Hubby and I love back roads. Ditto dirt roads, paths, trails, chemins when we’re in Quebec. Twisting secondary roads with crumbling pavement, or narrow gravel roads make us feel right at home, no matter where we are. Like the one in northern British Columbia on which we drove 180 km into the tiny village of Telegraph Creek on the Stikine River. Lots of white knuckles on that drive. I wrote about Telegraph Creek a couple of years ago, in this post about our favourite tiny travel destinations.

the road into Telegraph Creek, British Columbia
Telegraph Creek, British Columbia
Telegraph Creek, British Columbia

I guess it’s not surprising, then, that I love books which capture the essence of life in out of the way places. Books about people who live on farms and in small communities at the end of dusty, dirt roads. So when one reader asked in a comment on my last post why I didn’t write more about Canadian books, I started thinking. And since Hubby and I have just returned from our annual July camping trip during which we escaped the crowds by going mid-week in June, and as a result, pretty much had the campsite, the beach, and the back roads to ourselves… I thought I’d write about a few of my best-loved Canadian “back road books.”

farm road near Osgoode Ontario
Farm track on our walking route near Osgoode
Mary Lawson is one of my favourite Canadian writers. Her first book Crow Lake, set mostly outside a small town in northern Ontario, is exactly the kind of book I’m talking about. Lawson tells the story of the Morrison family, of four siblings whose lives are forever changed by tragedy. I adored this book. Mostly because of the characters, the four Morrison kids, and the struggle of the older ones to take care of the younger two. But I also loved it for Lawson’s wonderful depiction of the setting “as beautiful and desolate and remote as the moon.” For perfect scenes like the one in which Bo (the baby of the family) plays with the kitchen pots by taking every single one out of the cupboard, banging it on the floor, murmuring, “Dis one. And dis one. And dis one.” And because I can so empathize with Kate’s inability to express to her older brother Matt just how much she loves him. Oh my… I can surely identify with that. Here’s a review written by Margaret Gunning in January Magazine that says a lot more about Crow Lake a lot better than I can.
Since Crow Lake, Mary Lawson has written two more books. The Other Side of the Bridge, and her latest, Road Ends. Each of them is deeply evocative of life at the end of a dusty, dirt road. And they all deal with the inevitable question facing those who have grown up in such places: should I go, or should I stay? As Marion Botsford Fraser says in her beautifully written review of Road Ends, if you “grow up in northern Ontario, you have only two roads to choose from– the one out, or the one home.” I’d say that this is true for many of us who grew up in small communities across Canada.
This question of leaving home is especially poignant for Canadians who have grown up in Newfoundland where the demise of the fishing industry has for decades caused the death of remote communities where the road in and out was not a road at all. Have a look at this article Newfoundland’s Lost Outports which describes the resettlement of fishing communities beginning in the 1950s.
shot from "Newfoundland's Lost Outports"
Children watching a house being towed from the Newfoundland outport of Fox Island
My favourite Newfoundland writer is Donna Morrissey. And my favourite of her books is Sylvanus Now. Morrissey has been described by the Globe and Mail as a “Newfoundland Thomas Hardy” so don’t expect a light read. But her work is compelling, and her picture of a disappearing life in Newfoundland’s fishing outports is deeply moving. If you’ve never read a book set in Newfoundland, read it just for an understanding of the people and the culture. And for Morrissey’s superb rendering of the landscape. And the dialect. I laughed when I reread bits of the book this morning, remembering when we were in Ireland and a young waitress in a pub said to me,”I hear there’s a place in Canada where they talk just like us.” “Yep,” I answered, “it’s called Newfoundland.” And how when my cousin from St. John’s visited us in Ottawa back in the eighties, Hubby struggled at times to understand her when she spoke.

Donna Morrissey herself is a stereotypical Newfoundlander: straight-talking, warm, lovely, and very funny. I met her once at a Writer’s Festival event. When she signed my book I mentioned that we had the same hairdresser. My hairdresser Carmen moved to Ottawa from Halifax where Morrissey lives, and she used to cut the writer’s hair. At my comment, Morrissey chortled, raised both hands, patted her hair, rolled her eyes, and said that her hair looked “just awful.” Then looking over my shoulder, she asked if maybe I had by chance brought Carmen with me.

I want to tell you about one more book. It’s not about back roads, but rather about small towns. But still deals with the idea of those who leave and those who stay. Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright is a beautiful book. Carol Birch in her review in The Guardian calls it a “quietly profound” novel which depicts the “turbulence beneath the surface calm of small lives in small towns.” The story of two sisters, Clara a spinster school teacher who stays in the stuffy Ontario town where they grew up, and Nora who leaves for the States to become a successful actress, is told through letters and through Clara’s journal.

