Three Arctic Communities , edited by Shari Fox Gearheard, Lene Kielsen Holm, Henry Huntington, Joe Mello Leavitt, Andrew R. Mahoney, Margaret Opie, Toku Oshima and Joelie Sanguya. It’s a unique compilation of writings, family photos, illustrations and maps offered by over 40 Inuit in three Arctic countries, exploring sea ice from their different perspectives. The very personal nature of the contributions reveals not only the masterful skills and technical knowledge Inuit have about sea ice, but also real emotional and spiritual connections. For those headed to the north for the first time it will provide an intimate look at the important role that sea ice plays in Inuit life and Inuit perspectives at a time when the Arctic is changing in many ways.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the past chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, is an advocate and speaker on environmental, cultural and human rights. She is the author of The Right to Be Cold , which will be published next year .

ONTARIO

Margaret Atwood recommends The Inconvenient Indian , by Thomas King.

I’ll recommend Tom King’s The Inconvenient Indian , which is one key to understanding “the place that I am from,” which is the backwoods, I suppose. It’s succinct, funny, and hard-hitting, all at once. Gives a much-needed overview, and helps you read the newspaper with a more informed eye.

Margaret Atwood’s new novel, MaddAddam, the final volume in a the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, will be published in August.

Joseph Boyden recommends Indian Horse , by Richard Wagamese.

Indian Horse is a novel of the scarred beauty of Northern Ontario. It’s an insider’s story of the original people of the land, and it’s written with honesty and humour and pain. Our Ojibwe protagonist, Saul, torn from his family and forced into a hellish place along with so many other Indian children, learns to skate through a world at once sadistic and frigidly gorgeous as he finds an escape through our country’s game. To watch Richard Wagamese come home in this novel is to watch a phoenix climb. This man and this book are a part of the landscape.

Joseph Boyden won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Through Black Spruce. His new novel, The Orenda, will be published this fall.

Jane Urquhart recommends Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy.

Many years ago, when I first read Al Purdy, I was astonished and delighted by the fact that his poetry moved around the “bush land scrub land” of Hastings and Prince Edward County, the same unforgiving yet beautiful country my own family had attempted to farm when they settled there in the 19th century. Much later, when the then president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, read Purdy’s The Country North of Belleville aloud at a dinner held in her honour during a state visit to Ontario, I knew she couldn’t have made a better choice. Purdy’s is the voice of this landscape. You can hear him speak when you travel its roads.

Jane Urquhart’s most recent novel is Sanctuary Line.

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

Mathew Henderson recommends The Hobbit , by J.R.R. Tolkien.

I grew up on PEI, playing in the woods, eating wild berries (straw– and blue– and rasp-). My partner says it sounds like a fantasy world. She’s not far off. Read The Hobbit and imagine Islanders as larger Shire folk. We’re kind, friendly, good at growing and fishing and breakfasts. There is a bit of xenophobia and suspicion toward those “from away.” Occasionally, we strike out into the world and have adventures, but we normally return home. Our feet are hairy. A lot of islanders look like Ian McKellan.

Mathew Henderson’s first collection of poems, The Lease, was nominated for the Trillium Award.

Steven Mayoff recommends Processional , by Anne Compton.

While Prince Edward Island’s fiction-writing community is ever developing with new and exciting voices who will dispel any images of a certain red-headed waif, its strongest literary tradition lies in its poets. One of the finest collections produced by an Island-born writer is Processional by Anne Compton. Winner of the Atlantic Poetry prize and the Governor General’s Award, this volume of beautifully crafted and evocative poems is a perfect read for quiet, thoughtful evenings at the cottage. Compton, who is from Bangor, P.E.I., digs deep into the Island’s rural splendour and rewards the reader with universal truths that will not be be soon forgotten.

Steven Mayoff’s story collection, Fatted Calf Blues, won a PEI Book Award. His forthcoming novel is Blessing and Song.

QUEBEC

Louis Hamelin recommends Volkswagen Blues , by Jacques Poulin.

In Gaspé, at the far end where landed Jacques Cartier, a middle-aged writer named Jack Waterman, traveling in a battered old Volkswagen bus, starts his own journey, headed west, where he hopes to track down a long-gone brother. A young Native woman hitchhikes herself a ride. Here is a grave and entertaining book, written in Hemingwayesque prose, deep in its purpose, almost light in tone. Jack drives his VW bus along the old tracks of the French-speaking coureurs de bois, who led the Lewis and Clark expedition and James Audubon across the wild country. Through Quebec, Ontario and then America and the Oregon Trail, Poulin’s road novel takes a shortcut through a history of French Canada that extends to the Pacific Coast and embraces a continent.

