The Well-Read Canadian

Today Canada celebrates its 147th birthday. In honour of the occasion, I would like to present to you the top 50 novels you should read if you want to be A Well-Read Canadian. And who doesn’t, right?

This idea was inspired by this list, as well as my general love of listing books.

My criteria:

  • Novels only. This was to make it easier on myself, though it did limit terrific writers like Leonard Cohen (I know, he wrote a novel but that’s really not what he’s known for) Al Purdy, and Irving Layton.
  • One book per author. More seemed greedy. This was hard to pick when it came to writers who I hadn’t read at all. (I’m still not sure about my choice for Mordecai Richler – what’s his best novel?)
  • I wanted to have all the provinces and territories represented but I also wanted it to be an honest list of the books that are the most well-known, well-read, and influential in Canada. So Ontario dominates and Nunavut isn’t there at all. (If you know of books by writers from Nunavut or about Nunavut, please let me know.)
  • While this list is obviously dictated by my own tastes and whims, I did try to choose books that are lauded more widely than just by me. The bolded titles are the ones I have read.
  • I’ve arranged the list by publication date. Again, it weighs heavily to the last thirty years. This may be due to my own age. I couldn’t find anything pre-20th century that was fiction.
  • Again, in an attempt to reflect what’s out there, I didn’t hunt out a balance of male/female writers but I was pleased to find that it is decently balanced.

The List:

1. Anne of Green Gables – L. M. Montgomery

Montgomery was born and spent her childhood on Prince Edward Island. Most of her novels, including this one, are set there. L.C. Page & Co., 1908

2. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town – Stephen Leacock

Leacock was born in England but eventually settled in Montreal, Quebec. This is a story collection set in a fictional town, perhaps based on Orillia, Ontario. 1912

3. Such is my Beloved – Morley Callaghan

Callaghan was born and died in Toronto, Ontario.This novel is set in Toronto during the Depression. Charles Scribner’s Son, 1934

4. Barometer Rising – Hugh MacLennan

MacLennan was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. This novel is set in Halifax and centres around the Halifax Explosion. Duell, Sloan, and Pierce, 1941.

5. As For Me and My House – Sinclair Ross

Ross was born in Shellbrook, Saskatchewan. This novel is set in a fictional prairie town during the Depression. Reynal and Hitchcock, 1941

5. The Tin Flute – Gabrielle Roy

Roy was a French-Canadian, born in Manitoba. This novel takes places in Montreal, Quebec and was originally published in French as Bonheur d’Occasion in 1945.

6. Who Has Seen the Wind – W.O. Mitchell

Mitchell was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan and later lived in Alberta. This novel is about childhood in the Saskatchewan prairies. 1947

7. Lost in the Barrens – Farley Mowat

Mowat was born in Ontario and lived in Saskatoon as a teenager. Lost in the Barrens is set in the Canadian Arctic. Little, Brown & Co, 1956

8. The Secret World of Og – Pierre Berton

Berton was born in Whitehorse, Yukon and moved to Victoria, BC as a boy and then to Ontario as an adult. This story is a children’s book set in a fantasy land. McClelland & Stewart, 1961

9. The Stone Angel – Margaret Laurence

Laurence was born in Neepawa, Manitoba. Though she travelled and lived around the world, she set most of her writing in Manitoba. McClelland & Stewart, 1964

10. Fifth Business  – Robertson Davies

Davies was born and spent most of his life in Ontario. This novel is the first in a trilogy. Macmillan, 1970

11. Lives of Girls and Women – Alice Munro

Munro is the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was born in Wingham, Ontario. This short story collection is set in southern Ontario. McGraw-Hill Ryserson, 1971

12. The Wars – Timothy Findley

Findley was born in Toronto and spent most of his life in Ontario. This novel is about a young Canadian soldier during the First World War. Clarke, Irwin, 1977

13. The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant – Michel Tremblay

Tremblay was born in Montreal, Quebec. This novel was first published in French as La Grosse Femme d’a Cote est Enceinte and is set in Montreal. Talonbooks, 1978

