Category: Canadian

Canada Reads Along: We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habibby Samra Habib

ISBN 978-0-7352-35007

Content Warnings: Sexual violence, homophobia, sexism, racism, child marriage.

“Azaad is a funny word in Urdu. In most instances, it means ‘freedom.’ Freedom from your captors, war, and oppressive regimes. But when used to describe a woman, it is meant to imply that she is too wild to be tamed by those who have the right to tame her: her parents and all the men in her life whose honour it is her duty to prioritize before her own desires.”

Samra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims, which the Sunni majority does not recognize as a form of Islam at all. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her.

In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her mother, from whom she was estranged for a period of time following her divorce from her cousin. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong her parents did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step. After all, she had “only ever been surrounded by women who didn’t have the blueprint for claiming their lives.” Habib’s memoir takes us deep into her own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but cannot offer us quite the same insight into how her mother started as someone who would marry her minor daughter to her first cousin, and came to be a woman who could accept the fact that her daughter is queer, and dates all kinds of other queer people. “To better understand myself, I need to understand how she got here,” Habib concludes. “I intend to spend the rest of the time she’s alive finding out.”

Habib’s father is a fascinating contradiction, a man who refused to accept condolences for having three beautiful daughters before a son finally came along, but who was also known to bellow “Allah hates the loud laughter of women!” Habib’s portrait painfully illustrates how his confidence was unmade by the family’s move to Canada, where he is unable to reclaim the status to which he was accustomed in Pakistan as a successful businessman. He is the kind of father who disagrees with engaging a teenager to her first cousin, and obliquely offers to put a stop to it. But he is also mercurial enough that his adolescent daughter knows instinctively that there will be a price to pay for accepting that offer. Even though he was not the architect of her child marriage, Habib’s rapprochement with her father seems more halting and tentative. I was also deeply curious about the experiences of her sisters and brother in this same household, and how they were uniquely affected by growing up under similar circumstances. However, that is perhaps their own story to tell, and Habib does not dwell on it.

Although leaving Pakistan helped her family avoid one type of religious persecution, in Canada Habib still faced racism, homophobia, and anti-Muslim discrimination. “Sure, we were no longer afraid of being killed by religious extremists on our way to school, but not knowing whether we’d be able to make next month’s rent didn’t ease my mind either. We had our asylum and our government-issued blankets, but I still didn’t feel free to be a child,” Habib writes of the precarious transition to life in Canada. School was a mixed blessing. Though “people who devote themselves to learning have always been my people, my pockets of safety,” she experienced the transition from ESL classes with other immigrants to the mainstream classroom as a source of trauma. Education was her weapon, but school was not always a safe place.

We Have Always Been Here was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by actor Amanda Brugel. The book slid under the radar on the first day of debates, as the discussion that day centered on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. However, Brugel was an engaged debater from the first, showing herself early on as one of the strongest defenders at the table this year. She came out swinging on the very first question, arguing vociferously against Radicalized by Cory Doctorow, saying that it centered the perspectives of angry men, and that the only woman of colour protagonist was less developed than the smart toaster in “Unauthorized Bread.”

Indeed, We Have Always Been Here faced little criticism over the course of a week of debates. The most notable critique came from Akil Augustine, who argued that Habib did not do a good job of explaining how she could remain a Muslim after she came into her queer identity. Augustine specifically felt that given the importance of the religious texts in Islam, she should have mounted a theological argument referencing the textual passages that supported her position, as this would be most effective in persuading other Muslims to her way of thinking. George Canyon also noted he would have liked more contextual information about Pakistan and her family’s history there.

Although she didn’t often use the term, Brugel also argued that her book was the most intersectional, and therefore best represented the widest variety of Canadians within a single story. Samra is a queer woman of colour, a Muslim, and a refugee, providing multiple points of entry into her narrative. In keeping with this year’s theme, Brugel felt the book had the potential to bring the largest number of diverse Canadian identities into focus, making them feel safe, seen, and recognized.

Brugel described reading this book as being like reading the diary of a soul mate she had never met, and the other panelists seemed to agree with her, especially after they became free agents. George Canyon praised We Have Always Been Here for the way Habib’s writing evoked the Pakistani setting in the first part of the book. Canyon also joined Akil Augustine and Kaniehtiio Horn in naming Samra as one of the characters from all the books that stuck with them most, and Alayna Fender named her the character that most embodied compassion for the messiness of being human.

