New Historical Novels

  • Claudine Bourbonnais and Jacob Homel (Translator)
    Métis Beach. Dundurn Press (purchase at
  • Joan Haggerty
    The Dancehall Years. Mother Tongue (purchase at

Two new novels, each spanning several eventful decades of Canadian and American history, offer ambitious accounts of how individual lives are shaped by the shifting social context. Evolving gender roles and the impact of wartime internment policies on four intricately connected families are examined in Joan Haggerty’s The Dancehall Years. Conflicts of the mid-to-late twentieth century, including the rise of Quebec sovereignty, the Vietnam War, and 9/11, are touched on more lightly in Métis Beach, a recently translated first novel by Quebec journalist Claudine Bourbonnais.

Haggerty’s book was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and in many respects it is a quintessential British Columbia novel, firmly rooted in particular places, a landscape of trees and berry bushes, mountains and water. It is set largely on tiny Bowen Island, and the author’s obvious affection is conveyed through her careful attention to details as the island evolves from a summer community for Vancouverites to the full-time home of a motley group of hippie quasi-homesteaders in the 1960s and 1970s. During the Second World War, a Japanese Canadian family is wrenched apart by internment, their beloved house and garden sold at a bargain price to self-justifying white neighbours who imagine they are caring for the property as a gesture of respect for their friends. This act of betrayal is partially rectified many years later, in a symbolic act of racial and familial reconciliation that brings a granddaughter, the offspring of two of the families, back home. Haggerty handles this potentially sentimental resolution in an understated manner, and her characters’ upheavals are treated with sympathy.

The novel’s other settings, including Vancouver, San Francisco, and, in a concluding section of the novel that is one of its strongest segments, the Northwest Interior region of the Bulkley Valley, also receive close attention. Haggerty’s descriptive passages are markedly lyrical. At some points, the substantial number of characters (whose relationships are summarized in the helpful family tree that precedes the text) and Haggerty’s unusual approach to an intimate form of third-person narration where shifts in perspective are not always immediately clear, make for a demanding reading experience. The ensemble cast of characters is portrayed effectively, however, and even minor characters are carefully drawn. Perhaps the most vivid portrait is of intelligent and energetic Gwen, who grows from a talented swimmer protective of her timorous brother to a university student infatuated with her professor. After marrying and moving with him to San Francisco, Gwen is absorbed by her young daughters and, periodically, by the teaching work she loves. Wrenching herself away from a crumbling marriage, she returns to an austere existence with her girls on Bowen, and the 1960s and 1970s countercultural West Coast milieu is explored through her struggles to remake her life.

Bourbonnais’ first novel, translated from the French by Jacob Homel, has a narrower focus on one man’s somewhat melodramatic rise to Hollywood success after a gritty childhood in a rural Quebec family. The community resentfully services the needs of the influx of affluent English-speaking summer residents. The two groups rarely mix socially, but the outsiders have a particular appeal to Romain Carrier. As he grows up, he grapples with his uncomprehending, working-class parents, and endures the aftermath of several traumas, including the suicide of an abused fellow student at the Catholic seminary he attends as an adolescent.

Like Bowen Island, the Gaspé Peninsula’s Métis Beach is a seasonal home for many residents, but its visiting residents are wealthy Anglo-Montrealers and Americans, the “Anglais” who control pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec economically. Romain is mentored by a young widow. Dana is a glamorous New York feminist writer; she shelters him and supervises his education after he flees his home in the wake of a spurious rape allegation. The turbulence of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War protests affect Romain deeply, and he smuggles a war-resister friend across the border to Canada. Committing himself to life as a writer, the Anglicized and Americanized “Roman Carr” experiences increasing career success that also instigates personal tragedies. Bourbonnais’ writing style tends toward the florid in some passages, particularly those peppered with exclamation marks, and the novel’s coincidences pile up. A somewhat casual use of history as a backdrop for Roman’s quest for success can occasionally trivialize the larger events, despite the author’s careful use of realistic detail.

This review “New Historical Novels” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 134-136.

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