Hubby bought me this book for Christmas one year. And I remember that Boxing Day was very cold, too cold for me to ski, so Hubby bundled up and went on his own. And I was relieved. Because I could read all day. And when he came back in the late afternoon, I was still ensconced on the sofa next to the Christmas tree, face puffy from weeping, a bit dippy from having been totally immersed in Clara Callan’s world for so many hours. Clara, and her “quiet yet turbulent life,” reminds me of those gently heroic characters in the best Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner novels. I seem to have a thing for fictional spinsters, don’t I?

So that’s it then. Three books I love. Maybe not all about back roads, but certainly about small places. Quintessentially Canadian places, I think. Books which depict the lives of those who chose to stay on the farms, or in the small communities, at the end of dusty back roads. I disagree with the reviewers who say that these novels are merely nostalgia for a “bleak” way of life that is disappearing. I think you can celebrate the courage and strength of those who struggle to survive in remote places without romanticising that life. And isn’t survival in a harsh landscape what much of Canadian fiction is about? Just ask Margaret Atwood.
I grew up in a small place. And I feel at home on back roads and in small towns. As a young adult I couldn’t wait to take the road out, to get away to the city, to embrace the freedom of anonymity, the freedom to become whoever I wanted to be. And I don’t regret making the decision to leave. But I still love home. The fields, and hills, and back roads of New Brunswick where I grew up.
And okay, so maybe I do romanticise it… sometimes… just a little. Sigh. I can’t help it. Must have been all that L.M. Montgomery I read as a child.
field of wildflowers in the Ottawa Valley
Field of wildflowers on a back road in the Ottawa Valley
Your turn. What are you reading these days? Any back road books?


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31 thoughts on “Back Road Books”

  1. I hope that road in the first picture is more stable than it looks ! My fathers siblings stayed close to their roots deep in the Yorkshire dales so I had cousins who probably felt like they were in the wilds of Canada . We were thought to be the sophisticated ones because we lived on the edge of a little town .They lived in tiny hamlets with no public transport or amenities . When I stayed with them it felt like stepping back in time , warm milk straight from the cow & go collect your own egg from the bantams . They loved their life until they reached their teen years & couldn't escape quickly enough . Now these hamlets are all spic & span – very desirable places to live & priced accordingly .I'm as guilty as anyone of settling into a cosy reading rut so I'm easing up on murders & taking note of your recommendations . It's Greengage Summer at the moment & I'm really enjoying it . Thanks for stretching us & pointing the way to alternative books – see , you are still teaching
    Wendy in York

    1. That Telegraph Creek road is the scariest road we've ever driven. It was gravel, quite narrow, with NO guard rail. And we'd read that trucks drove it to deliver supplies once a week. So we held our breath on the way in and out that we didn't meet one.
      Re: rural Yorkshire. Stu and I love watching the TV show Heartbeat. The old stone farmhouses, mucky farmyards, windy, bleak hillsides etc. But I can guess it wasn't quite as picturesque to live there back in the day. Nowadays we watch those old shows and wonder which old building is a snazzy barn conversion now.
      I loved Greengage Summer. Although I haven't yet tracked down any of her other books to read.

  2. I'm putting all of these on my Amazon wishlist. Thank you. Although I am aware that any great writers come from Canada, I'd never thought about Canadian literature per se, and I look forward to widening my perspective.

    In my own reading I've devolved to young adult fantasy. How to deal with stress, pretend you are a magic child;).

  3. And heading west to the prairies…Sinclair Ross, W. O. Mitchell, Margaret Laurence, Miriam Toews. Some small-town settings in these as well, but here (Manitoba/Saskatchewan/Alberta), each small town is surrounded by miles of backroads. The first time I was in rural (Southern) Ontario, I was shocked to find that over every hill was another town…I still chuckle about that.

    1. Love most of your suggestions. A Jest of God by Laurence is one of my all time favs. ….but confess I haven't warmed to Miriam Toews.
      Your first Ontario experience was similar to mine… except being from New Brunswick I expected to see a small town and then miles and miles of bush. I love rural southern Ontario because so many more of the old buildings and fences and barns have survived. Not so in NB (and Northern Ontario actually)where the encroaching bush swallows all.

  4. With four weeks left before I head back to my teaching world, I've been needing a good read to help me avoid the reality of August. I can't wait to start on one or two of your reccomendations. As I read your post today I couldn't help but wonder if you've read Mrs. Mike by the Arnold's. My first exposure to Canadian literature, it is one of my favorite rural reads. I'd love to hear your opinion of this book. Thanks for nodding me in the direction of new books to try.

