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Great Canadian Books of the Century

Great Canadian Books - Books that Shaped a Nation

The Vancouver Public Library has published a book entitled "Great Canadian Books - Books that Shaped a Nation". To select their books, the Vancouver Public Library looked at books that played a major role in the development of Canada. They selected 133 books to celebrate Canada's 133rd year as a nation in the year 2000.

Below, we will feature books included in this publication providing their information about the book as well as a link to purchase a copy. We will add new titles each week so be sure to check back often!

Happy Canadian reading!

1. The Journals of Susanna Moodie - Margaret Atwood

Susanna Moodie was an Englishwoman who, with her husband, emigrated to Canada in 1832 and homesteaded in the bush north of Toronto. The seven years they endured this hard frontier life were recorded by Moodie in her private journals. Later published as Roughing it in the Bush: Or, Forest Life in Canada (1852) and Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853), Moodie's journals are now considered remarkable social and historical documents, as well as works of literature.

Poet Margaret Atwood is intrigued by the reluctant pioneer's feelings: Moodie alternately praised the Canadian landscape and bitterly complained about the bleak realities of bush life. Atwood sees parallels with contemporary views of the land: it is both wilderness and civilization, and we are often caught between resistance and acceptance, alienation and belonging.

This brilliant set of poems, inspired by Moodie's journals, uses precise language and tough, startling images to animate Atwood's vision of the Canadian psyche.

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Check out our other books by Margaret Atwood!

2. Jack Miner and the Birds, and Some things I Know About Nature - Jack Miner

A passionate naturalist and conservationist, Jack Miner devoted 11 his life to studying the habits, life cycles and migratory pat- terns of birds. His early attempts to attract geese to his property in Kingsville, Ontario, led to the establishment in 1908 of one of the first bird sanctuaries in North America. He pioneered the banding of waterfowl to track their movements, and his research helped to establish the first restrictions on hunting waterfowl in the Migratory Bird Treaty (1917) between the United States and Canada.

In this, his first book, Miner writes with ease, humour and respect about woodpeckers, robins, bobwhite quail, ducks and geese, introducing readers to their habits, language and natural enemies-both animal and human. Describing the Canada Goose as one of the "most intelligent, self-sacrificing creatures on earth:' Miner offers the story of a father goose mending a broken leg over the period of a month while tending to his family of eight.

Through his writings and lecture tours, Miner became inter- nationally recognized as one of the fathers of wildlife conservation. In 1947, in its first unanimous vote since Confederation, the House of Commons established the National Wildlife Week Act in honour of Canada's famous "bird man."

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3. Who Has Seen the Wind - W.O. Mitchell

Mitchell's first and best novel is the sweet story of a sensitive child's gradual awakening to the spiritual nature of the world. The tale is set in the small Saskatchewan village of Crocus, where every street-end disappears into the immense solitude of sky and prairie. Four-year-old Brian O'Connal is enchanted by the songs of larks and grasshoppers, the droplets of water on the veins of a leaf. In this state of wonder, he yearns to understand the thrilling shiver of the prairie wind on the back of his neck.

At age twelve, the ever-curious Brian encounters both the good and bad in life: the deaths of his father and grandmother, the hypocrisy of religious zealots, the cruelty of children torturing animals, conversations about the larger world with the school principal and the local shoemaker. These vividly developed characters and seemingly small, homely incidents change Brian from an innocent child to one who learns that the wind can be both the benign and menacing touch of God.

Mitchell's story is a perceptive dissection of small-town prairie life, and very funny. This poetic book deserves its place on the list of Canadian classics.

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4. The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881 and The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885 - Pierre Berton

Canada's national identity is tied to the completion in 1885 of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The "ribbon of steel" crossed a 3200-km (2000-mile) wilderness to connect isolated colonies. Stitching together diary entries, letters, newspaper accounts and government documents, Pierre Berton tells the exciting story in a sweeping, novelistic fashion.

The National Dream opens with the pledge by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to build a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, an act labelled "insane recklessness" by his opponents. There follow ten years of political infighting, financial chicanery, and brilliance and bravery by the surveyors and engineers who map a railbed through the daunting landscape of muskeg and granite.

The Last Spike presents the dramatic five years during which the steel was laid. In addition to the rebellion in the Northwest and the terrible toll on Chinese workers, there was bribery, rapacious loan sharks, secret American bankers, land speculation and threats of imminent bankruptcy.

