This Thanksgiving Read Local

Whether you count your blessings this weekend or not, it is a good time to thank Manitoba writers for their contributions to Canadian literature, and for showing us our place in the world. Here is a list I compiled for the MWG 30th Anniversary Symposium on Manitoba Writing. If there’s a Manitoba book you’ve been waiting to read, this weekend just might be the right time to read local. Checking the list its seems I’ve lost one, but I will find it, and will also add some commentary to the rest of the titles.


By Victor Enns – originally presented at the MWG 30th Anniversary Symposium on Manitoba Writing

May 2012

When I committed to this topic I argued we needed to start a conversation about books written by Manitoba writers to celebrate and promote their achievements. I said I would speak to my own list of 30 remarkable books for our 30th anniversary using the “William Gass defence.” My supportive wife Lynn though, did dissuade me from speaking only in his quotations. Gass, if he knew, would probably be annoyed that I would use his words in support of art to build a case for something as provincial as this list.  I did speak to his wife Mary in St. Louis, who shielded him when I tried to invite him to Saskatchewan for a similar event years ago. Here are a couple of his paragraphs

It is in a way unfair to popular culture to compare it with the workmanships of artists since they do perform such different functions; nevertheless this kind of comparison is not entirely unjust. Both shape a consciousness, but art enlarges consciousness like a space in a cathedral, ribboned with light and though a new work of art may consume our souls completely for awhile almost like a jingle might, if consumption were all that mattered, we are never, afterward the same; we cannot unconsciously go on in the old way; there is as in Rilke’s poem “Torso of an Archaic Apollo,” place that does not see us, and we must change our life. Even Arnold Bennett noticed that we do not measure the classics; they, rather, measure  us. For most people it is precisely this that’s painful; they do not wish to know their own nothingness- or their own potentialities either, and the pleasures of popular culture, are like the pleasure of disease, work, poverty, or religion: they give us something to do, something to suffer, an excuse for failure and a justification of everything.

Art does not, I hasten to add, have a hortatory influence; it’s not a medicine, and it teaches nothing. It simply shows us what beauty, perfection, sensuality and meaning are and we should feel as  if we compared physiques with Hercules. (William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1958/1971; pages 273, 274)

“The quality of being constantly contemporary – or of stubbornly surviving the vicissitudes of history, taste, and the whimsicalities  of fashion – is the single quality most commonly found among major works of art, when all other characteristics – medium, subject, attitude ,length, complexities, profundity, range of feeling – differ considerably.”Tests of Time, William H. Gass, 2002, page 104) 

See also A Temple of Texts, William H. Gass, 2006) for his defense of the classics, books an his top 50 of all time. See “Tunnel” for a three pages about reading not soon to be topped.

And finally this from Margaret Atwood in last week’s New York Times

“It is the writers of who convey the inner truth of a nation, despite, themselves, yes?”

 – Martian by way  of Margaret Atwood in the Sunday April 29th, 2012 edition of the New York Times


The list of all Manitoba books with more than 5 votes  has been provided as a handout. Congratulations to all writers on the list still living. Let’s see what happens with your books at the MWG 50th anniversary Symposium on Manitoba Writing.

I have done poorly with French titles since I can’t read French. I would urge everyone to attend Roger Leveille’s introduction to Franco-Manitoba literature on Saturday morning to fill that gap. I wonder if there isn’t room on any Manitoba publisher lists for Franco-Manitoban books in translation.

On the English side where’s Grain by Robert Stead, Settlers on the Marsh by Frederick Phillip Grove? Larry’s Party  by Carol Shield s or her last novel Unless. Edward McCourt? Wiseman’s Crackpot?  Ralph Connor? Or  Arnason’s landmark Fifty Stories and a Piece of Advice? Cooley’s Bloody Jack?  If only the books on this list sold like Connor’s back in the day.

Focus, Victor focus. You know it’s too early for three fingers of scotch over just the right amount of ice and you’ve already spent over five minutes procrastinating.  Kroetsch would say, time to let the poem, or in this case the list, take its kicks in the head.

This paper is called “30 remarkable books I have known” based on the Thomas Seton non-fiction Wild Animals I Have Known, one of books my father gave me to read from his library. The others included Sarah Binks, the sweet songstress of Saskatchewan, Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner and Where Nests the Waterhen by Gabrielle Roy.