    1. Ah, the reality of August and gearing back up for the classroom. I used to say there was a switch in my head that was thrown about August 10th…when I began to have school dreams every night, and awoke each day to lesson planning in my head. I will have a look for that book at the library. I've written the title down so I don't forget.

  5. Thanks for this lovely post reminding me of some of my favourite authors. Haven't read Donna Morrisey so will have to check her out. Spent many years in England, then 10 years on the prairies and now living in BC, so lots of variety in the landscape. I had to chuckle at Georgia's comment above – so true – but lots of flat roads for cycling!!!

    1. I have a good friend who moved to Eastern Ontario from Saskatoon years ago and she said for the first few months she felt as if she wanted to climb a tall tree to see everything, that she felt hemmed in by the hills. Funny isn't it the way we internalize landscapes?

  6. Hi Susan, thanks so much for taking the time to open my eyes to a whole new group of authors. I really enjoyed reading "The Book of Eve", something I would never have come across without your prompting. You are still an educator, even in retirement, I hope that pleases you ?
    Jules in Aus

    1. So glad you liked The Book of Eve. I'm never sure when I recommend books, we all have such individual tastes. I love lots of Ozzie writers too. Dirt Music is one of my fav books.

  7. I so enjoy your book posts: I picked up Clara Callan back when it won the Giller. It has sat, unread, on my shelf ever since. Thank you for the reminder; today I begin. Smile.

    I have some Donna Morrissey on hand as well. A CanLit summer awaits!

    Beverley (also in Canada, enduring the winters, then swatting black flies and mosquitos)

  8. Loved Crow Lake, read it last year when travelling in France. Must seek out her other two books.

  9. It is so nice to have so many recommendations and wonderful reviews!
    I have bookmarked the books I didn't read, from your old posts.
    There were some back roads in Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro,no?
    Some of my,oldfashioned,dear croatian authors writed about back roads,too
    And than there are great Russians,Turgenev first on my mind

    1. You're right…Alice Munro has lots and lots of back road stories. Many in Lives of Girls and Women are set in the Ottawa Valley near where we go camping. Enjoyed your post on cherry cake on Mater's blog, Dottoressa.

  10. I will definitely have to add those books to my must read list! At the moment, I'm immersed in The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, a perfect summer read for anyone grieving the cancellation of TV's Downton Abbey!

  11. So interesting — the east-west divide seems to persist, doesn't it? I loved Clara Callan and I liked Crow Lake very much as well, although quite a few years ago and I don't remember it well (have it packed in a box somewhere though so could reread — always meant to read more by her). Haven't read Morrissey and will add her to my list of books recommended by people whose taste I trust. Newfoundland writers I have read and loved include Bernice Morgan and Michael Crummey (both his poems and his fabulous novels!). Interestingly, I haven't been reading too much "back road" literature in the year since I've retired, perhaps because I taught so much of it on CanLit courses (an Australian exchange student from an upper-level Canlit class a few years ago just wrote me hoping I could remind her of the title of a poem she liked but couldn't otherwise remember except that it was something about landscape, cliffs, and trees. . . Um. . . .) I've been going more international, working through Elena Ferrante's fabulous Neapolitan series and Karl Knausgaard's My Struggle series. . . feel as if I've been allowed out to play, much as I truly love our Canadian writing. . . .And mysteries, always got a mystery on the go. . . the latest, actually, got onto the back roads, back roads you have to take a boat to. . . John Farrow's detective Emile Cinq-Mars finds trouble on Grand Manan. Have you been, being a New Brunswicker? Sounds pretty wonderful, if you ignore a fictional murder or two…

    1. I love Bernice Morgan too. I used to teach a short story of hers to my senior English class. So great to teach critical analysis and close reading… archetypes ala Northrup Frye etc etc. Loved teaching that stuff. Kids really learned so much beyond interpreting literature…like skills of observation, and noting patterns, and making interpretations based on observations. I used to love to tell them that literary analysis was actually more like Chemistry than they realized…hypothesis, observation, data table, conclusion. Akkk stop me. I could go on and on.

      On another note, I have been to Grand Manan. A best friend in high school had a grandmother who lived there, so I visited with her in my teens. And then my friend's mum moved back to GM, so now Stu and I visit every few years to visit her… my second mother as she calls herself. They have the best dulse in the world on GM. If you like dulse…which every self respecting New Brunswicker does, of course:) I have read the John Farrow books. I'll have to keep an eye out for that one.

      We have to have another get together just to talk books. When I came home from lunch that day, Stu asked what we had talked about. "Blogging," I said. He couldn't believe we talked about mostly that for two hours:) "Well, we had a lot to say, I guess," I said. And we didn't even get to the topic of books!

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