So, the Canada Reads Top 40 comes out tomorrow, announced by the lovely-sounding Jian. He’s great, but I’d like Sheila Rogers to host it as no one’s voice sounds better on the radio to me. It’s like buttah. But I digress. The theme for this year is: Books That Could Change Canada. I’m not sure if I could find a book that I think would necessarily do that, but the question got me thinking and I ended up at the interesting conclusion that the books that have changed my life have all been Canadian.
Growing up in Canada, a young girl simply has to pick up an L.M. Montgomery book or two. Or 10 or 12. Her characters were my introduction to what Michael Chabon calls “women of great narrative” in his book Manhood for Amateurs. In his life, these Women of Great Narrative were often the larger than life comic book characters. For me, the first examples were the storytelling girls created by Montgomery. These girls were no wilting flowers, they were the most interesting people in a room. They were smart, they got angry, they made mistakes, and, most importantly, they could tell stories. The Story Girl and The Golden Road were always my favourites. I think it was then that I decided in my innocent, girlish dreams that I would try to become an Anne or a Story Girl.
When I was in my teens, I met another Woman of Great Narrative, her name was Maria. I started reading Robertson Davies when I was around 15-16. I basically graduated from high school only so that I could go see the academic world that Robertson created in his books. In The Rebel Angels, Maria is doing post-graduate work and several weird and wonderful academic types become obsessed with her. She was my first introduction to Roma culture, and I began reading all about their history. This, in a circuitous way that I’m not going to go into right now, led me to my first bellydance teacher, who put me on the bellydancing path, which is now how I make my living. But I digress, again. The thing about this girl named Maria was that though she was a WOGN, she was trying to hide that fact. She, and the men besotted by her, brought to light that society at large is not always as kind to WOGNs as we’d like them to be. These women can be perceived of as any combination of weird, undesirable, perfidious, exotic, scary, isolated, but it is not often they are seen as the three dimensional human beings they are – a fact further brought to light by Terry Pratchett’s awesome witch stories in his Discworld series.
And now I arrive at The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. Yeah. Dude. I’ve met so many women who have said this book helped define who they were, that it changed their lives. I’ve exchanged hugs with strangers when we’ve found out it’s a common favourite book. I’ve met two women who have named their daughters Piquette after Morag’s daughter in the book (were I to have a daughter, I’d do the same). I’ve even met one awesome gal who named her car Morag. I can’t really explain what it is about Morag’s story, it’s too close to my heart. Is it the independence with which she lives her life? The struggles she endures because of her choices? The honesty in Laurence’s storytelling? All I can say is that because of this book, I’ve taken immense risks, I’ve learned to embrace things I previously rebelled against and questioned things I previously embraced. It is no exaggeration that part of the reason I am who I am, and live my life the way I do, (apart from genetics, upbringing, teachers, friends and all that stuff) is due to this book.
These Canadian writers made me aspire to greater heights, made me quest to make my life as great a story as the ones in the books they wrote. If I ever do manage to become a Woman of Great Narrative, I’ll know who to thank.