Quintessentially Canadian (Books and Authors)

To recap the inaugural post of this series I have been creating a list of essential music, TV, books, foods and experiences that a non-national should seek out to really get a feel for true Canadian culture.

Caveat:  this list is written by an anglophone Canadian born in the 1980s.  There is an obvious bias towards this era and culture (and my personal taste).  It is not intentional but difficult to avoid.  I would love for this to be a more rounded list and am definitely open to suggestions.

Instead of ripping off a bunch of google photos that are not mine just google these people.

Authors and Books

Atwood, Margaret – Canada’s golden lady.  Ms. Atwood is someone who has made her writing career international.  Her Handmaid’s Tale is required reading for high school students and can’t be left out of any dystopian world discussion.  She is not a recluse either; you can find her at literary festivals, lending her voice and her opinions to CBC radio at times and, earlier in her career, she was one of Canada’s eminent feminists.  If you’re only going to read one of her books (and you’ve already read 1984) I recommend you go for Oryx and Crake.

Davies, Robertson – This is a dude with one sweet beard.  Speaking of high school reading you should pick up Fifth Business.  Not just novels, Mr. Davies wrote plays, essays, short stories and critiques to boot.  John Irving (aka guy who wrote Cider House Rules) referenced his work in A Prayer for Owen Meany.  You get referenced by other really famous people – snaps.

Coupland, Douglas – he may be from Canada but he brought the whole world the terms Generation X, McJob and under dogging.  He comments on culture, he writes interesting characters and he is a little bit odd.  No one twists words to describe subcultures like he does and he coins new terms  as he goes.  Read his bestsellers (Generation X, JPod) and then read All Families are Psychotic and The Gum Thief just for the characters.

Laurence, Margaret – one of the founders of the Writer’s Trust of Canada she had the chops.  After a spending her young adulthood between the UK and Africa she eventually settled down as a writer in residence at the University of Toronto (way to recognize talent, alma mater).  Her most famous works are novels:  The Diviners and The Stone Angel.  I must admit that I have yet to read anything by her.

Montgomery, Lucy Maud – someone else on this list whose work I haven’t read.  Except I’m not sure I plan to read any of it in the future.  This woman is responsible for tens of thousands of Japanese tourists milling about a small house in Prince Edward Island.  This is based on worship of her most famous series:  Anne of Green Gables.  Check out the website for her very own literary society.

Munro, Alice – Canada is known for exporting comedians and there are plenty of respectable old dudes delivering our news but authorship seems to be where Canadian women really shine.  This is the first and only list in the series that easily has as many women as men and the talent and starpower of the ladies on the list outshine that of the men.  Alice Munro helps round out this women’s circle with some “Southern Ontario Gothic”.  There’s a genre I wasn’t expecting.  You’ll find her mostly stocking the shelves of the short story section.

Ondaatje, Michael – Let’s just put this out there:  I hated The English Patient.  But it was adapted to the screen as a critically acclaimed film and people love his word-smithery.  People other than me.  Perhaps I should give him another chance.

Ralston Saul, John – this dude is a little stuffy but if you can get past that he has quite a bit to offer.  Both a novelist and essayist he thinks deeply about philosophical questions and Canada.  He once gave a free talk at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) about how the new architecture of the building reflected first nations ideals in Canada.  He is either my intellectual superior of completely pulling this stuff out of his arse. Sometimes I can’t decide.  If you read nothing else of his, please pick up The Unconscious Civilization.

Richler, Mordecai – an English and Yiddish-speaking Jewish man growing up in Montreal.  There’s good memoir fodder for the an author with the right skills.  He crossed genres writing novels, essays and children’s books (notably the Jacob Two-Two series) and wasn’t afraid to make political statements about Anglo-Franco relations in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!

Shields, Carol – Atwood and Munro had better keep the candle alight for female Canadian authors since the lovely Carol Shields is deceased like many of the other ladies on this list.  Not to mention that Atwood better finish that third and final instalment of the Oryx and Crake series, she ain’t getting any younger.  She actually became Canadian later in life.  Smart lady.  Ms. Shields left us short stories, poetry and novels to point out that her Stone Diaries – the only novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction (1995) and the Giller Prize (1993).  Go, Carol!

This list requires a bit more on all of our parts.  There is so much richness here but we need to take the time to explore it.


I mentioned that this list would be a work in progress.  Thanks to bethaf for reminding me of the delightful Robert Munsch.  And what would a list of Canadian authors be without Pierre Berton?

Berton, Pierre – This gentleman was a prolific author who is not only Canadian but used Canadian history and culture as his primary subject matter.  On top of writing his own works he has been involved in a number of iconic Canadian institutions such as CBC (Close Upand as an editor for Macleans magazine.  He has written over 50 books so just pick one.  In fact, he may even belong on my personalities edition but he’s here now so here he stays.

Munsch, Robert – He is a bit of a strange man.  But he writes brilliant children’s books so we’ll forgive him some eccentricities.  There are very few new babies that won’t find Love You Forever in their libraries.  My personal favourite of his books is Purple, Green and Yellow (superindeliblenevercomeoffuntilyou’redeadandmaybeevenlater colouring markers) while his possibly best-known work is The Paperbag Princess.  He lives in the same town where my alma mater is situated and once, on Halloween, I accompanied a friend dress in a large paper bag complete with dirt-on-face to trick-or-treat at his home.  He was not that amused.  His cassette tape recordings of him animatedly reading the stories made many a long car-ride bearable as a child.  Check out his website to hear them for yourself.

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4 thoughts on “Quintessentially Canadian (Books and Authors)

  1. also: Stephen Leacock, Farley Mowat, Robert Munsch!!

    I quite like Margaret Laurence.

    I’ve read two Ondaatje novels. Divisadero, I loved. Cat’s Table was meh.

  2. […] Clarkson, Adrienne – it took until 1999 for Canada to choose a non-white Governor General and she was the one.  Originally from Hong Kong she grew up in Ottawa and went on to have a career with CBC as a journalist and book reviewer.  But her role as GG was one of the more controversial.  Some feel that she rejuvenated and modernized a very stuffy institution – others felt that she was too extravagant, blowing previous GG Office budgets out of the water for high profile stunts like touring other northern nations and meeting with their leaders.  Now that she’s all done causing controversy at Rideau Hall she has founded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship with her husband John Ralston Saul (see Quintessentially Canadian (Authors)). […]

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