Words on Winnipeg

December 5th, 2012 by Emma Durand-Wood

Confession: I have had a draft of this post sitting in my dashboard for at least 2 years, and Little Gray Bird’s post on Manitoba books was the nudge I needed to finally finish it. She writes,

“When I moved to Manitoba I really didn’t know much about the province. One way for me to get to know my new province was through books. I started searching for books that centred around Manitoba. Over the last five years I have found quite a few Manitoba themed books that I have really enjoyed.”

She’s compiled a great list of books including fiction set in Manitoba and non-fiction about the province, along with a few kids’ books. I’ll echo her recommendations of the Manitoba Book of Everything and A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba (I got my copy of the latter from former WoMHer Laurel when she moved away from the Peg… her loss, my gain!).

I’ve mentioned before that prior to moving here, my love affair with the city intensified when I read two particular books by Carol Shields: The Republic of Love and Larry’s Party. Since then, I’ve seen The Republic of Love described as “a valentine to the city” and I think that’s an apt assessment. I was so excited when I saw it was being made into a movie. I think we’re always at risk of being disappointed when our favourite books are adapted for screen (don’t bother with the movie Suburban Girl if you love The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing as much as I do!), and this was no exception. On top of just generally feeling let down by the adaptation, the essence of that book was lost when they set the film in Toronto (apparently, they couldn’t afford to shoot it here).

But back to the books, what I loved about them was the ethos of Winnipeg that Shields wove into her stories. Shields’ Winnipeg is the epitome of a “big small town” where everyone is connected and these connections run deep. I shared one of my favourite passages from The Republic of Love in a post from a few years ago, Geography is Destiny. I first read these books when I was probably only 18 or 19 years old, but it took me ten years to follow through on the yearning they stirred in me. (And I admit, in daydreams, where I’m really meant to be is River Heights. On Grosvenor. Just like Tom and Fay.)

I also have a great book called The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg. It includes archival photos and illustrations and excerpts from dozens of books, as well as poems and songs about Winnipeg. Just now, as I was examining it, I noticed that on its back cover is the poem “In Winnipeg at Christmas” by Rose Fyleman. I recognized it from a song that’s on the Fred Penner Christmas album. Apparently, in the 1940s, school children in Winnipeg memorized this poem!

The book highlights sources from the early days of the Red River (European) settlement (accounts from fur traders and missionaries) to the present day (popular novelists like Miriam Toews, Beatrice Culleton, and Carol Shields). It must have been a fascinating project to work on, and I’m glad I came across it.

Speaking of Beatrice Culleton, another of the books Little Gray Bird mentions is In Search of April Raintree. I’m not really sure what prompted me to buy this book a few years ago, but I found it profoundly moving. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the bus, reading this book, and willing myself not to cry, the story was so heart-wrenching. Then stepping off the bus downtown and thinking, how many among us have experienced these things? Too many. While I’ve always believed that most of us can’t even begin to understand the complexities of living in the legacy of residential school abuse and the other injustices that Aboriginal and Metis people endured and continue to endure, this book drove that idea home even further. This was an “On the Same Page” title for 2008/2009, and one that I think every Manitoba – no, every Canadian – should be required to read, no matter how difficult it may be.

To sum up, I think everyone likes to see the place where they live represented in fiction – the good, the bad, the quotidian. Please share your own favourite Winnipeg or Manitoba books with me and with Little Gray Bird! In the meantime, I think I’ll revisit these titles over the holidays. Thanks for the inspiration, Little Gray Bird!

3 Responses to “Words on Winnipeg”

  1. Wow, I’m so glad I inspired you for this blog post! I love your suggestions and can’t wait to check them out! Thanks so much for sharing!

    Angela aka LGB

  2. toby says:

    Carol Shields is definitely *the* Winnipeg writer. I love “The Stone Diaries”, some of which takes place in Winnipeg.

    I also adore Miriam Toews’ “A Complicated Kindness” which takes place in one of the small Mennonite towns around Winnipeg. Some of her other books take place in Manitoba/Winnipeg, but that one is by far the best.

  3. Chris Gumprich says:

    Fiction, I’ve always enjoyed the Sam Klein trilogy by Allan Levine, although the first book (Blood Libel) was a little rough, it really felt like Winnipeg by “Bolshevik’s Revenge”.

    Non-fiction-wise, I’m partial to the local history books by Russ Gourluck (especially the one with my name in the acknowledgements!), and “Winnipeg 1912” by Jim Blanchard.

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