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Searching for the ‘savour of the soil’ in Canadian literature

Detail of illustration prepared for the print version of this story

Steven Hughes/The Globe and Mail

Who do you think you are?, Alice Munro famously asked us with the title of her 1978 story collection. It's a very Canadian question, of course – six tidy words that manage to contain the bulk of our cultural anxieties. But, for so many of us, answering Munro is as simple as turning to our bookshelves (or e-reader screens). Canada is a nation of readers, almost astoundingly so: We borrow or buy 3.4 million books a week, by the latest statistics. But it's more than a simple question of volume.

Here's what some of Canada's finest writers recommend to understand their part of the country

Prince Edward Island is still remembered for Anne Shirley, its most famous citizen. Cape Breton belongs to Alistair MacLeod. Montreal tourists flock to Grumpy's bar, as much in search of Mordecai Richler as out of longing for Barney Panofsky or Moses Berger.

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I cannot cross Toronto's Bloor Street Viaduct without recalling Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. The vast wilderness of the middle of our nation is Wacousta country, the woods forever echoing the various horrors of that foundational novel. Manitoba itself now feels narrated by Miriam Toews's Nomi, the indelible protagonist of A Complicated Kindness.

The Rockies have countless celebrants, but whenever I see a sloped forest I recall Howard O'Hagan's underappreciated masterpiece Tay John. And Zsuzsi Gartner has immortalized Vancouver with her skewed, brilliant stories about the complexity and contradiction of contemporary urban Canada.

Perhaps this was the plan from the start. In 1858, father of Confederation Thomas D'arcy McGee argued that our national literature "must assume the gorgeous colouring and the gloomy grandeur of the forest."

A few decades later, Charles Mair agreed, suggesting in the pages of Canadian Monthly that a national literature, "to be characteristic, must taste of the wood." The legendary Charles G.D. Roberts contended that Canadian writers would inevitably represent "the savour of the soil." And Confederation poet Archibald Lampman, whose work burns with an intensity uncommon in early Canadian literature, believed "that climatic and scenic conditions have much to do with the moulding of national character…If these qualities could be united in a literature, the result would indeed be something novel and wonderful."

If Archibald Lampman returned today, hoping to catch up on what's transpired in the 120 years since he made that wish, this Globe Books Canada Day special would be an ideal starting point.

And I think he'd be pleased by what he'd find. Ours is an inconceivably vast country, containing more rich cultural traditions than could ever be held on a given page. But that doesn't mean it's not worth celebrating. To do so, we asked some of our favourite writers from across the land to tell us what books best explain their corners of Canada. They responded with great enthusiasm, recommending a list books new and old, familiar and strange. Taken collectively, they offer a vision of our nation, a literary travel guide of sorts, covering coast to coast to coast. But more than that, they're a testament to the fact that this is a land shaped by its literature. We're not just a country of readers, but a country made by what it reads.

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