Traveling Through Literature

You don’t have to be reading travel writing books to travel while you read, and the Giller Prize nominees demonstrate that every year.

The Giller Prize winner was announced in November, but I’ve only just finished it, after reading the other four nominees first. What I enjoy most about the Giller nominees, aside from the mesmerising stories many of them narrate, is that the stories are usually set in communities throughout Canada. I see these stories as an ideal opportunity to engage in armchair travel from coast to coast to coast of this maddeningly huge nation.

I first read Annabel, by Kathleen Winter, which I adored almost immediately. It was hauntingly endearing, and painted an epic portrait of Newfoundland and Labrador, one of the two provinces I have yet to explore. My interest in that province has piqued in recent years, but Annabel illustrated it in such a way that I’m now compelled and determined to go…soon. The woods seem to have a special force, almost magical, so much so that I dare not go further than the fringe of the treeline. St. John’s has a whole other meaning now, one that’s difficult to describe without ruining the book. Let’s just say that Newfoundland and Labrador has a whole new allure, thanks to Annabel.

Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, the first of two short stories in the nominee pool, has a few stories set in Windsor/Detroit, a curious edge of Ontario. Windsor and Detroit sit across the river from each other, and although I’ve never been, I’ve always been interested by this. Two cities, one albeit much larger than the other, sit almost twinned, across a small river, yet they’re countries apart. In the opening story of Light Lifting, two boys try to outrun trains that power through a tunnel between the two cities…two countries. Our bond as nations, Canada and America, is so close in some instances, and yet so far in many others. In some cases, it’s not even the distinction between the two that matters.


Literary Tourism


Next I traveled to Winnipeg, in David Bergen’s The Matter With Morris, about a man trying to understand his son’s military death in Afghanistan. I struggled with how I felt about the book, and was more drawn into picking out recognisable Winnipeg landmarks, and learning more about the city. I’ve only ever been to Winterpeg, as it’s affectionately(ish) called, once, so my knowledge of the city is minimal. While I may not have always enjoyed the story, and what Morris was up to, it was fun for me to get up close and personal with Winnipeg, even though the city is by far the star of the story.

Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is for the Party was my second favourite of the nominees, and her short stories bounced between different locations across the country. I’m not sure why, but the last story was perhaps the one that resonated most with me. It was set primarily in Prince Edward Island, the other province I have yet to visit, and something about the candle-making profession of the characters combined with the small island charm, piqued my interest and fueled the desire fire even further…what is it about PEI? Humble and unassuming, yet totally alluring.

And finally, The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize winner for 2010. I thought I struggled through The Matter With Morris…well, The Sentimentalists has nothing on that one! This was a tough read for me. I never really got it…why was this supposed to be interesting? Anyway, it was set in southwestern Ontario, not far from the border (as most of southern Ontario is), and floated between there, Fargo, ND, and flashbacks to Vietnam. I can’t say that the portions in Vietnam were travel-inspiring – they took place during the war, nor was the bit in southern Ontario any more compelling. In fact, the only place this book made me want to travel to was anywhere it wasn’t. Harsh, I know. It’s funny, but the winner was my least favourite of all the books. Maybe that’s because it didn’t ignite the travel bug in me. Likely not, though…I just plain didn’t like it.

The past two Giller winners, however, were also fantastic little travelers, despite their deeply disturbing overtones. Linden McIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man creates a totally bleak, yet rather intriguing, snapshot of Cape Breton, NS, and Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce gave me an insight into northern Ontario Native communities that I had never understood before.

Even if books aren’t travel-writing specific, they can absolutely take you places without even trying. Consider that next time you read a book; pay attention to the setting and the surroundings…it just may further enrich the story, and provide a totally new dimension to your reading and your travel plans.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Laura Mustard says:

    Love this post, Linds! I always think of travel memoirs when I want to be an armchair adventurer, so it’s a great point that you can do it with almost any book. As much as I didn’t like the Sentamentalists either, it’s cool that you take Canadian lit so seriously and can offer recos on what is worth reading. Obviously I will have to pick up the books set in the ‘Peg and PEI! That is my Canadian jamz!

  2. Glad you enjoyed this Laura! Yes, yes, pay your jamz their dues haha. It’s funny, because the idea for this post didn’t really come to me until I finished the Sentimentalists last night…I was trying to figure out what the fundamental difference was – for me – between it and the other four. Or, rather, what I liked about the other four that didn’t exist in S. I think there are many other reasons than the traveling bit, but it was something that kind of popped into my head. I was totally craving some hardcore Canadiana after a year abroad, and it was nice to get to travel the country in the process!

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