Going into the finale, We Have Always Been Here seemed a clear favourite, never having had a single vote cast against it by any of the panelists. In her closing remarks, Brugel asked her fellow panelists to put aside the question of fiction vs. non-fiction, and instead vote for the book that changed them, and impacted their life after the last page. Despite a lively final day of debate, when the ballots were read, everyone except Son of a Trickster defender Kaniehtiio Horn had voted to name We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib the historic winner of Canada Reads 2020. This marked the first time since Canada Reads began in 2002 that a woman panelist defending a book written by a woman took home the top prize.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2020! Need to catch up? Start with Radicalized by  Cory Doctorow.

You can also browse for more Canadian reads, including past Canada Reads contenders! Past winners include:

Canada Reads Along: Son of a Trickster

Cover image for Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinsonby Eden Robinson

Content Warnings: Substance abuse, self-harm, child abuse, domestic violence.

ISBN 978-0-345-81078-6

“He wanted to stay with Sarah, but watching Mr. and Mrs. Jaks slowly dying was brutal. He wanted to believe his mom was sorry, but his dad was always sorry and he still kept doing crap he had to say sorry for. He didn’t want to be a sucker, but he didn’t want to be alone. Everything ached and all the choices felt wrong.”

Old beyond his years, teenage Jared feels responsible for all the adults around him, from his mercurial mom Maggie, to her deadbeat boyfriend Richie, to his lying father and his pregnant step-sister, and the elderly neighbours who helped him out in a time of need, as well as their wayward granddaughter. His mom is estranged from her own family, and his father’s mother has always harboured the belief that he isn’t actually her grandson, but rather the illegitimate son of a Trickster. His only support, his beloved dog Baby, has recently died, and Jared is having a hard time keeping it together for everyone who needs him. He drinks too much, and smokes too much, and sometimes he blacks out. And sometimes he think he sees and hears things, even when he isn’t half-cut. Things that make him wonder if his grandmother might not be crazy after all.

Son of a Trickster starts out slowly, setting the scene on the northern coast of British Columbia, in a town defined by the boom and bust of the resource cycle. The ups and downs in Jared’s life ride upon the unstable temperament of his formidable mom, Maggie, who would do anything to protect her son from the world, but can’t always protect him from herself, or her secrets. By turns fascinating and terrifying, Maggie has carved out a place in the world by sheer force of will, but it is a constant effort to hold that space, and sometimes she lets it all collapse, leaving Jared to pick up the pieces. Jared’s own will is as stubborn as his mother’s, and as the story progresses it becomes evident that there is much he has been refusing to see out of a deep-seated sense of self-preservation.

At first, Jared’s life seems normal, or at least, only abnormal in sadly normal human ways. Slowly but surely, however, little bits of weirdness creep in around the edges, and Jared’s chapters are mixed with bizarre, expansive interludes that hint at a world beyond his day-to-day reality. The magic seeps in until it is almost pervasive, slowly invading every corner of his life until he has no choice but to face the destiny he has been running from. While this element comes into full force late in the book, the fact that Son of a Trickster is the first in a series leaves room for Robinson to continue to explore the implications of the first book’s final revelations.

Son of a Trickster was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by Kaniehtiio Horn, an Indigenous actor and podcaster from Kahnawake. Horn mounted a quiet but powerful defense of her chosen book, touting it as coming of age story that will appeal to everyone from young adults to elders. This year’s Canada Reads theme was “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and Horn also argued that it was time to expand Canada’s focus beyond Indigenous trauma narratives, and make room for the broader voices that are also part of the Indigenous experience in Canada. Toward the very end of the finale, she expressed that she wanted to see Indigenous authors on every shelf, from crime fiction to fantasy to science fiction and beyond, occupying every genre.

Son of a Trickster faced a variety of hurdles in this year’s Canada Reads competition. Most notably, some of the panelists seemed to have a decided preference for non-fiction. This formed a central part of the second day of debates, with both George Canyon and Akil Augustine expressing a stronger connection to real people rather than fictional characters in response to a variety of questions posed by the host. Nevertheless, Son of a Trickster arrived at the finale having only been voted against once, by Alayna Fender on Day Three, as she tried to save her book Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club from elimination.

After giving the eliminated panelists a moment to remind the audience why they should still read all those books, moderator Ali Hassan focused the final day of debates on questions about compassion, engaging storytelling, and which book most challenged the way the panelists look at the world. Son of a Trickster eked out an edge in the storytelling department, with George Canyon describing the book as a captivating, Akil Augustine lauding the magical element, and Alayna Fender praising the engaging cast of characters.

