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Canadian Literary Landscape
by Katherine Govier, author, and Marcel Barriault, Library and Archives Canada
Ours is the landscape of expectation. In Canada, we can look outward from three seacoasts and imagine ships arriving. Or, we can turn around on the shore and gaze inward, hoping for great things in huge spaces.
Wherever we go, we are accompanied by the words of writers who have seen the place before us. In St. John's, Newfoundland, we can climb Signal Hill, look back toward town, and imagine the tilted house on the ridge inhabited by Wayne Johnston's poor and rowdy Ryan family.
On the shores of the St. Lawrence River, we can hear the echoing of the waves and the birds as Anne Hébert skilfully depicts them in her evocative, poetic novel, Les fous de Bassan (1982).
In Winnipeg's warehouse district, a good guide is John Marlyn's novel Under the Ribs of Death (1957). We can dig for dinosaur bones in the Badlands of Alberta with Robert Kroetsch's Badlands (1975) in tow. At Siwash Rock, in Stanley Park, we can think of Pauline Johnson and her poem The Siwash Rock, taken from the Legends of Vancouver collection and based on the legend of two lovers who drowned there.
Writers' words colour the rocks, and give them shades of meaning.
In Prince Edward Island, the peaceful red sand beaches of L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1919) offer one view. But there are also the harsh images in Milton Acorn's poem I've Tasted my Blood (1969): "I've seen my mother / drag out her days / like a sled over gravel." For beauty and hardship, who can forget the words of Elizabeth Smart in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), describing the view of Ontario autumn leaves from the train window, as "a plenitude not to be borne"?
Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands, is magical and remote, and difficult to reach—except while reading Robert Bringhurst's beautiful translation of the Haida epic poems in A Story Sharp as a Knife (1999). There, the world of eagle, frog and bear leaps off the pages, animating the sea and rain and rocky island of that far-off world.
Antonine Maillet's novels, particularly her early works Pointe-aux-Coques (1958) and On a mangé la dune (1962), describe memorable shorelines dotted with small dwellings and lighthouses in rural Acadia.
The list goes on.
Wallace Stegner lived in Eastend, Saskatchewan, until his restless father moved the family across the border, where they continued to seek "the big rock candy mountain." Stegner memorializes the town and the Prairies in Wolf Willow (1962). Nancy Huston adds her own praise of the western Prairies in Cantique des plaines (1993).
It is difficult to see the vast Canadian northern tundra without thinking of Yves Thériault's title hero, Agaguk.
Roderick Haig-Brown, writer, fly fisherman and conservationist, paints a river and its inhabitants in his many novels. Gabrielle Roy gives us the French Canadian settlement in St. Boniface, Manitoba, in novels like Rue Deschambault (1955). On the shore of Lake Couchiching, you imagine the Mariposa folks packing a picnic and almost hear, as Stephen Leacock wrote, "the sandwiches clinking."
The fabulous wild has been tamed, and sometimes tainted. In Nobel, Ontario, there was a munitions factory along the edge of Georgian Bay where Canadians made trinitrotoluene (TNT) for the Allies in the Second World War. The title of Katherine Govier's novel, Angel Walk (1996), is the name the labourers used for the strip of ground where they pushed wheelbarrows full of explosives: one misstep and you joined the angels. André Langevin's Poussière sur la ville (1953) offers a vivid description of the mining community at Thetford Mines. And countless Franco-Ontarian authors explore the wide-open spaces of Ontario's northern climes.
We have changed the landscape with our struggles, politics, arrivals and departures. Who can see the waterworks on Lake Ontario in Toronto without thinking of Michael Ondaatje's imagined sabotage, in his In the Skin of a Lion (1987)?
And the land—wild or settled, willing or not—changes all of us who come here. Look at the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Can you hear Jan Zwicky's poem "Open Strings" (1999)? "It's air they offer us... a bigger wind, the body / snapped out like a towel, air / like the sky above the foothills..."
Come breathe the haunted air.