5 Great Books Set in Canada's Atlantic Provinces That We Love

5 Great Books Set in Canada's Atlantic Provinces That We Love

Thursday, 1 September, 2022

Oh, how the wind does blow in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces. And it’s glorious. Made up of four provinces — Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island — it’s an outdoorsy wonderland of pine trees, craggy shorelines, lonely lighthouses, and adventures in nature.

Battered with crashing surf and wear-your-warmest-clothes weather, it’s home to hardy people and a long history of compelling stories.

Here are five books set in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces that took us there on the page: two gripping family sagas, a memoir about the world’s most uncooperative boat, a noirish mystery story, and a funny novel about death

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Atlantic Canada: For There Blow Some Cold Nor’westers on the Banks of Newfoundland.


The Shipping News - Annie Proulx

The Shipping News
> Annie Proulx

This novel will envelop you in the cold fog and roaring wind of the Newfoundland shore. And you’ll be transported to the (fictional) harbor town of Killick-Claw, where you’ll eat a squid burger and join in the local gossip.

The story, tinged with Canadian magical realism, revolves around a strange hero named Quoyle. He’s a sad, quiet man beat up by life. The book’s first page tells us everything we need to know about him: ‘Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns. Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing… At thirty-six, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go.’

This adult coming-of-age story is flush with stories of heartbreak and resilience, suspense, and adventure. The storms that batter the rocky shore are so powerful, they seem like sentient beings. There are also drownings and drunken brawls and a house dragged across the ice with ropes. There are pirates, a maybe-ghost, and a mysterious death. There’s also a strong sense of community and isolation at precisely the same time.

The Newfoundland described in this compelling tale is a hard land populated with scarred people who have, somehow, found a sense of ease and acceptance. Quoyle is transformed by his experiences there and is also Quoyle to the end — tender and haunted by family trauma. {more}

‘It never leaves you. You never hear the wind after that without you remember that banshee moan, remember the watery mountains, crests torn into foam, the poor ship groaning. Bad enough at any time, but this was the deep of winter and the cold was terrible, the ice formed on rail and rigging until vessels was carrying thousands of pounds of ice. The snow drove so hard it was just a roar of white outside these windows. Couldn’t see the street below. The sides of the houses to the northwest was plastered a foot thick with snow as hard as steel.’ Quoyle’s teacup cooled in his hands. Listening. — Annie Proulx


Galore - Michael Crummey

> Michael Crummey

This multi-generational family epic spans life in Newfoundland from the 1700s to the early 1900s, spinning a yarn that combines elements of fantasy, folk tales, and literary realism.

The story begins in glorious folk-tale fashion when a man is found alive inside a whale. There is also a woman who’s probably a witch — known only as Devine’s Widow — and a ghost haunting the proceedings.

As you might expect, the mute albino man who emerges from the belly of the whale on the beach has a lasting impact on the community. And as we move through time — and a few hundred pages of the story — with these characters, we’ve traversed four generations and emerged in the time of hospitals, mass transit, and world war.

The different eras in this book have different voices, although they roll out gradually, like the tide, and some elements remain consistent throughout. A road named in the first chapter plays a significant role in the last. The book starts and ends on the same holiday. But the magic and superstition ebb as science and industry flow.

This beautifully told tale is mostly about the making and meaning of a family — how hard that process can be, both then and now. It’s also about living in the then and the now; the ways they’re similar and different, and how we swirl in the same moments, time after time, through the centuries. {more}

King-me pushed his way past the laughter of the bystanders, saying he’d have nothing more to do with the devilment. But no one followed after him. They stood awhile discussing the strange event, a fisherman washed overboard in a storm or a suicide made strange by too many months at sea, idle speculation that didn’t begin to address the man’s appearance or his grave in the whale’s belly. They came finally to the consensus that life was a mystery and a wonder beyond human understanding, a conclusion they were comfortable with though there was little comfort in the thought. The unfortunate soul was owed a Christian burial and there was the rest of the day’s work to get on with. — Michael Crummey


The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float - Farley Mowat

Farley Mowat is a legendary Canadian author, environmentalist, and adventurer. This is the tale of that time he bought a two-masted schooner named The Happy Adventure and sailed Canada’s Atlantic coast. As expected, hijinks ensue.

Mowat is the beloved author of more than 40 books, and in this one, he pulls off a masterful trick. The trip he describes in these pages is an awful one — everything goes wrong. He’s persuaded to buy a lousy boat; it’s poorly made, poorly kept, and full of leaks. It smells. He and his partner almost sink it a few times, and though their original dream was to sail to South America, they never get further than New Brunswick. And that takes them a few years and multiple tries.

One could interpret the book this way: Mowat and his buddy — both of them frequently tipsy and shockingly ignorant of the danger they’re in — might be the villains in this story. Over and over again, good-natured Newfoundlanders, from port to port, save these men from themselves.

Through all the ill-considered decisions and interactions with a truly cantankerous boat, you will enjoy every moment of this vicarious trip along the Atlantic provinces of Canada. {more}

How to buy: You can order the paperback version of this book online, directly from David R. Godine Publisher. You can also read it for free in the Internet Archive.

