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Pickle Me This

January 17, 2007

This is My Country, What's Yours? by Noah Richler

A literary atlas plots our places with their stories, and the product of this one is Richler’s country (though of course, he invites us to consider our own). His Canada is much more than just the sum of parts, which is a daring stance to take in some circles, but one that is perhaps supported better by stories than any other foundation. He draws out the connections between Canadians. “You can forget about provincial boundaries and think about the singing of work as a calling these writers have in common. Do so, and our sense of the map of Canada as one of a disparate country is eroded and in its place another one appears, in which novels arising out of shared experiences wash over the territory”. And indeed, Richler manages to show this about more than just work, and our stories become what we have in common.

In the sense of a Canadian Literary Guide, this is an updated Survival, but it’s more a literary guide to Canada than a guide to CanLit. Also, (as Richler’s title suggests), this is a very personal guide. Richler comes to his text decisively, taking controversial stances (refusing to equate the novel with oral traditions, for example), but objectivity is never his intention. Which is more interesting to read than tiptoeing anyway, and his perspectives are well argued.

From sea to sea is not good enough for Richler. He believes that Canada would be a more unified nation had our route across it developed as a loop as opposed to a straight line along the Southern border, back and forth. If we could traverse Canada along the south and back around through the north, we’d be able to take in our country in its entirety. The North would not be missed. We’d arrive at the end and it would be where we started. And in a sense, Richler follows such a trajectory throughout his text. He begins with the Inuit, and the Natives further south, and discusses how Native writers are using the novel for their own purposes. Throughout the book, Richler’s ideas are ruminated over, developed and argued in conversations with other writers. His reader is privy to some excellent conversation. It’s akin to being a fly on the wall at a clever party. From the north, to Vancouver, and then the prairies. And finally, he considers what he sees as Canada’s three distinct societies: Newfoundland, Quebec and the City. Along the way, taking into account Multiculturalism (the new guiding force in CanLit, he says), the legacy of colonialism, the experiences of the Metis and the Acadians, and the seminal Canadian idea of “Nowhere”. As you might imagine, it’s quite a tour.

I liked this book because it taught me things I didn’t know, which is rarer in a book than one might think. I also like it for its rendering of a whole Canada, one in which we all share a part of each other’s story. This is not always an easy assertion to make these days, but one I appreciated this vision. And finally, with its emphasis on contemporary Canadian writing, Richler demonstrates the continuation of a rich and vibrant literary tradition in this country. Nowhere is definitively somewhere after all, and the future is full of possibility.

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