“Tracing a gang of ruthless outlaws from its birth during the American Civil War to a final bloody showdown in the Territory of Oklahoma, The Winter Family is a hyperkinetic Western noir and a full-on assault to the senses.” Intrigued yet? Craig Davidson reports that this novel “lit my synapses up like a pinball machine.”
We’re pleased that today we’ve got Clifford Jackman with a list of Canadian works of historical fiction. It’s a good one.
Some years back, I was writing a novel set in Victorian London and I wanted to do a little research—this was before Wikipedia. So, deciding to read some stories set in that time period, I picked up my copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. You can imagine my surprise when I found no descriptions of hansom cabs or gaslights or anything like that. Then it struck me: Doyle had no need to describe any of that stuff, because his audience had already known all about it. He would no more provide a detailed description of a hansom cab than a modern writer would describe a Honda Civic.
There are many great challenges in writing a historical novel. You’ll never get it all right, anachronisms will always creep in, but you’re writing for a modern audience anyway, and what you’re searching for is not authenticity but to create a particular impression for a particular kind of reader. What do you put in? What do you leave out?
Fortunately, here in Canada we have a lot of great works of historical fiction for younger writers to study. In honour of the release of my debut novel, The Winter Family, and in no particular order, here are eight Canadian works of historical fiction worth checking out (with an emphasis on the Western).
The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe
Two historical novels in one, this book tells the story of a legendary cowboy who rides through Montana to the Canadian plains in pursuit of stolen horses, and a screenwriter commissioned to tell the story in 1920s Hollywood. Both settings feel vividly true, and the theme of the construction of history is particularly appropriate for an historical novel.
Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edguyen
Largely set in Berlin and Paris in the early stages of the Second World War, Half-Blood Blues tells the story of black jazz musicians caught in Europe during an extremely dangerous time to be a black jazz musician in Europe. The novel’s consideration of genius and jealousy is timeless.
The Parker Series, by Richard Stark/Darwyn Cooke
Famously difficult to work with (the dedication to The Score reads: “This one’s for every poor son of a bitch that’s ever had to work with me”), Canadian writer and artist Darywn Cooke is adapting Richard Stark’s “Parker” novels into graphic format all by himself. I’ve listed them here because of Cooke’s incredible attention to detail. In the first few pages of “Parker” we see the titular protagonist forge a driver’s license with a form filched from the DMV, use the license to get a cheque book, and then write bad cheques to buy a clean suit of clothes. The Parker graphic novels aren’t just noir, they bring a granular, perfectionist attitude towards a world not very old but almost entirely gone. Try them: maybe you’ll turn into a butterfly.
The Outlander, by Gil Adamson
Nineteen-year-old Mary Boulton, having murdered her husband and pursued by her two brothers-in-law, flees west. She encounters a variety of bizarre characters, dramatic weather, and sublime landscapes. Boulton is trembling on the edge of madness and the novel feels almost Gothic in its approach. A very memorable read.
The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden
Alternatively shockingly violent and surprisingly tender, The Orenda is a remarkably clear-eyed look at the heroic age of Canadian history, describing the war between the Iroquois and the Huron in Quebec and the 1600s.
All True Not a Lie In It, by Alix Hawley
Hawley’s debut novel (it just came out in February) is a literary re-telling of the life of Daniel Boone, whose exploits were mythologized by his friend and biographer while he was still alive. Hawley powerfully evokes the claustrophobia and the murky darkness of the frontier, where anyone could be hiding in the trees a few dozen yards away.
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt
Two brothers, Eli and Charles Sisters, are sent to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. What makes this novel is special is not the painstaking research, but rather the creation, out of nothing, of a whole new language and a new world. We are told that the past is a foreign country, but too often in historical fiction the past seems just like today, with a few period signifiers added for color. The Sisters Brothers lets you know right from the beginning that you are in a place where people do things differently.
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
In 1843, Grace Marks and James McDermott were convicted of murdering two people. McDermott was hanged while Grace was sentenced to life in prison. The depiction of 19th century prisons and asylums are disturbing and detailed, as is the life of a domestic servant. Finally, the ultimate mystery (did she do it, and if so why?) is very engaging. Despite having won the Giller Prize, I think this novel is often overlooked. Check it out if you haven’t read it.
Clifford Jackman was born in Deep River and raised in Ottawa. He received a BA from York University, an MA from Queen’s University and an LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School. He practices law in Richmond Hill, Ontario, and counts Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy among his strongest literary influences.