The books were instant best-sellers. Reviewers praised Berton's extensive research and captivating style, heralding him as the creator of a new Canadian mythology. Although academic critics dismissed Berton as a popular historian, these books changed the complexion of Canadian historical writing.

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Check out our other books by Pierre Berton!

5. The Illustrated History of Canada - Craig Brown (Editor)

This volume fills the long-standing need for a popular history of Canada that conveys just how big, how diverse and how rich our country's heritage really is. More than a traditional chronicle of parliaments and the powerful, the book presents a complex and modern sensibility. It incorporates the particular viewpoints of aboriginal peoples, ethnic minorities, women, tradespeople, farmers and fishers. Richly illustrated with maps, engravings, colour photographs and advertising posters, the book is lively, incisive and especially insightful about the harsh conditions under which we continue to build this nation.

The book begins with the meeting of alien cultures, First Nations and European, then traces the cross-fertilization and shifting balance of power as one group overwhelms the other. The story of New France describes how a separate and unique culture emerged in Quebec, against a background of political conflict in Europe and at home. The section on the development of British North America details the colonization of regions outside central Canada and the building of national political, cultural and business institutions. The overarching theme here is the evolution of a nation from sea to sea, populated by distinct peoples who are still learning how to live with one another.

If you would like to know what the initials of the Hudson's Bay Company really stand for, or to read Jacques Cartier's first impressions of Canada, or to see what a World War II "Bren-Gun Girl" looked like, consult this readable and appealing volume.

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6. Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism - George Grant

This book's influence has endured, even though it originated as a response to the defence crisis of 1963, when the government of John Diefenbaker refused to allow the United States to arm Canadian missiles with nuclear warheads. The Americans were openly hostile to Ottawa's decision, and soon the Liberal Opposition, the media and most of the Canadian establishment were calling for Diefenbaker's head. In their easy acquiescence, George Grant saw proof that Canada had become a mere branch plant of the American military-industrial machine. He lamented: "The society produced by such policies may reap enormous benefits, but it will not be a nation. Its culture will become the empire's to which it belongs, Branch-plant economies have branch-plant cultures."

With the book's publication, Grant become one of the first to raise the banner of Canadian nationalism, though it is not clear that such was his intent. In fact, he saw his book as documenting the end of Canadian nationalism. But in the rebellious milieu of the 1960s, the call to defend Canadian's rights against American interference hit a nerve.

Today, the book's main themes still resonate with opponents of Free Trade and with people who feel alienated from the central Canadian establishment. This continuing relevance makes Lament for a Nation an important work thirty years after its first publication.

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7. Clearing in the West: My Own Story - Nellie McClung

Nellie McClung was, by the standards of any time, a remarkable woman. She was a mother of five, novelist, orator, suffragette, prohibitionist, reformer and one of the first female members of a provincial legislature in Canada. In addition, she was the first woman to service on the CBC's Board of Governors and represented Canada at the League of Nations. After playing an energetic role in winning the vote for Canadian women, she toured the United States and Great Britain in support of suffrage. Her achievements are all the more remarkable since she had only six years of formal schooling.

In Clearing in the West, McClung tells the story of her homesteading journey from Ontario to Manitoba in the 1880s and ends with her marriage in 1896. Written in a charming and chatty manner, the book captures her memories picturesquely and with a flair for the interesting detail. Young Nellie watches wagons disappear in the mud, notices uninscribed crosses marking graves along the trail, encounters howling prairie wolves, sadly observes the end of a massive buffalo slaughter.

McClung's sense of justice and the belief that women should have the right to vote are set against her mother's "old-world reverence for men". She reveals how her own independent spirit affected and shaped her as a teacher, and her attempts to get other women involved in politics.

Much more than a pioneer saga, this is the story of one of the leading figures in the worldwide movement for women's rights and perhaps Canada's most famous feminist. As such, it still deserves wide attention.

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8. Ten Lost Years, 1929-1939: Memories of Canadians Who Survived the Depression - Barry Broadfoot

By the early 1970s, the Great Depression of the 1930s had been written off as an unhappy footnote in our nation's history: no one wrote or talked about it. Barry Broadfoot set out to rectify this situation, convinced that there were uniquely Canadian experiences to document.