[T]he three cardinal tenets of rum drinking in Newfoundland: The first of these is that as soon as a bottle is placed on a table it must be opened. This is done to ‘let the air get at it and carry off the black vapors.’ The second tenet is that a bottle, once opened, must never be restoppered, because of the belief that it will then go bad. No bottle of rum has ever gone bad in Newfoundland, but none has ever been restoppered, so there is no way of knowing whether this belief is reasonable. The final tenet is that an open bottle must be drunk as rapidly as possible ‘before all to-good goes out of it.’ — Farley Mowat


My Darling Detective - Howard Norman

My Darling Detective
> Howard Norman

This charming novel is an homage to noir detective stories and sparkling 1930s banter with elements of dramedy, historical fiction, love story, and procedural mystery.

The story opens with a bang — or, more accurately, a splat.

It’s 1977 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A world-famous photograph is being auctioned off in a hotel ballroom. Just as the bidding starts, a woman flings a jar of ink at the photo. And after her subsequent arrest, we learn three important facts:

(1) Until a recent breakdown, she was the head librarian at the Halifax Free Library; now, she resides at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital.

(2) Her son Jacob earns his keep acquiring landmark photos for a wealthy maven, and his mother’s outburst has put his employment in jeopardy.

(3) The detective assigned to investigate the ink-flinging incident is Jacob’s fiancée Martha, the darling detective of the title.

While Jacob tries to redeem himself with his employer, Martha is on a quest to understand what drove his mom to deface the photo. There’s also a parallel investigation into a cold case from 1945: an anti-Semitic police officer may have murdered two Jewish citizens. That case has a mysterious connection to Jacob’s mom, too.

Author Howard Norman spent 16 years in Canada, setting most of his books in the Maritime Provinces. The real-life locations he weaves into the story give the characters and settings a lived-in feeling. Dare you to not want to spend an afternoon sipping a coffee at the nearby Wired Monk Bistro or browsing the stacks at the Halifax Free Library. {more}

The auction was held at 5 p.m. in the street-level drawing room of the Lord Nelson Hotel, here in Halifax. ‘Death on a Leipzig Balcony’ by Robert Capa was the first item on the docket. The auctioneer had just said, ‘… taken on April 18, 1945,’ when my mother, Nora Ives — married name, Nora Ives Rigolet — walked almost casually up the center aisle and flung an open jar of black ink at the photograph. I heard, ‘No, it can’t be you!’ But it was my own voice, already trying to refute the incident. My mother was tackled to the floor by the auctioneer’s assistant. An octopus of ink sent tentacles down the glass. My mother was lifted roughly to her feet by two security guards and escorted from the room. And here I thought she was safely tucked away in Nova Scotia Rest Hospital, across the harbor in Dartmouth, room 340. — Howard Norman


Crow - Amy Spurway

> Amy Spurway

This story is narrated by our heroine, Crow. Her real name is Stacey Fortune from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. But she’s left behind her small-town life to be a career girl in Toronto. She’s got a fiancée, works in marketing, and wears high heels. It’s all happening. But then things fall apart. Her heart is smashed to bits, and she learns she has three inoperable and unpredictable brain tumors.

So she returns to her childhood bedroom in her mom’s trailer, where her tumors cause rainbow-colored hallucinations, rubbery limbs, and frequent vomiting.

The novel’s conceit is that Crow is writing her memoir, and her voice is pitch-perfect: ‘How do I tell people that my secret to dropping the extra twenty pounds I lugged around most of my life wasn’t hot yoga or detoxing? And then how do I fake optimism and pretend I haven’t leapfrogged over the normal seven stages of grief and invented my own single stage: Surly and Reckless Resignation to Being Doomed.’

On her way to maybe dying, the universe throws a ton of life at Crow. She’s reunited with old friends and old flames, butting heads with her gossipy Aunt Peggy and lovingly bickering with her mom. She gets high by the sea and goes on a date.

This book is peppered with insight into small-town life in Nova Scotia, with lush descriptions of the landscape and what it means to Crow. She has a strong attachment to the wharf and the surrounding mountains and Loch, the changing seasons, the fresh air. She also vividly describes the industrial part of Cape Breton and its downhill slide after the collapse of the coal industry. Known as Town Town, it’s where locals shop at the mall, and Crow visits the hospital where she endures tests and bad news.

Despite all of that, this novel is a genuinely good time. Crow is the friend who shows her snarky side to most people but reveals her soft underbelly to you. So you forgive her when she messes up and will fiercely defend her against all comers until the end. {more}

How to buy: You can order this book online, directly from the publisher Goose Lane Editions: ebook, paperback, and audiobook.

Irish wakes are pot luck. But no egg, tuna, or lobster salad sandwiches will be allowed at mine. And no mystery squares or funeral hams. My buffet table will groan with the weight of all my favourites, from the days when I didn’t give a shit about factory-farmed meats and non-GMO organic kale and MSG hangovers and the mid-life spread: suicide spicy chicken wings, donair pizza, poutine, bacon-and-cheese-stuffed bacon-wrapped cheese balls. Deep fried. Dipped in butter. Foods that Stacey-Fortune-in-Toronto avoided because she was scared they’d kill her or make her chubby. But Dying-Crow-Fortune-in-Cape-Breton doesn’t give a fuck. My throng of family, friends, and fans can expect an eclectic mix of my favourite music. Nothing sappy. It’s my party, and you won’t cry if I don’t want you to. Besides, it’s bad luck to start the keening too early. I’ll save the real tear-jerker tunes until the end, just before my wake transitions into the big sleep. — Amy Spurway

Top image courtesy of Jamie Morrison/Unsplash.

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Pull on your Wellies and batten down the hatches for a virtual trip to the rough and romantic coast of Atlantic Canada, a land of salty sailors and other hardy folk who know the value of a good yarn and a hot cuppa.

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