  1. Wild Geese (1925)                                                   Martha Ostens0                                                       Check the date, 1925, I couldn’t believe it when I looked it up, narrative and gender bending, something new. There will be no Manitoba books like this again for decade.
  2. Sarah Binks (1947)                                                 Paul Hiebert                                        
  3. Where  Nests the Waterhen (1950)                   Gabrielle Roy                                      
  4. The Sacrifice (1956)                                                Adele Wiseman                                      
  5. Under the Ribs of Death   (1957)                         John Marlyn                                                                     Sacrifice and Death were  published before the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in 1959. Finally in University I discover urban books, books by and about Jews and Hungarians in  the North End. These two books should be on the curriculum of all Winnipeg highs- schools – maybe replacing To Kill a Mockingbird. 
  6. A Candle to Light the Sun (1960)                        Patricia Blondal                                   has a special place in my reading history.  It was the first awesome book I read about a small Manitoba town that I could recognize. I tried and failed to write an English paper on the text despite filling the margins with notes, and underlining significant lines (it seems most of them were). Arnason desperately tried to get in touch with me, but I dropped the course. I saw too much of me in the wounded soldier drunk, figuring this might be a trend having played Simon Stimson in my high-schools production of Our Town. I now own my own wheelchair. But that is another story.
  7. Reservations Are for Indians (1970)             Heather Robertson                                                 There are several books of Heather’s that could be on the list including one about the funeral business in southern Manitoba that got me paying attention to nonfiction. This one and Urban Indians,  the Strangers in Canada’s Cities (1980)by Larry Krotz a decade later played a significant role in bringing the discrimination and racism towards Aboriginal people to the attention of the public.
  8. The Diviners (1974)                                                Margaret Laurence                                              was another highlight in Laurence’s career  featuring several cities, particularly Winnipeg, with multi-racial characters and enough sex and swear words to panic parents across the country. When Jimmy Bang Poems was published, my father was upset with subject matter and profanity my mother confided to me one night in the kitchen that “Dad is upset, but I think it’s o.k. I have read The Diviners.”  Laurence was my mother’s favourite writer in her maturity. She was a reader like my dad and while she was growing up her favourites where Louisa May Alcott t and Lucy Maude Montgomery.
  9. Ice Age (1975)                                                            Dorothy Livesay                                  
    Dorothy was on campus for several years in the 70s launching cv2, among other things. I appreciated this collection then,  and understand it much better now. I’m working on a new collection called Music for Men Over Fifty.
  10. Seed Catalogue/Completed  Field Notes  (1977 – 1989)   Robert Kroetsch                    Seed Catalogue was published by Turnstone while I was on campus. I heard about him from Cooley & Arnason, and was totally taken in by his words, his poems, his placing a country boy into the context of the world. If you look at the dates of this work, you will see that however long he had been working on this stuff it was during his time in Manitoba that he got the job done.
  11. The Salvation of Yash Siemens (1984)         Armin Wiebe                                                                               turned the short stories  he would bring to Kroetsch’s  creative writing work shop into a novel with a unique voice creating a southern Manitoba that will be remembered for a long time. As funny as it was serious, I will never forget the chapter and the story Testimony.
  12. The Rez Sisters (1986)                                            Tomson Highway                                                 Another community, another voice. My connection to this work was its performance at the Globe Theatre at the insistence of Ken Kramer, despite Board objection. Not only was it a transformational piece, it also made money.
  13. Flicker & Hawk (1987)                                     Patrick Friesen
  14. questions i asked my mother(1987)             Di Brandt
  15. Fox (1991)                                                             Margaret Sweatman
  16. Transit of Venus (1992)                                    Maureen Hunter
  17. Stone Diaries (1995)                                          Carol Shields
  18. Rumours of Paradise/Rumours of War        George Amabile
  19. The Two Headed Calf (1997)                             Sandra Birdsell
  20. Julianna and the Medicine Fish (1997)        Jake Macdonald
  21. Simone Weil: Songs of Hunger and Love (1999)   Sarah Klassen
  22. Irene (2000)                                                          Dennis Cooley
  23. city treaty (2002)                                                 Marvin Francis
  24. An Uncomplicated Kindness (2004)              Miriam Toews
  25. The Retreat (2008)                                               David Bergen
  26. Reading by Lightning (2008)                            Joan Thomas
  27. Baldur’s Song (2010)                                            David Arnason
  28. Mama Dada (2010)                                               Jan Horner
  29. A Walker in the City (2011)                                Meira Cook





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