Time for our fortnightly foray into international literature and reading round the world, as we continue to collate our Readers of the World.
Last time we went south but now we’re heading back into Northern territory as Liverpool Hope Reader-in-Residence Charlotte Weber introduces us to what Canada has to offer in the way of great literature…
“In other lands it was already spring; vigorously the sap was running, buds were bursting and presently leaves would unfold; but the soil of far northern Canada must be rid of one chill and heavy mantle before clothing itself afresh in green.” (Maria Chapdelaine)
What do most of us think of when we think ‘Canada’? Maple leaves, snow, bears, moose (mooses? meese?!) maple syrup, Celine Dion, Michael Bublé (unfortunately), ice hockey… what else?
Canada is a country that many of us probably assume we know a fair bit about – however, I think that much of this assumed knowledge probably comes from our ideas of Canada in relation to its domineering southern neighbour, the USA – and I would argue that Canadian literary history is no exception to this rule. There are some names that would immediately spring to mind for some of us when asked about Canadian writers – Margaret Atwood, for example, or Yann Martel – or John McCrae, whose WW1 poem In Flanders’ Fields has become somewhat of a national emblem. There are many other names that most people would recognise but, as with many Canadian celebrities, they had probably assumed were American (Carol Shields? Douglas Coupland? Pamela Anderson?!)
So in this post I want to pay tribute to two writers I encountered whilst spending a year abroad studying English at a university in the province of Ontario – who both have, in my opinion, important things to say about what Canadian literature might be, and where it is coming from.
The first is the French-Canadian author Louis Hémon, whose novel Maria Chapdelaine gives an unusual and intimate insight into the theme which dominates so much of ‘official’ Canadian history: settlement. Hémon himself only made the move from Paris to the francophone Canadian province Quebec two years before his death in 1913 – the same year that Maria was published. During his short time in the country, however, Hémon managed to create a book that feels intensely ‘Canadian,’ and which for me still depicts and explains much of what I experienced during my own short residence there, despite it being set in a time and area very far removed from that which I was in:
“The house became the centre of the universe; in truth the only spot where life could be sustained, and more than ever the great cast-iron stove was the soul of It […] Outside, the neighbouring forest, and even the fields won from it, were an alien unfriendly world, upon which they looked wonderingly through the little square windows.
And sometimes this world was strangely beautiful in its frozen immobility, with a sky of flawless blue and a brilliant sun that sparkled on the snow; but the immaculateness of the blue and the white alike was pitiless and gave hint of the murderous cold.”
It’s hard to spend a winter in Canada and not find yourself becoming strangely obsessed with the snow, and even to begin attributing hidden, living motives to the cold. The passage seems incredibly relevant to me now, when I remember the Christmas I spent in Ontario, in a house with seven of the other British students who had gone over: throughout the novel, Hémon depicts with beautiful and bittersweet imagery the power of the cold climate to both isolate and bring together.
It’s not all about the snow, though. Part of the reason why the book still features on a university literature course is because, whilst it describes a process and struggle that must have been characteristic of so many of those early settler narratives, it also gives such a sensitive and detailed account of the inner life of its title-heroine, that it remains a powerful and relevant read today. For Maria, a young woman at the beginning of her emotional life and approaching marriage-able age, the ‘immobile,’ frozen world around her is even more of an anxiety, and a frustration: it takes a particular kind of romantic heroine who can live “the life of the woods” – which is “so unhurried that one must needs have more than the patience of a human being to await and mark its advance.” She’s no Cathy Earnshaw or Becky Sharpe, but Maria is still a character filled with passions – and it is her own gradual awakening which, more than the change of the seasons, captivates the reader.
The second author I want to mention here is Joseph Boyden: a Canadian of Métis (mixed European and First Nations, or ‘aboriginal’) descent, whose writing touches upon a subject and a people even more neglected in the history, and literary, books.
In his debut novel, Three Day Road (Penguin, 2005), Boyden tells the story of Xavier Bird, a Cree soldier who is one of the many young aboriginal men forced to fight for the British during the First World War. the story explores the themes of freedom and entrapment – paralleling the brutal massacre known as the first modern war and the destruction of native culture with subtle poignancy. Xavier returns to Northern Ontario after the war wounded in body, crushed in spirit, and addicted to morphine. He is met in Moose Factory, Ontario, by his aunt Niska, and as she paddles him back to her home in the bush, he recalls the bloody experiences of the war. Meanwhile Niska attempts to keep him alive by narrating her own life story, and by reminding him of the values and traditions of his own people – so far removed from what he has seen and experienced in the fields of Europe. As Niska re-tells his own story to him, the novel reveals the strength of the power of story-telling as an enduring source of hope and means of survival:
“You saw for the first time the circle. Even though you could not yet express it in words, you understood the seasons, the tepee, the shaking tent, the wigwam, the fire circle, the matatosowin. You saw all of life is in the circle, and realized that you always come back, in one way or another, to where you have been before.”
Well, I can’t end this post without a bit of poetry. So, I will let the last words go to an un-disputed Canadian great, who is still going strong today and still commands a formidable army of die-hard fans the world over (myself, and my dad, included!). Musical genius, or poetic prophet? You decide! Sorry to all you Bryan Adams fans…