It *is* important, isn’t it.
So important that, just with reading that sentence, at least one book, more likely several, came to your reader’s mind immediately. Come on, which ones?
Of the Canada Reads books (if the details matter to you, remember you can follow the podcasts), some stood out on this count. Two of the panelists mentioned what a strong sense of Canada, as a whole, they got from Nicolas Dickner’s book, and others mentioned both Vancouver’s Chinatown in The Jade Peony and Fall on Your Knees (which spans the first half of the 20th-Century and depicts places as varied as a Cape Breton mining town and Harlem in the Jazz Age).
But this isn’t a simple question either. If you’re looking at a book and asking yourself if it reveals a strong sense of Canada, it suggests that you can define that: what is Canada. My experience of the single city I live in here immediately reveals how impossible it is to define that: more than half of Torontonians were born in another country and obviously this will impact their experience of the city and the country therein. Are the characters who experience this city via the pen of Nalo Hopkinson any less Canadian than those of Michael Redhill, are those of Dionne Brand any more Canadian than those of Kim Moritsugu: as one of the panelists stated, no one person’s experience of Canada is any more Canadian than any other person’s in a country as diverse as this one.
Looking at this particular stack of books, you might observe that they cover both the east and west coast (from Vancouver’s Chinatown to the Maritimes) and some of the middle and outer-sides too (Generation X doesn’t take place in Canada but at least one character comes home to the middle of it for X-mas). They also include characters of varied classes (from dumpster-divers to a family of 6 living in a car, to magnates of industry), varied sexual identities, varied ages, varied races: you might say it’s diversity in a stack of five.
But when it comes to individual books representing a nation, Michel Vézina observes that none of the books, with the exception of Nikolski, includes the French-Canadian presence. He’s not saying that none of the main characters in the other books is French-Canadian: he’s saying that there is not a single French-speaking person in any of the other books, and that only in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s FOYK is the population referred to once (the workers in the mines who come from Québec).
For those of you who aren’t aware, French Canadians comprise 25% of Canada’s population in total: a significant presence statistically although, as Vézina observes, not necessarily reflected in their cultural representation in English Canada. Perhaps it would be fitting to alter the traditional anti-separatist refrain (“My Canada Includes Quebec”) for a bookish intent (“My Canlit Includes Quebecois characters).
That is an important point to be sure, but whether a book needs to be appropriately representative to be chosen for Canada Reads is just as tricky a question as asking which is the best, which deserves the attention more than the rest.
What I think many of us will agree on is the importance of setting in a book and so for today’s look at past Canada Reads nominees, I’m turning to Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, which was nominated in 2008.
For this amazing novel, Findley is known to have spent a night (or was it more) rumaging about on the floor of a barn to get the feel of Mottyl’s world: now there’s a writer who takes setting seriously, although arguably it is as much Mottyl’s characterization (Mottyl being one of the most astonishingly-drawn feline characters in the pages of literature) that brings this brilliant novel to life so vividly.
But setting is vital indeed to Findley’s novel, which painstakingly re-creates life on Doctor Noyes’ ark, and the story begins with a re-assertion about life on board: “Everyone knows it wasn’t like that. To begin with, they make it sound as if there wasn’t any argument; as if there wasn’t any panic – no one being pushed aside – no one being trampled – none of the animals howling – none of the people screaming blue murder. They make it sound as if the only people who wanted to get on board were Doctor Noyes and his family.”
How important to you is a book’s setting? If a book is to be crowned The Book for Canada to Read, should it be More Canadian than the rest?