Louis Hamelin’s new novel, October 1970, will be published in English this fall. An essay collection, Le vrai du faux: essai sur le roman et l’histoire, will also be released later this year.

Louise Penny recommends Nikolski , by Nicolas Dickner.

So many wonderful Québecois(e) writers to choose from. After agonizing, I decided to raise the flag for a recent favourite – Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski. As with so many Quebec writers, there is both an intimate sense of place – the Plateau Mont-Royal area of Montreal – and a grand sweep of magical realism. Like Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky was Here (one of my Top Five reads), Nikolski creates memorable characters driven and connected by fate and, in the case of this wonderful novel, a compass that points to the remote Alaskan village of Nikolski. At its heart it’s about longing for solid ground beneath our feet. About belonging. About home.

Louise Penny is the author of the bestselling Chief Inspector Gamache novels, the latest of which, How the Light Gets In, will be published in August.

SASKATCHEWAN

Candace Savage recommends Charlie Muskrat , by Harold Johnson.

Can I help you with something?” the thin man asked.

“Uh, yeah, looking for a book about Saskatchewan.” Of course I was. I was reading the Globe and Mail Canada Day book section. What else would I be looking for?

“Any book in particular?” He was patient, despite my dumb question.

I didn’t have time to answer before he reached over to a shelf and pulled out a little black-and-red book. “Might I recommend Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat ? He’ll show you around a Saskatchewan that’s not on any map. He’ll take you off-roading with Thunder.”

Candace Savage is the author, most recently, of A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape. Her recommendation is, er, closely based on p. 131 of Charlie Muskrat.

Karen Solie recommends Tim Lilburn’s To the River and Michael Helm’s In the Place of Last Things .

I’ll cheat and suggest two. Tim Lilburn’s collection of poems To The River and Michael Helm’s novel In the Place of Last Things . Lilburn’s poems enact the sublimity of an unforgiving landscape, the wonder available in its difficulty, silence and solitude. Helm’s novel, though not set exclusively in Saskatchewan, demonstrates the particular violences of the place and their capacity to haunt, the complexity of the dark humour, tough-mindedness, and personal-space issues that grow there. Not to mention our propensity for road trips. These books evoke the character of the southwest of the province as I’ve experienced it. The implications of all that space, what hides right out in the open, the shadows that accompany its oft-spoken-of light.

Karen Solie is the author of Pigeon, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize.

YUKON

Ivan Coyote recommends Best Tales of the Yukon , by Robert W. Service.

Okay, after much thought, I am afraid I have to go kind of old school on this and go with Best Tales of the Yukon , which is a 1983 collection of Robert W. Service poems. I really wanted to haul out a shiny new and contemporary novel set in Whitehorse, or Dawson City or, even better, Faro or Ross River or Carmacks, because those places are less known to folks from outside. Ellen Davignon’s The Cinnamon Mine immediately came to mind, and in true Yukon style it was written on a dare in Bic pen. It was originally self-published in 1988, though it was later picked up by Harbour Publishing and re-released in 2011. Al Pope’s Bad Latitudes is also a great read, but it is set in 1970, and, in my mind, never received the kind of national attention it deserved. Both books speak to the necessary adventurous spirit and sometimes heart-busting loneliness of those who moved to the Yukon from somewhere, anywhere else, and both books were not embraced like they should have been by the rest of the country.

Yukon writers, take heed, we need our very own Late Nights on Air , and we don’t have one just yet. So if I look back over my childhood growing up, I just have to go with Robert Service, we had to memorize part of The Cremation of Sam McGee in Grade 6 English, and we acted out The Shooting of Dan McGrew in Grade 8. I think I spent a good part of my 20s and 30s looking for a woman with a healthy streak of The Lady That’s Known as Lou in her. Formative stuff. Go north in late June, and light a campfire next to a river somewhere. Cook yourself something on it, anything, really, under the midnight sun, and then recite The Spell of the Yukon in a booming voice to your friends and just see if you ever want to return to Toronto for the rest of your life. I dare you.

Ivan Coyote is a writer and storyteller, and the author of nine books. Her tenth, Gender Failure, a collaborative effort with Montreal-based musician and author Rae Spoon, will be published in 2014.

 

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