Tag Archives: Canada Reads

‘The Break’ by Katherena Vermette

Just finished one of the contenders for this year’s Canada Reads. Candy Palmater will be defending The Break during the week of March 27 – 30 when five celebrities battle out the question, “What is the one book Canadians need now?” Here’s my prediction…although I have only read one of the other five contenders, I started three of the others and found them hard to get into. The Break is compelling and puts indigenous women and their issues in the spotlight so I not only think it will win, but that it deserves to win.

The novel begins with a young mother witnessing a violent crime on a barren cold “break” in the city…we’ve all seen it, a long empty swath slicing through forest or subdivisions with nothing more than robotic looking hydro towers holding up electrical wires for as far as the eye can see. The attack in ‘the break’ becomes the focal point of the novel with everything else connected to it.

This Métis author, in her first novel, forges a very real look at indigenous people struggling to integrate into urban centres while still having a strong relationship to the land. The author creates empathy for the indigenous women but equally helps the reader get beyond various stereotypes, to see that the white police officer who appears jaded is not a bad man (albeit oblivious to his own racism), he’s just been doing a hard job for a very long time. And the homeless juvenile delinquent has been abandoned herself and therefore lashes out–she is living in the winter of Winnipeg but also in the winter of her soul. A young indigenous mother marries a white guy and moves into a better neighbourhood believing it will bring her and her children safety, when all it brings is alienation and self-doubt. “Vermette offers us a dazzling portrayal of the patchwork quilt of pain and trauma that women inherit, of the big and small half-stories that make up a life.” (Globe and Mail)

It is a story of brokenness but also of amazing strength and resilience, the importance of family, and how to break out of old patterns of understanding or behaviour. There is such beauty and such rift in this very complicated community in North Winnipeg where the author grew up. Her ability to capture such a comprehensive snapshot of Canada from various perspectives makes it my strong choice to win Canada Reads 2017.

Check out a CBC interview with the author, which is definitely worth a visit. Just click on this link: How Katherena Vermette turned a terrible vision into a visionary debut novel

‘The Orenda’ by Joseph Boyden

The OrendastarstarstarstarstarJoseph Boyden has written an honest and epic historical snapshot of Canada in its infancy. Set in Southern Ontario in the 1600’s, it follows the lives of three characters so rich and deeply portrayed I believe they will each stay with me for a very long time. And because three narrators speak of the same events from different perspectives, it gives the story an unforgettable three dimensional depth. It is impressive how simply and lyrically Boyden captures so many turbulent and important themes in one novel.

Snow Falls, a young Iroquois girl with special gifts, is kidnapped and adopted by Bird, a Huron elder and warrior. He seeks to fill the gap left by the wife and daughter he has lost, but Snow Falls’ fierce independence will test that plan. The third narrator is Christophe, a Jesuit missionary who has dedicated his life to learning and understanding Huron ways so that he can live amongst them and share his faith.

Some of the brutality of war and torture may be disturbing to some, but are handled by Boyden only because he has to in order to be true to the story. He claimed in an interview with Shelagh Rogers of CBC’s The Next Chapter (October 28, 2013 podcast) that these sections were as hard to write as they are to read. But I hope that does not put you off of the novel because you will miss a great deal of beauty as well. I commend Boyden for not shying away from a difficult task and giving us a human story where worlds and world views inevitably collide. The violence in the novel is personal but not gratuitous and if anything, weirdly gentle. Being indigenous to the culture himself, ‘The Orenda’ flows out of Joseph Boyden in a way that brings history alive and makes it jump off the page. An ‘orenda’ is a life force much like a human soul, but inhabits more widely. Animals and trees have an orenda, Lake Ontario has an orenda. As Rogers said in her interview, in this book, Boyden has given history an orenda.

This very week, ‘The Orenda’ is one of the books battling to be dubbed a ‘Great Canadian Novel’ in Canada Reads 2014. Each year Canadian celebrities choose Canadian novels and argue for their choice until one comes out on top. Arbitrary as it may sound (how can one novel be all things to all Canadians), I do commend Canadians for hosting a spirited literary debate in the dead of winter to create some warmth and intrigue! This time I’ve actually read two of the books in the running, the other one being Annabel by Kathleen Winter which was also excellent.

‘The Orenda’ is part of a loose trilogy. It was preceded by Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, but chronologically comes first.

‘The Best Laid Plans’ by Terry Fallis

The Best Laid PlansstarstarstarstarVery funny and very Canadian! Brisk and highly readable, this political satire won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 2008 and Canada Reads in 2011. This post is timely because a CBC TV series based on it, with the same name, is airing in just a few days! Now I almost wish I hadn’t cancelled my cable! 😦

The Best Laid Plans, CBC TV mini-series

Behind the Scenes – The Best Laid Plans

Angus McLintock is the most unlikely politician to hit Parliament Hill! This quote from the book describes his larger than life character: “you cannot be bought, you have no desire for re-election, you have no interest in higher office, you don’t care what people think of you, you actually do what you say.” How refreshing is that!

Angus, a big burly Scottish engineering professor will do just about anything to escape teaching English to Engineers – even running for political office. Still mourning the death of his wife, he agrees to embark on an unlikely political campaign which should have been doomed to failure. Throw in a little love story, a monstrous hovercraft, some drams of good single malt, and a few games of chess and you end up with a novel that has a little bit for everyone. And if you want to carry on with Angus, there is a sequel called The High Road which came out in 2010.

‘February’ by Lisa Moore

FebruarystarstarstarstarSurely you have also experienced this, but I love it when seemingly random forces conspire to all point in the same direction. Last year a gracious publisher replaced a book I had purchased which was missing the last 30 pages. For my troubles I was also granted the choice of a free book. I chose ‘February’ by Lisa Moore because the author was unknown to me and I liked the cover and the story line. Recently taking up the challenge to read books already residing on my own shelf (New Year’s Resolution), I threw ‘February’ into my bag for a 2 1/2 week trip to Australia and the South Pacific. While on the trip my sister-in-law wrote that she had just finished the book and was deeply touched by it. At the same time I discovered that it had recently won the Canada Reads competition! So I felt very affirmed in my choice of what to read next!

In 1982, off the coast of Newfoundland, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank, losing 84 souls in a night storm. ‘February’ is the story of Helen O’Mara, one of those left behind when her husband Cal drowns. This fictional account focuses on one woman’s struggle and loss, raising four children on her own. It is beautifully written, raw and heartfelt; so honest and down to earth and never errs on the side of sentimentality. If good literature is meant to get you inside another person’s skin, then this one hits the mark. Though not plot-driven, the book is very human and real, and uplifting even though much of it deals with grief. I liked the skillful way in which Moore beautifully captures small ordinary moments. Highly recommended, a very enjoyable read.