Saturday, June 30, 2012

Great Canadian Historical Fiction

July 1st is Canada Day, the day we Canadians celebrate the anniversary of the birth of our nation on July 1st, 1867.  

In honour of Canada Day I've put together a list of my favourite works of Canadian historical fiction.   Although Canada is not often a setting found in historical fiction,  I do think that the novels that are available are of top quality and well worth reading.   I encourage anyone interested in learning more about the history of this great country through historical fiction to check out the novels listed below, all of which have been written by Canadian authors and are set in whole or part in Canada.  

Do you have any favourites to recommend?  Feel free to share them in the comments section. 

Melissa's List of Great Canadian Historical Fiction

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

It is 1919, and Niska, the last Oji-Cree woman to live off the land, has received word that one of the two boys she saw off to the Great War has returned. Xavier Bird, her sole living relation, is gravely wounded and addicted to morphine. As Niska slowly paddles her canoe on the three-day journey to bring Xavier home, travelling through the stark but stunning landscape of Northern Ontario, their respective stories emerge-stories of Niska's life among her kin and of Xavier's horrifying experiences in the killing fields of Ypres and the Somme.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (AKA Someone Knows My Name outside of Canada)

Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle, a string of slaves, Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic Book of Negroes. This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own.

Aminata's eventual return to Sierra Leone, passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America, is an engrossing account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey. Lawrence Hill is a master at transforming the neglected corners of history into brilliant imaginings, as engaging and revealing as only the best historical fiction can be. A sweeping story that transports the reader from a tribal African village to a plantation in the southern United States, from the teeming Halifax docks to the manor houses of London, The Book of Negroes introduces one of the strongest female characters in recent Canadian fiction, one who cuts a swath through a world hostile to her colour and her sex.

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

Laure Beausejour grew up in a dormitory in Paris surrounded by prostitutes, the insane, and other forgotten women. With her friend Madeleine, she dreams of using her needlework skills to become a seamstress and one day marry a nobleman. But in 1669, Laure and Madeleine are sent across the Atlantic to New France as filles du roi. The girls know little of their destination, except for stories of ferocious winters and men who eat the hearts of French priests. To be banished to Canada is a punishment worse than death.

This haunting first novel explores the challenges that a French girl faces coming into womanhood in a brutal time and place. From the moment she arrives, Laure is expected to marry and produce children with a brutish French soldier who can barely survive the harsh conditions of his forest cabin. But through her clandestine relationship with Deskaheh, an allied Iroquois, Laure discovers the possibilities of this New World.

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Steeped in the intriguing history of Niagara Falls, this is an epic love story as rich, spellbinding and majestic as the falls themselves.

1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company. After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near the falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from the society ladies she once entertained, and Isabel, Bess's vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom, barely eating and harboring a secret.

The night of her return, Bess meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to him against her family's strong objections. He is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides and has an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the falls. His daring river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies that seek to harness the falls for themselves. As the couple's lives become more fully entwined, Bess is forced to make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of Niagara Falls, at a time when daredevils shot the river rapids in barrels and great industrial fortunes were made and lost as quickly as lives disappeared, The Day the Falls Stood Still is an intoxicating debut novel.

Away by Jane Urqhuart 

A stunning, evocative novel set in Ireland and Canada, Away traces a family's complex and layered past. The narrative unfolds with shimmering clarity, and takes us from the harsh northern Irish coast in the 1840s to the quarantine stations at Grosse Isle and the barely hospitable land of the Canadian Shield; from the flourishing town of Port Hope to the flooded streets of Montreal; from Ottawa at the time of Confederation to a large-windowed house at the edge of a Great Lake during the present day. Graceful and moving, Away unites the personal and the political as it explores the most private, often darkest corners of our emotions where the things that root us to ourselves endure. Powerful, intricate, lyrical, Away is an unforgettable novel.

The Halifax Connection by Marie Jakober 

A Canadian counter-intelligence novel with a memorable romance at its heart, The Halifax Connection brings to life 1860s Montreal and Halifax with wit, action and a finale that will leave you breathless.

Canada in 1862 is still a few scattered colonies run by an indifferent British crown. As the American Civil War heats up south of the border, Southern Confederates flood into Montreal and Halifax, among them numerous spies and military officers planning secret missions against the Union - missions they hope will provoke a war between England and the United States, throwing the whole weight of the British Empire into the Confederate camp.

Erryn Shaw is a charming British aristocrat who has been banished to the colonies and now wants nothing more than to run a theatre. Instead, he is convinced to spy for the British and finds himself befriending Southern Rebels to learn of their plans. On a mission to Montreal, he gets wind of a sinister plot-a plan the Confederates believe will win them the war. And he can't seem to find a way to stop it.

At the same time, he meets and courts an intriguing woman, Sylvie Bowen, who escaped the cotton mills of England seeking a better life.  Though she's drawn to Erryn's charm and cleverness, she once met with disaster at the hands of the South, and he knows it is only a matter of time until she discovers his ties to the Rebels and turns against him.

Drawing on actual events, The Halifax Connection captures a fascinating and largely forgotten piece of Canada's history.  From the comfortable parlours and ballrooms of the bustling metropolis of Montreal to the back alleyways of the port town of Halifax, to the deadly high seas patrolled by Southern raiders, the novel draws a remarkable picture of Canada in the mid-1800s - its people, its power struggles, its hopes and its dreams.

The Trade by Fred Stenson

The Hudson's Bay Company is about to exercise its uncontested monopoly over the lands drained by Hudson Bay. The first step is to find a new source of beaver pelts and profits, and the only hope lies in the unmapped territory held by the Blackfoot-speaking Indian tribes. The new governor mounts an expedition into the heart of this unknown land, a journey that will test the mettle of a new generation of Hudson's Bay Company men.  ...this brilliant novel tells an incredible story of those who were ruled by the often brutalizing fur trade. It is a story of love and economics and of how European culture, including religion, tried-and often failed-to root itself in this anarchic place. In the end, it is the story of how the mighty fur trade was rolled under by the greater forces of change and history.

All book synopses courtesy of

Happy Canada Day!