Throughout the competition, Horn spoke eloquently to Son of a Trickster specifically as an Indigenous story. When Alayna Fender raised questions about the completeness of the story, and its sense of having a beginning, middle and end, Horn responded with an explanation about how Indigenous stories are often more cyclical, but tend to be judged against the linear standard more common in settler narratives, though she acknowledged that the book is also the first in a trilogy. She also took time to educate listeners about the important role of the storyteller within Indigenous culture. In her final appeal, she asked her fellow panelists to make Son of a Trickster the first book by an Indigenous author to win Canada Reads.

After a lively final day of debates, the panelists cast their ballots for the last time. Kaniehtiio Horn voted against We Have Always Been Here, but the other panelists came together in a unanimous block to eliminate Son of a Trickster, and make We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib and defended by Amanda Brugel the first book by a woman author defended by a woman panelist to win Canada Reads since the program began in 2002.

Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!

Canada Reads Along: Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club

Cover image for Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail ColesMegan Gail Coles

ISBN 978-1-4870-0171-1

Content Warnings: Sexual violence, substance abuse, misogyny, animal abuse.

“She suspected John would try to colonize every aspect of her character so that he could accredit himself with anything worthwhile later. Early on, before the truly horrid had happened, Iris was concerned that John could not care less about what she was really like as long as this impersonation woman he preferred to her was believable.”

As a storm blows into St. John’s on Valentine’s Day, at the heart of a brutally cold February on the bay, the staff of The Hazel restaurant are preparing for service despite the weather. But another more personal storm front hangs over the dining room. John, the restaurant’s chef, has been conducting a precarious affair with Iris, the hostess, under the nose of his wife, who bankrolls the business. Damian, fresh off a breakup with his boyfriend, has arrived to his shift hung over, and without the patience to deal with the two increasingly wasted customers who take up position at the bar as lunch service begins. Outside, Olive watches it all from the cold winter streets of St. John’s, near-homeless because she cannot return to an apartment on which she has not paid the month’s rent. The Hazel is a house of cards ready to come crashing down, and a storm is blowing in.

I’m having a hard time doing this novel justice, so let’s start with the positive; Megan Gail Coles can write beautifully, turning out some stark gems of highly polished prose. Everything is carefully described, and her characters are incisively drawn. That being said, I didn’t find this at all pleasant to read. It probably doesn’t help that I started it in early March, as the COVID-19 crisis was picking up steam, and everything was changing by the day. When it was announced on March 13 that Canada Reads 2020 was being postponed, I threw this book down with relief, and didn’t return to it until last week, wanting to finish out the final quarter before the debates aired. With a measure more focus than I had back in March, I was able to handle the widely ranging narration, and the fact that the author eschews quotation marks or dialogue tags, and get past that somewhat to appreciate her characterization and themes.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club takes place over the course of a single day, divided by the cycle of the restaurant into Prep, Lunch, and Dinner. The narrative perspective shifts at will among the various characters, often descending deep into their stream of consciousness before shifting to the next. Each character is distinctive, some of them employing various degrees of Newfoundland dialect, which helps anchor the sense of place. By and large, these are not pleasant people, and I would be relieved to leave one behind when the perspective shifted, only to find the next person was equally nasty company. It isn’t terribly enjoyable to be inside their heads, but I can’t say the author didn’t warn me. “This might hurt a little. Be brave,” reads the epigraph with which Coles opens the book.

Pulsing beneath the humdrum events of the day is a deep current of misogyny. Toxic masculinity runs rampant amongst the male characters, and as we get to know Iris and Olive, their abuse at the hands of the men around them is slowly revealed. Iris’s ill-advised affair with her boss is crumbling, and John is actively planning how he will gaslight and discredit her if she reveals anything to his wife, Georgina. At the bar, we have Roger and Calv, two long-time friends with a complicated history. The women in his life—from his wife, to his mother, to his sister—are always telling Calv to dump Roger, but he can’t quite seem to cut the cord, even as he becomes increasingly complicit in Roger’s misdeeds. Georgina, known as George, a woman with a man’s name, is also tellingly complicit in her husband’s behaviour; Iris is not the first staff member at her restaurant that John has taken liberties with while she looked the other way.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by YouTube star Alayna Fender, known online as Alayna Joy. Fender mounted an impassioned defense of her book in the face of deep resistance to the writing style and subject matter, particularly from the male panelists. Both Akil Augustine and George Canyon consistently voted against the book on the first two days of debate, with discussion becoming quite heated. At the opening of the third day, Canyon began by apologizing for chiding the women panelists as “girls, girls, girls,” when his book, From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle, was eliminated yesterday in a vote that broke along gender lines.

