In the L.M. Montgomery feature in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, novelist Jane Urquhart describes how Montgomery’s novels created a literary legacy in her small-town family. Urquhart’s grandmother’s Anne books “electrified” her mother’s childhood, adding “meaning and intensity even to the most ordinary of its attributes” (144). Montgomery’s ability to create stories that transform the mundane into the magical has caught the imagination of millions of readers the world over.
Among the hockey players, politicians, and scientists, there are other Canadians in this series, such as Jewish novelist Mordecai Richler, and Stephen Leacock, for whom the pen was an outlet of the tongue. There are so few authors in the series, it seems, because most of our great Canadian writers are simply not dead enough. There is a stellar cast of Canadian authors working in this generation wit a global readership, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel, Miriam Toews, Alice Munro, Lawrence Hill, Douglas Coupland, William Gibson, Michael Crummey, and Guy Gabriel Kay. I suspect the 2050 version of the Extraordinary Canadians series will have a more literary tinge.
As I mentally walking through my CanLit bookshelf, though–which includes local authors of depth and beauty that the world is unaware of–I can’t help but wonder which author is quintessentially Canadian. I don’t just mean any one particular category, like the fact that Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry makes him “in” because it is set in Toronto but he is “out” because he often lives and works oversees. And I don’t quite mean global presence, though I suppose Margaret Atwood–friends call her “Peggy”–is something of a Canadian ambassador and speculative fiction superstar, and Alice Munro as a noble laureate is someone of particular note.
What I mean is something less definable and more deeply hued. When I ask, “Who is Canada’s author?”, I am asking what writer holds the best of Canada together with a distinctive presence and leaves a mark that is quintessentially Canadian.
I know it’s a terrible award category, but I still think it comes down to two figures. In a distant second is Robert Munsch, who has probably sold more books than any living author and is one of the more dynamic children’s authors in the world. There are a dozen books I can recall that are full of energy and humour, but The Paper Bag Princess remains my favourite. You simply have to be impressed with someone who can write a book that will make even prison guards cry (of course, I mean Love You Forever).
In the end, though he is very popular, Robert Munsch is less distinctively Canadian than many of the authors I’ve named. Which is why it comes down, for me, to Lucy Maud Montgomery.
L.M. Montgomery–friends called her “Maud“–is undoubtedly Canada’s bestselling author. With dozens of translations, Anne of Green Gables has sold about 50 million copies, and was a global hit within weeks of publication in 1908. Often set in a relatively vague Victorian-Georgian context, Montgomery’s books capture the rural and small-town feeling of Canada’s first half-century as a country. Her characters seem to grow out of the Canadian land and sea, sometimes in rural East coast accents, and sometimes drawing on Scotch- and French-Canadian folklore. Though some of the later adult novels are less intimately connected to place and voice, her books capture the essence of Canada.
And though she lived in Ontario for half her life, Montgomery was a proud Prince Edward Islander in her heart and her stories. As I have travelled throughout the world, people know about our little Island precisely because of how Montgomery has so vividly painted a portrait of our world. It’s an imaginary world, of course, but one that is meant to make us laugh and cry, to long for simpler days and hope for romantic endings. Though I like to think that PEI is a bit more than mundane, Montgomery has made it an extraordinary place in her fiction and in the way we live our culture in the shadow of her books.
In the 2050 version of this ill-defined “Who is Canada’s author?” contest, it may be someone else. We may be celebrating one of the “greats” I listed above, or we may be nominating an emerging or unknown author that captures the diversity of Canada in its second century of life. Perhaps it will be one of our First Nations authors, someone who can evince for us something of the largely untold story of Canada’s indigenous experience. Whatever the case, Montgomery will still be in the running even as some of the bestsellers of today and tomorrow slip back into history. There is something about her best work that just continues to live and continues to be simply Canadian.