Broadfoot's approach was simple. Criss-crossing the country with a tape recorder, he interviewed anyone with a story to tell about surviving the Dirty Thirties. Avoiding commentary, he lets people speak for themselves in thematic chapters that cover the barter economy, social unrest, hoboes, soup kitchens, homemade entertainments, offences against dignity and unexpected generosities. The stories are remarkable for the candour and their pain. There are tales of starving neighbours who simply disappear, of men working in backwoods relief camps for twenty cents a day, and of trains covered with men moving back and forth across the country - going nowhere. Taken together, the heartbreak of the time is palpable.

Ten Lost Years reclaimed a painful but important chapter of Canada's past, and it struck a chord in Canadians of all ages. For those who had experienced the Depression, there was a kind of nostalgia for shared hard times. For baby boomers, there was a new understanding of their parents' view of the world. The best-selling book was eventually adopted as a highly successful stage play that toured the country and was broadcast on television.

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Check out our other books by Barry Broadfoot!

9. The Hockey Sweater- Roch Carrier

It is the winter of 1946, and in the small Quebec town of Ste-Justine, every boy's thoughts turn to pucks and skates. When Roch and his friends are not at church or at school, they play hockey, each wearing a replica of the Montreal Canadiens jersey of their hero, Maurice "The Rocket" Richard.

Life in Ste-Justine is circumscribed by religion. The village church stands guard beside the rink, and the children's beloved hockey games are refereed by the stern hand of God in the form of a black-robed curate. Young Roch and his friends are devout in their own way: they pray for God to endow them with the speed and skills of the Rocket.

When Roch's prized Canadiens jersey wears out, his mother orders him a new one from the English version of the Eaton's catalogue. But what arrives in the mail is a Toronto Maple Leads sweater, which he is forced to wear so as not to offend Monsieur Eaton. The persecution Roch suffers by donning Toronto blue instead of Montreal red is a poignant example of the regionalism that both defines and divides our country.

The book is a beautiful piece of Canadian heritage, and begs to be read aloud.

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Check out our other books by Roch Carrier!

10. Fall on Your Knees - Anne-Marie MacDonald

Not for the faint of heart, this richly textured saga of a Cape Breton Island family takes the reader on a breaktaking, epic ride from the coal-mining heart of the island to the European battlefields of World War I and into the burgeoning jazz scene of New York City.

After James Piper elopes with a young Lebanese girl, he spawns a family of four daughters, and what a cast of eccentric characters they are. James, giving in to his own darker impulses, sets in motion the events that will devastate the family. The eldest child, Kathleen, a gifted singer of great beauty, studies opera by day and Harlem jazz by night. Mercedes, the obsessively religions daughter, acts as a resentful mother to her two younger siblings. Frances, the wild and wayward rebel, selfishly panders to make weaknesses in a local speakeasy. Lily, the polio victim and adored angel, must in the end decipher all the terrible secrets that hide in the dark bosom of her family.

With great originality, Anne-Marie MacDonald proves herself singularly unafraid to tackle life's more unpalatable moments. She had already distinguished herself by winning the Governor General's Literary Award for her play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). For Fall on Your Knees, her debut novel, she won international praise and the 1997 Commonwealth Writer's Prize.

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11. The Collected Poems of Al Purdy - Al Purdy

One of Canada's most popular and acclaimed poets, Al Purdy has dedicated his life to crafting poems in his singular style of colloquial erudition. Like Irving Layton and Milton Acron, fellow modernists from Montreal in the mid-1950s, Purdy changed the way that Canadians write poetry. His earthy, anecdotal style and public persona as a self-taught, working-class "bad boy" contrast with the lyricism and spirituality of his work. Purdy's imagination and insight build a bridge between his regard for the past and his contemporary concerns. His influence on several generations of poets is considerable.

This collection spans four decades and thirty-two books, from Purdy's youthful attempts at traditional verse through years of apprenticeship to his emergence as a fully realized original artist. The book is not only an important milestone in Purdy's career but in Canadian letters.

The Collected Poems earned Purdy a second Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. The first was for The Cariboo Horses in 1965.

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Check out our other books by Al Purdy!

12. The Diviners - Margaret Laurence

The last of Margaret Laurence's Manawaka cycle of novels, The Diviners won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 1974, despite an initially lukewarm reception. The book has also faced tough challenges in some school jurisdictions on the grounds of obscenity.

The Diviners does make an odd first impression, being superficially awash with characters and situations animated by far too many narrative devices.

In the critical reading of the novel, its true worth comes to light. Morag Gunn, the central character, is a writer and mother struggling with the conflict between her own needs and the demands of others. In the complex weave of stories, the readers sees that Morag is not alone. As much as Morag may articulate her life from the inside out, those things outside her - family, townspeople, photographs, newspaper articles, songs and letters - shifting point of view, which initially discomfits the reader, is now considered to be the source for much of the novel's strength and originality.