14. Obasan – Joy Kogawa

Kogawa was born in Vancouver, BC. This is a novel about the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981

15. The Fionavar Tapestry – Guy Gavriel Kay

Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. This trilogy involves 5 Toronto students in an alternate realm. McClelland & Stewart, 1984

16. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Atwood was born in Ottawa and currently lives in Toronto. This novel is set in a future dystopia, within the borders of the USA. McClelland & Stewart, 1985)

17. In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka and arrived in Canada at the age of 19. This novel is set in Toronto in the early 20th Century. McClelland & Stewart, 1987

18. Broken Ground – Jack Hodgins

Hodgins was born in the Comox Valley, British Columbia. The novel is set on Vancouver Island, following the First World War. McClelland & Stewart, 1988

19. Green Grass, Running Water – Thomas King

King was born in California and moved to Lethbridge, Alberta in 1980. He is of Cree descent and this novel is set amongst the Blackfoot community in Alberta. Houghton Mifflin, 1993

20. The Stone Diaries –Carol Shields

Shields was born in Illinois but married and moved to Canada in the 1950s. Random House, 1993

21. The Book of Secrets – M.J. Vassanji

Born in Kenya, Vassanji studied at the University of Toronto. McClelland & Stewart, 1994

22. The Jade Peony – Wayson Choy

Choy was born in Vancouver, BC and lives now in Toronto. This novel is set in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1930s and 1940s. Douglas & McIntyre, 1995

23. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

Mistry was born in Mumbai, India and currently lives in Brampton, Ontario. The novel is set in India during the 1970s and 1980s. McClelland & Stewart, 1995

24. The Cure for Death by Lightning – Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Anderson-Dargatz was born in Salmon Arm, BC. The novel is set in BC, at the end of the Second World War. Knopf, 1996

25. Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald

MacDonald was born in West Germany to a military family. She lives now in Toronto, Ontario. The novel is set in Nova Scotia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Knopf, 1996

26. Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels

This novel is set in Poland, Greece, and Toronto. Michaels was born and lives in Toronto. McClelland & Stewart, 1996

27. The Englishman’s Boy – Guy Vanderhaeghe

Vanderhaeghe was born in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. He currently lives in Saskatoon. This novel is set in the Northwest Territories in the 1870s. McClelland & Stewart, 1996

28. Barney’s Version – Mordecai Richler

Richler was born in Montreal, Quebec. The Barney of this title is an English-speaking Jew in Montreal. Knopf, 1997

29. Kiss of the Fur Queen – Tomson Highway

Highway is a Cree writer born in Manitoba. He lives now in Ontario. This novel is set in northern Manitoba and is a fictionalized account of residential school experience. Doubleday Canada, 1998

30. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams – Wayne Johnston

Johnston was born in Goulds, Newfoundland, which is also where this novel is set. Knopf, 1998

31. The White Bone – Barbara Gowdy

Gowdy was born in Windsor, Ontario and lives now in Toronto. This is a fantasy novel about elephants. HarperCollins, 1999

32. Mercy Among the Children – David Adams Richards

Richards was born and lives in New Brunswick. This novel is also set there. Doubleday Canada, 2000

33. The Russlanders – Sandra Birdsell

Birdsell was born in Manitoba but lives now in Regina, Saskatchewan. The novel tells the story of Mennonites coming from Russia to Canada. McClelland & Stewart, 2001

34. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

Martel was born in Spain to Canadian parents. He lives now in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Life of Pi is set in India and the Atlantic Ocean. Knopf, 2001)

35. The Stone Carvers – Jane Urquhart

Urquhart was born in northern Ontario but lives now in southern Ontario. The novel follows an Ontario family and the building of the Vimy Ridge monument. McClelland & Stewart, 2001

36.Paris Stories – Mavis Gallant

Gallant was born in Montreal, Quebec but spent most of her life living in Paris, France. New York Review of Books, 2002