Host Ali Hassan focused the third day of debates around setting, character, resilience and hope, while trying to steer the panel firmly clear of the fiction vs. non-fiction debate that dominated day two. This focus on literary elements led to a less contentious debate, and brought up new aspects of the remaining books that had not been previously discussed. Samra from We Have Always Been Here seemed to appeal broadly to the panelists, while Canyon felt there were too many characters in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club for him to relate strongly to any particular one, which Kaniehtiio Horn echoed. Alayna Fender attempted to parlay this into a strength, arguing in her rebuttal that the beauty of the book lies in the way it ties many stories together, showing how each issue is connected.

The final question of the day addressed resilience, and which book best embodied that idea. Alayna Fender highlighted the resilience of Iris and Olive, but part way through the discussion, host Ali Hassan redirected the panel towards the idea of hope, and what relationship that has to resilience. This seemed to resonate with George Canyon, who felt that Samra from We Have Always Been Here was the character from the remaining books that gave him hope. However, panelist Akil Augustine firmly rejected this idea, saying that hope bears no connection to the work that needs to be done. Alayna Fender also pushed back against the idea of tidy endings, arguing that a happy ending can leave the reader feeling complacent, whereas a more nuanced ending leaves the reader knowing that there is work yet to be done.

After three rounds of debate and discussion, when the ballots were in, and the votes were read, both Akil Augustine and George Canyon stuck firmly to their earlier positions, voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. Defender Alayna Fender, who was obviously not going to vote against her own book, cast her ballot against Son of a Trickster. However, both Amanda Brugel and Kaniehtiio Horn joined the rest of the panel in voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, despite Brugel’s expressed love for the book, thus making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020.

Need to catch up with Canada Reads 2020? Start with Radicalized by Cory Doctorow. 

Canada Reads Along: From the Ashes

Cover image for From the Ashes by Jesse Thistleby Jesse Thistle

ISBN 9781982101213

Content Warnings: Substance abuse, self-harm, sexual violence, child abuse.

“My words belonged to me. They were the only thing I had that was mine. And I didn’t trust anyone enough to share them.”

From the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies.

Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself. Thistle’s account begins with crushing images of childhood poverty, including toddlers drinking half-empty beers (“brown pop”) because they were hungry, and trying to eat a raw turnip. Before disappearing onto the streets himself, Thistle’s father spent all their money on drugs and alcohol, and taught his three young sons to beg and steal to feed themselves.

Thistle has a knack for striking images. Early in the book, he describes himself homeless and addicted on the streets of Ottawa, fishing change out of the fountain surrounding the capital’s Centennial Flame. He is half-heartedly pursued by an RCMP officer who is obligated to chase him off, but less than invested in the endeavour. Occasionally his imagery can be overwhelming, such as gut-wrenching descriptions of medical horror. Thistle broke multiple bones after he fell off the side of a building, attempting to break into his brother’s apartment for shelter. On the streets, staying in homeless shelters, smoking against medical advice, his wounds became infected to the point that he was at risk of losing his leg. Eventually he deliberately committed a crime and turned himself in, in order to be sent to jail where he would have stable housing and medical care while his injuries healed.

From the Ashes was the only one of the Canada Reads 2020 titles that I listened to as an audiobook, simply because that was the only format I could get my hands on before the program was initially supposed to air back in March. The audiobook is performed by the author, who has a slow, extremely measured speaking voice. I don’t tend to speed up my audiobooks, as I prefer to listen at speaking speed, but for the first time ever, I listened to the entire audiobook at 1.25x. As this is published, I am currently rereading it in print form and overall would recommend reading over listening.

From the Ashes was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by country musician George Canyon, who appeared via video link from his home near Calgary. In his opening statement, Canyon highlighted the book as a hard story, but also one that is about love and redemption. Of the writing style, he spoke to its personal feel, saying that he felt like he was sitting down to coffee and hearing the life story of a brother, to the point that it felt rude to put down the book and interrupt the conversation. He lauded the uninhibited writing, and the vulnerability Thistle demonstrated in sharing such experiences. During his closing, he admitted that the book made him cry more than once, and held Thistle up as an inspiration for everyone.

