Canadian Apocalypses

Maybe it’s the cold Canadian climate, the tension between being an industrialized nation with a population concentrated in cities and being a source for primary goods (wood, ores, fish, furs,grain, etc) which, historically, was kind of the whole point of  Canada, or some combination of the peculiar historical-geographical nature of Canada (British colony which happens to be next door to yet another powerful nation, for one), but Canada has produced its fair share of apocalyptic visions.

Not all of which, of course, are children’s literature. Some of which are definitely not children’s literature.

However, even omitting works like The Wars by Timothy Findley* and poems like Leonard Cohen’s “The Future,” there’s a fair amount to discuss. A brief introduction to a few stand-outs is on the order for today; I may discuss a work or two in greater depth next week.

“The City of the End of Things” is a poem by Archibald Lampman, a Canadian poet whose poetry helped formed Canadian identity during Confederation (1867) and the years after, when writers were trying to determine what this new Dominion called Canada was, and what defined the people living in it. Lampman emphasized the natural beauty (and challenges) of the Canadian landscape as a prime factor in identity. In “The City of the End of Things,” Lampman envisions the end of the world as an over-industrialized nightmare.

ernestine shuswap gets her trout poster

Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout is a play by Tomson Highway, rich in humour which spins from laughter to tears and back again in the space of a few heartbeats. The setting is a reserve preparing for the real historical event of a visit from the prime minister of Canada. The women are trying to prepare their best traditional meals for the prime minister, hoping that he will consider a petition presented by the community, but there is very little food, and the trout of the title they have recently been forbidden to fish. The heartbreak of their situation and the close, at times exasperated, relationships these women have with each other make this a moving testament to their endurance and strength of spirit.

ernestine shuswap gets her trout cover

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje – I know, everybody’s heard about this, right? It’s good: enigmatic and enjoyable all at once, and you come to care for the characters deeply. (My favourite is Kip. Then Hannah.) I’ve never seen the movie, but on general principle, the book is better. And, according to people who have seen/read both, quite different. Three characters’ experiences during WWI unfold while they come together and apart in a shattered villa.

The-English-Patient

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson – lots of shock value here. The apocalypse in this case is purely (oh, if ever a word was misused!) personal. I still don’t know what to make of this one. I did not like large sections (aka all the narrator’s past) but the other-times other-people experiences were fascinating. I would never have read this if it weren’t assigned in a class, but there was something to it. This one is definitely not for children; teenagers may or may not like it.

the gargoyle

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden was my favourite of the Canadian apocalypses, probably my favourite apocalyptic story overall.** This tale, set before, during, and after WWI in sections that interweave, slowly unfolds the story of a woman, her nephew, and the nephew’s friend as the woman tries to heal her nephew from his experiences as a Cree man in the front lines of WWI, where his friend became Wendigo. The story is far more complex and beautiful than this summary can suggest; just read it.

Three_Day_Road

* dead depressing WWI story – sorry, there’s more to it than that, but you’ve been warned. Beautiful for brief moments; brutal and benumbingly horrible for the most part.

** The English Patient comes in a close second.