37. Elle – Douglas Glover

Glover was born in Simcoe, Ontario but lives now in Fredericton, New Brunswick. This novel is about a young French woman in the New World during Jacque Cartier’s time. Goose Lane, 2003

38. Hey Nostradamus! – Douglas Coupland

Coupland was born in Germany and moved to Canada before his fifth birthday. He currently lives in Vancouver. This novel is set in North Vancouver. Bloomsbury, 2004)

39. A Complicated Kindness – Miriam Toews

Toews was born in Manitoba. This novel is set in a fictitious Mennonite community, said to be modelled after Toews’ hometown of Steinbach. Knopf, 2004

40. Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden

Boyden, who was born in Ontario, is Metis. This novel is set in Ontario after the First World War. Penguin Canada, 2005)

41. A Discovery of Strangers – Rudy Wiebe

Wiebe was born in Saskatchewan. This novel is a re-telling of Franklin’s expedition to the Northwest Territories. Random House, 2005

42. Gargoyles – Bill Gaston

Gaston has lived in Manitoba, Ontario, and British Columbia. He currently lives in Victoria, BC. 2006

43. . Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures – Vincent Lam

Lam was born in London, Ontario and currently lives in Toronto. This short story collection is set in Toronto. Doubleday, 2006

44. Lullabies for Little Criminals – Heather O’Neill

O’Neill was born in Montreal, Quebec where she still lives and where this novel is also set. HarperCollins, 2006

45. Late Nights on Air – Elizabeth Hay

Hay was born in Owen Sound, Ontario and currently lives in Ottawa. This novel is set in the Northwest Territories. McClelland & Stewart, 2007

46. The Birth House – Ami McKay

McKay was born in Indiana and lives now on the Bay of Fundy. The Birth House is set in rural Nova Scotia. Vintage Canada, 2007

47.The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway

Galloway was born in Vancouver and lives now in New Westminster, BC. This novel is set in Sarajevo in the 1990s. Random House Canada, 2008

48. The Bishop’s Man – Linden MacIntyre

MacIntyre was born and spent his childhood in Nova Scotia and now lives in Toronto. This novel is set on Cape Breton Island. Random House, 2009

49. February – Lisa Moore

Moore was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The novel is set in Newfoundland, following the sinking of the Ocean Ranger. Grove Press, 2010

50. Half-Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

Edugyan was born in Calgary, Alberta and lives now in Victoria, BC. This novel is set in Paris and Berlin during the Second World War. Thomas Allen Publishers, 2011)

51. Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese

Wagamese is a member of the Ojibway First Nation and was born in Ontario. The novel is set in northern Ontario. Douglas & McIntyre, 2012

Fun Facts To Notice:

  • 20 of these authors are women. Women have always been at the forefront of Canadian lit.
  • 10 of them were born outside of Canada.
  • Both W.O. Mitchell and Guy Gavriel Kay were born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Weyburn has a population of approximately 10,000.
  • Ann-Marie MacDonald and Douglas Coupland were both born on a Canadian military base in Germany.
  • 8 of these novels deal with either World War One or World War Two.
  • None were released in the 1920s.
  • Ontario wins for most common setting but British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Nova Scotia tie for second place.
  • 13 of these titles were published by McClelland & Stewart.
  • This list has 51 titles, not 50. Canadian fiction is so good, it’s hard to narrow down!









4 thoughts on “The Well-Read Canadian”

  1. The Secret World of Og was a favourite of mine in elementary school, so when I found it in a used book store, I bought it! Very different reading it as an adult, but still great!

    1. I love that book! We read it at school in grade 5 and, like you, I bought a used copy as an adult. I still think it’s great!

  2. Oh dear! The only one I’ve read is Anne of Green Gables! I did abandon In the Skin of a Lion – does that count? And Rohinton Mistry is very near the top of the TBR list…

    1. I’m disappointed – In the Skin of a Lion is one of my favourites ever! Rohinton Mistry is very bleak but worth the read. Don’t worry, I have a lot on this list I need to cross off too!

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