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Originally published Sunday, July 27, 2014 at 6:20 AM

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Canadian authors worth discovering

If you aren’t reading them already, you should be: Joseph Boyden, Alistair MacLeod, Louise Penny and others.

Seattle Times book editor


Lit Life

One summer read making the rounds at my house is “The Orenda,” a novel by Canadian author Joseph Boyden. “The Orenda” is the deeply researched story of a Jesuit priest who becomes entangled in a terrible war between the Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century French Canada. The Seattle Times rave review said Boyden’s understated style, even as he chronicles terrible events, gives the book an epic quality — “‘The Iliad’ with an emotional punch.”

Boyden, 47, is a name author in Canada — “The Orenda” was recently chosen as the 2014 “Canada Reads” pick, the book all Canada needs to read. Why isn’t he well-known here? It wasn’t until “The Orenda” was picked up by Knopf, a prestige publisher, that the word got out, and reviews came rolling in.

I can’t answer the question, but it made me think of other Canadian authors I wish were better known. Here is a short list of same, originally inspired by Boyden’s recent appearance on “Well Read,” the books and authors program on state public-affairs network TVW that I co-host. (I’m ruling out authors you probably have heard of, such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Robertson Davies.)

Alistair MacLeod. MacLeod, a university professor, was the son of a coal miner with family roots in Cape Breton Island. MacLeod died this spring, but he left behind some unforgettable work. He wrote one story a year and one novel — “No Great Mischief” — in his life, but it won the international IMPAC prize of $100,000 for the best novel published in the English-speaking world.

“No Great Mischief” and MacLeod’s story collection“Island” are largely set on Cape Breton Island. He tells the stories of the island’s fishermen and miners, their families and their austere way of life. One ongoing theme — the breaking of family ties, often accelerated by the will of parents to give their children a less dangerous, brutal future.

Louise Penny. OK, I’m cheating bit — Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries are finding their way onto the American best-seller charts. She’s a former broadcast journalist who created Gamache, an inspector with the Montreal police who is upright and world-weary in the way of all existential mystery heroes.

Penny creates a wonderful sense of place — she makes Quebec sound like the best place ever — though her reliance on sentence fragments can make for some bumps in the reading road. Penny’s new Inspector Gamache mystery is “The Long Way Home,” and she will read for her local fans Aug. 31 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Carol Shields. Shields is remembered for her novel “the Stone Diaries,” but one of my favorite Shields books is “Unless,” the last she wrote before she died of cancer in 2003. It’s about Reta, a writer and translator whose college-aged daughter Norah drops out of school and lives on the streets of Toronto with a cardboard sign around her neck that says “Goodness.”

Part of the book is a mystery — trying to find out why Norah would resort to such a thing. But part of it is a look at the role of women in literature, and a passionate defense of women writers who are undervalued because they write about “domestic” issues.

Ann Marie MacDonald. If you like big, dense novels, try “Fall on Your Knees,” by Toronto author MacDonald. This critically praised novel chronicles four generations of a Canadian family, the Pipers, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dark secrets, ghosts and spirits, obsessive passion — need I say more? This family’s story also begins in Cape Breton Island, locus for many of Alistair MacLeod’s stories.

Though she is, er, pretty well-known, I cannot resist mentioningAlice Munro, a Canadian author and short-story writer who just won the Nobel Prize for literature for her body of work. If you’re looking for the next Munro, try out the story collection “The Journey Prize: The Best of Canada’s New Writers, 25 Years,” just out in paperback from Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart. This is an anniversary collection of stories that won Canada’s Journey Prize, a $10,000 award bestowed annually on “an emerging writer of distinction.”

By now, I can hear my oh-so-literate readership piping up with, “But you left out ...” Let me know, or if you’re reading online leave a comment, or both.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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