With two novels and two memoirs left at the table, a debate ensued about building empathy through fiction and non-fiction, and which form is more effective. As the defender, Canyon argued for the realism of non-fiction, saying that it could not be dismissed as “just fiction” or not real, and that it would therefore be better at creating empathy. Alayna Fender advocated hard for the value of fiction, and the ability to identify with fictional characters, because you do not separate yourself from them in the same way you maintain separation from a person you know to be real. The fiction vs. non-fiction debate is a common sticking point in Canada Reads debates when both are brought to the table, and will likely remain an issue this week as one memoir and two novels remain.

Host Ali Hassan directed the conversation back into the hands of Indigenous panelist Kaniehtiio Horn, who incited controversy on Day One by referring to From the Ashes as “trauma porn.” Horn is championing the other Indigenous book at the table, Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson. She clarified that she felt that From the Ashes appealed to a non-Indigenous audience, and that for Indigenous readers, it would actually be all-too-familiar and even triggering to read. She agreed that the book could help build empathy, but also pointed to the idea that it might be so appealing because it holds up a colonial idea of success. Certainly Canyon’s choice to call Thistle inspirational points to that appeal factor playing into his choice.

When it came time to cast the ballots, once again the vote split down gender lines, with George Canyon and Akil Augustine voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. The accessibility of Coles’ writing remained a matter of hot debate on Day Two, and Augustine once again raised the subject of Coles having an axe to grind and whether or not people would actually read her story as a result. On the other side, Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together to make From the Ashes the second book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. As Jael Richardson brought up, with this elimination, Canada Reads 2020 is set to make history this week. Never in the history of Canada Reads has a woman defending a woman’s book won the debates.

Canada Reads Along: Radicalized

Cover image for Radicalized by Cory Doctorowby Cory Doctorow

ISBN 978-1-250-22858-1

Content Warnings: Racism, xenophobia, medical horror, police brutality.

 “They’re kids. If they understood risks, they wouldn’t join uprisings and march in the streets and the world would be a simpler place. Not a better one, of course. But simpler.”

Radicalized is a collection of four novellas by author, editor, and technology activist Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born writer who lives in the United States. His fiction is typically set in the U.S. and deals with issues through an American lens, but with nods and references to Canada. The featured works deal with issues including the circumvention of copyright controls, racial bias in predictive policing software, healthcare insurance loopholes, and survivalist billionaires with more money than they know what to do with. That last story takes on a particular new resonance in the age of COVID-19.

The first novella, “Unauthorized Bread” is an Internet-of-Things horror story about a young immigrant who finds herself on the wrong side of copyright law after jailbreaking her internet-connected toaster, which will only toast bread made by authorized bakeries. This story can be read online for free at Ars Technica if you want to get a taste of Radicalized, and is currently under development as both a graphic novel and a television show. It is a story about the small inconveniences and humiliations of poverty, and being controlled by the technology we supposedly own.

Although these are works of fiction, Doctorow’s subjects generally find their inspiration in real life. The most speculative of the stories is “Model Minority,” a sort of Superman fan fiction about a super hero known as the American Eagle. He has a billionaire playboy defense contractor frenemy named Bruce, and an investigative reporter paramour named Lois. However, the story gets very real when the American Eagle decides to take a stand against a group of racist cops who give a Black man a paralyzing beating, enabled by the justification of predictive policing software. An alien among humans, the Eagle is forced to confront human xenophobia, and consider what price he is willing to pay if he draws this line in the sand.

The darkest story in the collection might be the titular Radicalized, which follows a career man named Joe who learns that his wife is dying of cancer on his 36th birthday. He becomes angry and sullen, especially when their insurance refuses to pay for a treatment the company deems too experimental. Soon he finds an internet message board full of other angry men who have lost wives and children despite being insured. Doctorow’s stories typically feature citizens using privacy technologies to empower themselves against overreaching corporations and governments, but this story follows a plotline whereby the Tor privacy browser and the dark web enable aggrieved citizens to plan acts of terrorism under the cloak of anonymity.

The collection closes with “The Masque of the Red Death,” a post-apocalyptic dystopian short about a billionaire who builds a doomsday bunker in the wilds of Arizona for his chosen few. The central character is Martin, a decidedly unlikeable protagonist who comes to hold the power of life and death over the people he has taken under his dubious protection when a pandemic strikes. Unwilling to contribute to rebuilding, Martin instead focuses on hoarding and protecting resources, fancying that this makes him a good leader. When I read this story in early February, I had little idea how relevant it would soon feel. The tagline of the collection, “Dystopia is now” could hardly be more accurate.

