A region’s identity is often shaped, fleshed out, and emblazoned by its literary writers. Literary works help create perceptions, myths, and the ethos of a region. And not only among readers, for the effects of memorable literature permeate a culture.
PEI is a prime example of this through L. M. Montgomery’s writings and, to a lesser extent, those of “The People’s Poet,” Milton Acorn. As enduring as their writings are, however, their work pre-dates the bridge, the Internet, cruise ships, suburban sprawl and, further back with Montgomery, TV, sexual liberation, and globalization.
Meanwhile, living writers have been re-imagining and reshaping the Island’s identity. Visitors to the Island still envision PEI largely through Montgomery’s work and influence. Island residents, though, are blessed with access to our living writers’ books.
The following recommendations focus on fiction, and mostly on volumes with prominent PEI content. Fine writers and books must be excluded, including the wealth of Island writing for young people, memoirs, and genre fiction. Next month, I will write about Island poets.
David Helwig is unarguably PEI’s most distinguished author, with over forty volumes of fiction, poetry, and essays. His novel Saltsea takes us to a fictional seaside hotel on the Island. He masterfully interweaves the dramas of innkeepers and staff, local tradespeople, tourists, and archaeologists seeking Viking artifacts.
In The Betrayer, Michael Hennessey rivets our imagination, through an alcoholic journalist’s consciousness, to an infamous murder in a mid-twentieth century Charlottetown corner store, and the aftermath for a rumoured assailant who was never caught. Hennessey also lovingly evokes the Island, especially its Irish and Catholic legacies, in short story collections An Arch for the King and My Broken Hero.
Valerie Compton’s novel Tide Road moves between Malpeque Bay in 1941 and Prospect in 1965. Sonia is a former lighthouse keeper, whose daughter Stella falls through the ice, leaving an infant and husband behind. But Stella, Sonia learns, may have been pushed. Rural PEI comes to life with meticulous detail.
Our Hero in the Cradle of Confederation, a novel by J.J. Steinfeld, is a feisty portrait of downtown Charlottetown and its eccentric denizens in the 1960s-1980s. A prolific fiction writer, poet, and playwright, and “the only child of Holocaust survivors,” his sharply satirical social and philosophical consciousness appears in books such as Dancing at the Club Holocaust and The Miraculous Hand.
In Orysia Dawydiak’s enthralling children’s novels Kira’s Secret and Kira’s Quest, we learn why Kira’s adoptive and fisher parents have kept her from the sea. Dawydiak’s compelling adult novel House of Bears follows three generations of a Ukrainian-Canadian family, from the Second World War in Ukraine and Europe, to northern Ontario and modern Toronto.
Another gripping novel of immigrants spanning decades is Steven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage, set on board ship and in Mayoff’s birthplace, Montreal. Through intertwined lives of Polish Mariassa and Jewish Dvorah, Mayoff explores heritage, religion, family, and the challenge of creating lives in a new country.
Back on PEI, Kier Lowther’s debut novel, Dirty Bird, plunges us into the haunted psyche of a boy from a darkly dysfunctional family. This is the gritty gothic and hallucinogenic ethos also suffusing Island culture and lives. Lowther’s novel reflects the no-holds-barred awareness and narrative maneuvers of a younger generation steeped in stories of trauma, alienation, and ironic redemption. But it also connects with the darker visions in Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm.
Lorne Elliott provides a lighter-hearted Island experience in his novels The Fixer-Upper and Beach Reading. His famous wit and gift of the story-telling gab are on full display.
A sampler of splendid short fiction by the Island’s newer fiction writers is found in Riptides: New Island Fiction, published by PEI’s Acorn Press, which has heroically endeavoured to bring Island writers’ work into the light of day.
This is the first of a two-part Guest Book contribution from Richard Lemm on the subject of the writers of Prince Edward Island. There are so many worth mentioning that it is going to take double the usual space available. Part 2 of Richard’s “Re-visioning” column will be published in the August issue.
Richard Lemm teaches creative writing and Canadian literature at UPEI. His new poetry book, Jeopardy, was published in June by Acorn Press.