Like the river that opens and closes the story, life, as Laurence portrays it, is a stormy, ever-changing backward and forward movement. Breaking free of convention to find her place in the rhythm and flow of life is Morag's ultimate salvation. In this way, too, The Diviners has found its own ongoing salvation.

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13. Sea of Slaughter - Farley Mowat

In a voice as bitter and relentless as the book's theme, Farley Mowat recounts the long history of the exploration and exploitation of the Atlantic coast of North America. For over five hundred years, people have overfished, trapped, polluted and encroached upon habitats; today, we are left with little more than frail traces of ecosystems that once teemed with life. This horrifying record of mindless, often deliberate destruction, leaves readers overwhelmed with sadness, loss and anger. Like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Mowat's book is an attempt to make us aware of the previous, fragile world in which we live.

In the past, critics have accused Mowat of providing insufficient evidence to support some of his claims, yet he remains a leader in the conservation movement, as well as an internationally known author whose books have sold millions of copies worldwide. Written in his characteristic storytelling style, Sea of Slaughter and other works such as People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf have helped to focus public attention on environmental concerns.

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14. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz – Mordecai Richler

Many people will be more familiar with the movie version of The Apprenticeship ofDuddy Kravitz than the original novel. In this coming-of-age story, young Duddy is an unscrupuulous Jewish pusherke in Montreal, whose only aim in life is to be a somebody. His grandfather once told him that if you don't own land you're a nobody. Duddy takes this advice to heart and stops at nothing to achieve his goal. By the time he is finally able to purrchase a piece ofland, he has callously exploited his Quebecoise girlfriend, betrayed his epileptic friend, and successfully eliminated all rivals with no apparent conscience. In the end, only Duddy's cab-driver father applauds him; his grandfather condemns his conduct.

There is very little to like about Duddy, yet there is something extremely captivating about his raw drive, vitality and shrewdness. This is tough and unrelenting social satire at its best.

The novel, when first published, was a critical success but a financial failure; it has since come to be regarded as a Canadian classic. Richler was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library in 1989, the same year he was awarded the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Solomon Gursky Was Here, another fine example of his iconoclastic humour.

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Check out our other books by Mordecai Richler!

15. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town – Stephen Leacock

These twelve short stories, created out of a series of newspaper columns in the Montreal Star, trace the follies and failings of the inhabitants of an imaginary Ontario town. In fact, Stephen Leacock drew much of his inspiration from the real-life folks in his hometown of OriIIia. Although his readers chuckled at the comic realism of it all, the folks back home were a trifle miffed.

Leacock was keenly aware of the techniques that defined the British and American varieties of comedy. His exercises in gentle irony give his own style of humour a truly Canadian flavour. From his detached bird's-eye view, he softly sketches a town and its characters, inflating them with their own self-importance before deflating them with a wry but always affectionate bathos: "I can tell you the people of Mariposa are proud of the trains, even if they don't stop!" With Leacock, the punchline is never far behind.

These stories present a realistic though nostalgic portrait of a Canada caught between the pioneering past and the twentieth century future. Although hugely successful at home, Sunshine Sketches never achieved the same level of popularity abroad as Leacock's other books, in which he employed foreign settings. Sunshine Sketches, then, is Leacock's great Canadian book.

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Check out our other books by Stephen Leacock!

16. The Stone Diaries– Carol Shields

Within two years of publication, this superb novel was nominated for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize, won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, and, in the United States, received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Award - all this for a straightforward telling of the life of a truly unremarkable woman.

The novel is structured as a biography of the very ordinary Daisy Goodwill, a wife and mother who, late in life, begins an uncharacteristic review of her past. Her story leaps forward as a series of episodes that span the century. Daisy's life is one of small disappointments, aches and ailments, everyday resignation to domestic toil and family duty, and hopeful attempts to make things nice. She is the unreliable narrator of a life defined by others, filled with details that never quite come into meaningful focus. Her active but unfulfilled mind has slowly turned to stone under the weight of immense, unexpressed unhappiness.

Carol Shield's handling of this material is lucid and elegant, her tale filled with gripping moments, vivid characters and meticulous details that build stunning word pictures. Like Daisy, the reader is compelled to explore the nature of biography, the meaning that underlies events and, finally, the essential mystery of human life.

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