Overall, the stories are less than subtle, and often fairly didactic. For example, in “Unauthorized Bread,” Wye gives Salima an impromptu two page tutorial on public-key cryptography while the two women are riding the train. This is a pet issue of Doctorow’s that also feature prominently in his YA novel Little Brother, and if you want to contact him securely, you can find his public key in his Twitter bio.  In “Model Minority,” Lois delivers a two and a half page diatribe about racial bias in predictive policing, which the author even has her acknowledge as such in the text. The only justification for this is that, while didactic, there are certainly people who will find it more palatable to learn these concepts via fiction, which they might not otherwise seek out or consider. However, many science fiction fans will already be thinking about these issues.

After being postponed in March due to COVID-19, the Canada Reads debates began today in a near-empty Toronto studio with host Ali Hassan and defenders Akil Augustine, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel on-site, while George Canyon and Alayna Fender joined via video link from their homes in Calgary and Vancouver respectively. Radicalized was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by host and producer Akil Augustine, who is known for his work with the Toronto Raptors.

Radicalized was unique at the table in being a collection of novellas, facing off against two memoirs and two novels. Augustine seemed to anticipate that this might be an issue for his book, arguing in his opening statement that one singular story cannot tie together all the many necessary perspectives in the way that a collection can. However, this did not prove to be the focus of his opponent’s arguments. Actor Amanda Brugel brought the first critique, pointing out that three of the four stories in Radicalized were told through the perspectives of angry men, while the one woman of colour protagonist seemed less central to her own story than the toaster (see “Unauthorized Bread”). Indeed, the issue of gender became a flashpoint in the debate, with Augustine arguing that the men in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club were not well-written and felt flat to him.

The theme for Canada Reads 2020 is “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and host Ali Hassan’s Day One questions focused on asking the defenders how well their books exemplified that theme, and which book at the table was least successful in their opinion. Once again, the debate quickly homed in on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while the other three books were much less the center of discussion. Skating under the radar on Day One and avoiding an early elimination can be just as critical as a successful defense. Unsurprisingly, the question of whether Radicalized was sufficiently Canadian came up, a common critique in past Canada Reads debates. While Augustine argued that his book helped us to see how the issues we are facing in Canada are part of broader global issues to which we are connected in the modern world, both Alayna Fender and Kaniehtiio Horn argued that the book was not successful at bringing Canada into focus.

When the time came to cast the ballots, the panel split along gender lines, with Akil Augustine and George Canyon voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together against Radicalized, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. Akil Augustine remains at the table as this year’s first free agent. 

The Golden Spruce

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John Vaillantby John Vaillant

ISBN 978-0-393-07557-1

“The golden spruce was one of the few mature Sitka spruce trees still standing at the north end of the Yakoun River, and as such it had become even more of an anomaly than it already was.”

Sometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. The first recorded European contact with the islands would not take place for another seventy-five years. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In that time, the golden spruce had become a legend amongst the Haida people of Masset, as well as a symbol of the village of Port Clements. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home.

The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. Vaillant beautifully describes the temperate rainforest landscape, writing that “a coastal forest can be an awesome place to behold: huge, holy, and eternal-feeling, like a branched and needled Notre Dame.” The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. A former logger and industry consultant, Hadwin had specialized in laying out the logging roads that would enable the companies to haul massive equipment into challenging terrain, and extract the wood once it was felled. In short, he made possible the very destruction he came to oppose. Vaillant interviews several current and former loggers also caught in this cognitive dissonance between love for being in the wilderness, and making a living by pillaging it, representing a variety of positions on the issue.

In the summer of 1987, on a mountainside near McBride, British Columbia—a small town about two hours east of the larger mill town where I grew up—Hadwin had a vision. A doctor Vaillant spoke with, who specializes in this kind of decompensation, called it a “spiritual emergency.” Having already become disillusioned with the practices of the logging industry in the mid-eighties, his failed attempts to advocate for restraint and moderation became unhinged. His employer at the time compared it to the difference between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Following the vision, Hadwin believed “he was not only forgiven for his prior sins but chosen to represent the Creator of all Life and carry a message to the rest of humanity.” However, it would be a decade before this delusion manifested in an act of destruction that shook the country.

