Early Canadian Literature

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

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Early Canadian Literature

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The Flying Years

Originally published in 1935, Frederick Niven’s The Flying Years tells the history of Western Canada from the 1850s to the 1920s as witnessed by Angus Munro, a young Scot forced to emigrate to Canada when his family is evicted from their farm. Working in the isolated setting of Rocky Mountain House, Angus secretly marries a Cree woman, who dies in a measles epidemic while he is on an extended business trip. The discovery, fourteen years later, that his wife had given birth to a boy who was adopted by another Cree family and raised to be “all Indian” confirms Angus’s sympathies toward Aboriginal peoples, and he eventually becomes the Indian Agent on the reserve where his secret son lives. Angus’s ongoing negotiation of both the literal and symbolic roles of “White Father” takes place within the context of questions about race and nation, assimilation and difference, and the future of the Canadian West. Against a background of resource exploitation and western development, the novel queries the place of Aboriginal peoples in this new nation and suggests that progress brings with it a cost.

Alison Calder’s afterword examines the novel’s depiction of the paternalistic relationship between the Canadian government and Aboriginal peoples in Western Canada, and situates the novel in terms of contemporary discussions about race and biology.

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The Foreigner

A Tale of Saskatchewan

First published in 1909, The Foreigner comes from the pen of bestselling author Ralph Connor, the pseudonym of Presbyterian minister and missionary Charles W. Gordon. The novel opens in Winnipeg, where Kalman Kalmar, a young Eastern European immigrant, is growing up under the shadow of his father, whose allegiance to the customs of the Old World has caused him to become a fugitive in Canada. After a violent encounter with his father’s sworn enemy, the adolescent Kalman is sent to a ranch in rural Saskatchewan, where, in learning the ways of the land, he must also reconcile the customs of his ancestors with the possibilities available to him in the New World. Part adventure story, part allegory for a vision of a culturally assimilated North West, the story features a form of male maturation and muscular Christianity recurring in Connor’s popular Western tales. Daniel Coleman’s afterword considers the text’s departure from Connor’s established fiction formulas and provides a framework for understanding its depiction of difference.

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The Forest of Bourg-Marie

In The Forest of Bourg-Marie, originally published in 1898, Toronto author and musician S. Frances Harrison draws together a highly mythologized image of Quebec society and the forms of Gothic literature that were already familiar to her English-speaking audience. It tells the story of a fourteen-year-old French Canadian who is lured to the United States by the promise of financial reward, only to be rejected by his grandfather upon his return. In doing so, the novel offers a powerful critique of the personal and cultural consequences of emigration out of Canada.

In her afterword, Cynthia Sugars considers how The Forest of Bourg-Marie reimagines the Gothic tradition from a settler Canadian perspective, turning to a French-Canadian setting with distinctly New-World overtones. Harrison’s twist on the traditional Gothic plotline offers an inversion of such Gothic motifs as the decadent aristocrat and ancestral curse by playing on questions of illegitimacy and cultural preservation.

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In Due Season

Christine van der Mark

First published in 1947, In Due Season broke new ground with its fictional representation of women and of Indigenous people. Set during the dustbowl 1930s, this tersely narrated prize-winning novel follows Lina Ashley, a determined solo female homesteader who takes her family from drought-ridden southern Alberta to a new life in the Peace River region. Here her daughter Poppy grows up in a community characterized by harmonious interactions between the local Métis and newly arrived European settlers. Still, there is tension between mother and daughter when Poppy becomes involved with a Métis lover. This novel expands the patriarchal canon of Canadian prairie fiction by depicting the agency of a successful female settler and, as noted by Dorothy Livesay, was “one of the first, if not the first Canadian novel wherein the plight of the Native Indian and the Métis is honestly and painfully recorded.” The afterword by Carole Gerson and Janice Dowson provides substantial information about author Christine van der Mark and situates her under-acknowledged book within the contexts of Canadian social, literary, and publishing history.

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Painted Fires

Painted Fires, first published in 1925, narrates the trials and tribulations of Helmi Milander, a Finnish immigrant, during the years approaching the First World War. The novel serves as a vehicle for McClung’s social activism, especially in terms of temperance, woman suffrage, and immigration policies that favour cultural assimilation. In her afterword, Cecily Devereux situates Painted Fires in the context of McClung’s feminist fiction and her interest in contemporary questions of immigration and “naturalization.” She also considers how McClung’s representation of Helmi Milander’s story draws on popular culture narratives.

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The Seats of the Mighty

From the pen of Gilbert Parker comes one of the most popular Canadian novels of the late nineteenth century. First published simultaneously in Canada and the United States in 1896, The Seats of the Mighty is set in Quebec City in 1759, against the backdrop of the conflict between the English and the French over the future of New France. Written and published after Parker’s move to England, the novel attempts to romanticize French Canada without alienating his English and American readership. The novel’s enduring popularity led to a stage version in 1897 and a silent film in 1914.

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The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation

The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation (1850) was one of the first books of Indigenous history written by an Indigenous author. The book blends nature writing and narrative to describe the language, religious beliefs, stories, land, work, and play of the Ojibway people. Shelley Hulan’s afterword considers Copway’s rhetorical strategies in framing a narrative—she considers it a form of "history, interrupted"—for a non-Indigenous readership.

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