The smaller the town, the more magnified its wonders.
I didn’t believe that to be true until I moved away from my own hometown, population 4,500. I was born and raised in the village of Vanderhoof in central B.C. The town took its name from Herbert Vanderhoof, who envisioned the place as a colony for artists and writers. His dream never took quite took shape, but the town grew and the name stuck. In 1942, my father was a baby when he arrived in Vanderhoof with his parents on a train full of Mennonites from Saskatchewan, all hoping for cheap land and trees and a place to call home.
Before I left Vanderhoof, I never thought I’d want to write about it. As a teenager, I had the keen sense that nothing interesting ever happened in my hometown. The ordinary elements of small-town life were just that – ordinary. Only after I moved away from Vanderhoof to study writing at the University of Victoria did I realize how profoundly that place had seeded my literary future.
I’ve noticed this to be true for others as well: The smaller points on the map seem to have inspired some of Canada’s most acclaimed writers. The made-up town of Mariposa in Stephen Leacock’s work seems to echo his time in Orillia, Ont., while Louise Penny’s fictional Three Pines, home to her Inspector Gamache mystery novels, echoes the author’s own home in Knowlton, Que. Writers such as Eden Robinson from Kitimat and Jack Hodgins from Merville, both in B.C., Margaret Laurence from Neepawa, Man., and Alice Munro from Wingham, Ont., have written their landscapes of origin into our consciousness, expanding our literary map to include the overlooked, the rural and the nothing-ever-happens-here places. Not only have they given us another way of reading Canada, but they have also given other writers permission to write the specks on the maps.
When I set out to write Every Little Scrap and Wonder, a memoir of my small-town Vanderhoof upbringing, the resonant images of childhood flooded back: fire in the fall poplar leaves, moose tracks in snow, woodsmoke and diesel exhaust, the hiss of a logging truck’s air brakes, the perfume of wild strawberries. As I wrote, I began to see more clearly how the place and its people had trained me to bear witness to the world.
In every province and territory, writers are welcoming readers to small towns, some born of imagination, and others just waiting to be found on the map.
Rankin Inlet, Nunavut
Kisimi Taimaippaktut Angirrarijarani/Only in My Hometown (Groundwood Books, 2017) introduces young readers to an Inuit community in Nunavut where the Northern Lights dazzle and small-town life makes everyone feel like family. The book, translated into Inuktituk by Jean Kusugak, is a collaboration between Angnakuluk Friesen (text) and Ippiksaut Friesen (illustration), sisters who grew up in Rankin Inlet, a hamlet on the Kudlulik Pensisula.
“Fort Simmer” (Fort Smith/Hay River/Behchoko), Northwest Territories
Richard Van Camp’s first novel, The Lesser Blessed (Douglas & McIntyre, 1996), opens up the world of Larry Sole, a Dogrib teenager, living in the stark and brutal world of Fort Simmer, a fictional town that is, according to Van Camp, “the chimera of Fort Smith, Hay River, Behchoko.”
Johnson’s Crossing, Yukon Territory
In The Cinnamon Mine: An Alaskan Highway Childhood (Harbour Publishing, 2011), Ellen Davignon tells the story of her family’s tourist lodge near the Teslin River. As a refuge on a remote stretch of land, Johnson’s Crossing has served as “weather station, post office, lending library, off-sales beer outlet,” as well as dance hall, police headquarters, baby-birthing location and community news hub.
Rolla, British Columbia
Donna Kane’s Summer of the Horse (Harbour Publishing, 2018) takes readers to the Peace River district, a landscape dubbed “the sacrifice zone” in the face of oil and gas industry expansion. From a small farming community on the outskirts of Dawson Creek, Kane takes us on an inaugural trail ride through the Muskwa-Kechika, a protected area known as the “Serengeti of the North,” partly located in the western Peace River district.
Gil Adamson’s The Outlander (House of Anansi, 2007) follows a young woman grief-stricken and on the run through the Western wilderness. The book takes us eventually to a small mining outpost nestled in the Rockies, where the Frank Slide of 1903 enters the story.
The title of Chelsea Coupal’s debut poetry collection, Sedley (Coteau, 2018), is the name of her hometown. Sedley, says Coupal, “is just like the other farming communities that line prairie highways – they’ve all got a rink, a store, a bar and a school if they’re lucky. Sedley, though, I know intimately.“
“Algren” (Steinbach), Manitoba
A Boy of Good Breeding (Vintage Canada, 1998), Miriam Toews’s second novel, anchors itself in Algren, Man., proudly “the smallest town in Canada.“ Although invented, Algren exists as a micro-version of Steinbach, Toews’s hometown, with its vivid cast of characters, zany humour and big heart.
“Crow Lake” (Blackwell), Ontario
“The landscape you grow up in shapes you, I think,” author Mary Lawson says. Lawson’s Crow Lake (Random House, 2002) is set in small farming community akin to her own childhood hometown of Blackwell, which had “a church, a school and a general store and that was it, nothing else but farms,” Lawson says.
In Nirliit (Véhicule Press, 2018, translated from the French by Anita Anand), Juliana Léveillé-Trudel takes us to a contemporary Indigenous community on the Sugluk fjord, where children play in the midnight sun of a landscape that is “stunning, but also harsh, as life can be.”
Memramcook, New Brunswick
A Boy From Acadie: Roméo LeBlanc’s Journey to Rideau Hall (Bouton d’or Acadie, 2018) begins in a village near the Bay of Fundy. As part of her literary research, Beryl Young spent time in Memramcook, the birthplace of Romeo Leblanc, the first Acadian to ever be named Governor-General. At a book launch in Memramcook, Young says that locals came to hear about one of their own, proud of “the boy born just down the road who had dined with the Queen of England.”
“Sweetland,” Newfoundland and Labrador
Michael Crummey’s Sweetland (Doubleday, 2014) is named both for its protagonist, Moses Sweetland, and the setting, a fictional island that the author envisions as “just off the south coast of Newfoundland, somewhere west of the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.” Sweetland, rich in myth and history, rises as an emblem of the paradoxes of rural culture.
“Whylah Falls” (Weymouth Falls), Nova Scotia
Whylah Falls (Polestar Press, 1990) is a “jazz-blues collage of poems, prose, songs, and photos,” says George Elliot Clarke, “all meant to document the historical presence of African-Nova Scotians/Africadians.” The namesake setting of Whylah Falls has its roots in the real “Weymouth Falls and environs, including the Sissiboo River, all in Digby County but cheek-by-jowl with the Acadian centre, the District of Clare.”
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
At the centre of Stella Shepard’s Ashes of My Dreams (Acorn Press, 2016) is a home for unwed mothers where Gracie, a farm girl of Acadian and Cree heritage, is sent to be cared for by the Catholic nuns until she gives birth. The women of Charlottetown surround her with support, turning the small town into a new kind of family for Gracie.
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