Like most of British Columbia, Haida Gwaii is unceded territory; no treaty exists, and no compensation has been made to the Haida people for all that has already been taken from them. On that dark January night, Vaillant describes how another piece of their culture was destroyed: “as far as many Haida are concerned, Hadwin is one more white guy who came out to their islands in order to take something away, only to leave behind yet another imported illness; this time, a new strain of terrorism.” From his Prince Rupert hotel room, before his disappearance, Hadwin admitted he didn’t know the Haida legend when he cut down the tree. As his friend Cora Grey, an Indigenous woman from Hazelton, put it, “he could only see MacMillan Bloedel. He didn’t see no legend about the Haida when he did that.”

For those looking to understand why Hadwin would destroy K’iid K’iyaas and think he was striking a blow against the logging industry, there is little satisfaction to be had in The Golden Spruce. Using all the skills he picked up during his years in the industry, Hadwin destroyed the structural integrity of the tree, ensuring that it would fall the next time the wind blew up. This happened two days after his nighttime expedition. Fortunately, despite the tree’s popularity as a tourist attraction, no one was hurt. The golden spruce trail and view point were on the other side of the Yakoun River. By the time the tree feel, Hadwin had left Haida Gwaii, and returned to Prince Rupert on the mainland. From his hotel room, he issued a press release decrying the hypocrisy of the logging industry, entitled “The Falling of Your ‘Pet Plant,’” which reads as a deranged screed against “university trained professionals” whose “ideas, ethics, denials, part truth, attitudes, etc., appear to be responsible for most of the abominations, towards amateur life on this planet.”

As Vaillant chronicles, Hadwin was charged for the act, and it is here that the story takes an even stranger turn. Believing his life to be in danger if he took a ferry or plane to his court date in Masset, Hadwin took his life into his own hands, and set out from Prince Rupert in a kayak in February 1998, disappearing somewhere on Hecate Strait or Dixon Entrance. His wrecked kayak and much of his equipment—in surprisingly good condition after four months on the Northwest coast—were found on Mary Island in June. Belief that he faked the wreck remains common amongst those who knew him and his outdoors skills, as well as among the people of Haida Gwaii.

With the tree felled, and Hadwin vanished into the wild, the last part of the book becomes about the grief of the community, and the futile efforts of the scientific community to put right the destruction he wrought. The golden spruce was unique and irreplaceable. Although two cuttings of the tree were located in the University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens, they were not thriving. Controversy erupted amongst community members and Haida leadership about whether the return of a cutting should be accepted, and if it should be planted on the site of the felled giant. In the end, although more cuttings were made from the fallen tree, and two were planted in Port Clements, the golden spruce has largely been left to nature, where it has become a nurse log for the surrounding forest. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”

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Sing the Four Quarters

Cover image for Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff by Tanya Huff

ISBN 0886776287

“Annice had been fourteen when she left the palace for Bardic Hall in Elbasan and while she never regretted the decision, she did occasionally wish that some things could’ve been different.”

Travelling to every corner of the kingdom of Shkoder, it is a bard’s calling to carry news, gather intelligence for the crown, and help administer justice by binding witnesses to speak only the truth at trial. Bards are also magicians, Singing to the Elements to call the kigh of Earth, Air, Fire, or Water to their service. Most bards have a strength, but some rare talents such as Annice, can Sing all four. Or at least, Annice could until she discovered she was pregnant. As the child grows, so does her affinity for Earth, until soon the other Elementals will have nothing to do with her. But losing her talent isn’t Annice’s only problem; ten years ago her brother, King Theron, disowned her and forbid her from bearing any children that might muddy the line of succession. Worse, the father of Annice’s child, Pjerin, Duc of Ohrid has just been accused of treason as well. Now Annice must not only find a way to mend the break from her family, she must also convince the King that the father of her child has been framed.

As becomes evident early in the novel, Annice is pregnant, although it takes her much longer than the reader to realize it. I wasn’t sure how I felt initially about Tanya Huff’s choice to hamstring Annice’s abilities simply because she was pregnant. However, it did add some interesting conflicts and limitations to the story while helped me reconcile to the decision. For instance, eliminating her ability to call the Air kigh is the fantasy equivalent of taking away Annice’s cellphone; she can no longer send or receive messages from other bards while she is out on the road. The positive trade-off is that the King’s Guard cannot command the other bards to use the Air kigh to locate Annice when she goes on the lam with Pjerin at seven months pregnant.

Although the book is primarily about Annice’s estranged relationship with her family, and the looming war with the neighbouring kingdom of Cemandia, she also has two romantic interests, Pjerin and Stasya. Pjerin is the father of her child, and the two bicker like an old married couple once the plot finally gets them in the same place, but it quickly becomes evident that they don’t actually like each other that much, at least not romantically. Back home at Bardic Hall in Elbasan, Annice also has a longstanding liaison with Stasya, a fellow bard who seems partly bemused and partly annoyed by Annice’s interest in men. In general, I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry or pull towards either love interest, but fortunately this is not the focus of the story, and in many ways actually adds to rather than detracts from the novel.

As is common in Tanya Huff’s fantasy novels, same sex relationships are common and unremarkable. In Sing the Four Quarters, this is true not just in Shkoder, but in other kingdoms as well, as evidenced by the early off-hand comment that one of Theron and Annice’s brothers made a marriage alliance with a distant nobleman. Homophobia is simply not a factor here. Instead, prejudice is attached to the ability to command the elements. In the neighbouring kingdom of Cemandia, this ability is viewed as unnatural, leading to tensions between the two countries. Annice also has an open relationship with Stasya; though the two go out separately to Walk the roads of Shkoder, they always come home to Bardic Hall and one another. Both their open relationship and Annice’s bisexuality are treated as entirely unremarkable, so if this is something you find enjoyable and refreshing in your fantasy, I can recommend this book in particular, but also Tanya Huff’s work more generally. Although this is the first in a series of books set in this world, each of the subsequent books follows different characters, so that Sing the Four Quarters can easily be read as a standalone.

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Empire of Wild

Cover image for Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimalineby Cherie Dimaline

ISBN 978-0-73552-7718-2

Note: This title is currently available in Canada and will be released in the US on July 28, 2020.

 “Joan was anxious. She hated this cheap version of Victor, filled with so many lies. She couldn’t sit still any longer.”

It has been nearly a year since Joan’s husband Victor went missing from their land on the shores of Georgian Bay, but she refuses to give up hope, even as her family grows increasingly doubtful. Despite the fight they had the night Victor disappeared, Joan cannot really bring herself to believe that he has abandoned her. After a night of hard drinking with her cousin, Joan stumbles into a church revival tent in a Wal-Mart parking lot. At first she is unsure what drew her in, but when the preacher takes the stage, everything becomes clear in a moment. The man at the pulpit looks exactly like her missing husband, yet does not seem to recognize her at all. As far as he is concerned, he is the Reverend Eugene Wolff. But Joan knows her husband when she sees him, and despite the doubts of those around her, she will stop at nothing to extract him from the clutches of the travelling missionaries, and whatever powers they are using to keep Victor in their grasp.

Empire of Wild is told in alternating chapters, with Joan and Victor as the primary narrators. While Joan is bent on her quest to save her husband, Victor isn’t sure where he really is, or what has become of him. He just knows that something isn’t quite right. Dimaline also incorporates Joan’s nephew Zeus and community elder Ajean, as well as antagonists in the form of the mission’s leader, Thomas Heiser, and his right hand assistant, Cecile, a reformed hippie who has found God, and aspires to marrying the Revered Wolff.

In Empire of Wild, Cherie Dimaline takes the legend of the rogarou and blends it with the daily life of the Georgian Bay Métis community of rural Ontario. In all other respects, Joan’s life and family seem unremarkable, at least on the surface. But as the rogarou haunts her community, aspects of myth and magic slip between the cracks of daily life, revealing that Joan’s people are anything but ordinary. Among them, “girls are taught to fear the rogarou. Boys are taught to fear becoming him.” Violence against innocents and betrayal can bring on the transformation, and in this way the rogarou becomes a haunting metaphor for intergenerational trauma.

There is a certain disturbing aspect to the idea that Joan has to be the one to save Victor from his own darker impulses, and from the well-earned consequences of the betrayal he tried to press upon her in their final fight. Nor is this power she seems to possess entirely without consequence. Even the act of rescue can be fraught; sometimes when you try to save something, you risk destroying it by that very same effort. Increasingly, Joan’s family pays the price of her obsession. The death of Joan’s grandmother sends the family into mourning, and puts the community on high alert.

Although set in the present day, Empire of Wild has all the atmosphere of Dimaline’s post-apocalyptic hit The Marrow Thieves. There are dystopic elements, but they deal with the real, everyday infringement on Indigenous lands and dignity. What is cottage country for the summer people is home to Joan and her family, and they’ve had to fight for every inch of lakefront they control, with everything from tourism to pipelines threatening their home and their way of life. This real dystopia is only made more eerie by Heiser’s attempts to use Christianity to lure Indigenous people off their land, making for a charged, unforgettable atmosphere that truly makes this novel stand out.