Is it a fool’s errand to try and put together a list of the 10 best, or most important, or most impactful, Manitoba books of the decade? By what measuring stick can these 10 titles be sized up — awards received? Critical acclaim? Widespread recognition or sales figures? Cultural impact? Staying power?
With a new decade upon us, here are 10 books by Manitoba authors that have helped shine a light on the local literary community, that have told stories about people in our community and around the world and that demonstrate Manitoba continues to be a hot spot for profound fiction and non-fiction in this talent-rich country. These 10 titles are sure to still resonate with readers a decade from now.
By Catherine Hunter (2015)
Catherine Hunter is one of those rare writers who is known equally for her fiction as she is for her poetry. And while she made the short list of the Governor General’s Literary Awards for her most recent book, the 2019 poetry collection St. Boniface Elegies, her previous title is just as noteworthy.
While Hunter’s fictional output has skewed towards the suspense/mystery genre, After Light is more a work of historical fiction. The novel, her fourth, moves between Canada, the U.S. and Ireland, detailing the ways in which numerous generations of one family grapple with the effects of poverty, war and trauma over the course of the 20th century. "She skilfully interweaves the stories of three generations," read the Free Press review of After Light. "Each generation sees its brightest hopes dashed through circumstances beyond its control... Hunter’s fictional family has touches that will resonate with Winnipeg readers."
And while the book didn’t nab many awards, it garnered four nominations at the 2016 Manitoba Book Awards, including for best fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, and earned Hunter a spot as a finalist in the best women writer category at the 2016 High Plains Book Award.
Detachment: An Adoption Memoir
By Maurice Mierau (2014)
After establishing his career and reputation predominantly as a poet and editor, Winnipeg writer Maurice Mierau turned to non-fiction — specifically, the story of raising two adopted brothers from Ukraine in the midst of his then-new marriage.
Woven into Detachment: An Adoption Memoir was Mierau’s own family history, tracing his Mennonite roots back to Ukraine after struggling with wife Betsy to grapple with his anxieties and perceived shortcomings. When the two traveled to Ukraine and decided to adopt brothers Peter and Bodhan, then five and three years old, respectively (and living 140 kilometres apart), they then faced a number of hurdles and roadblocks to bringing the boys home to Winnipeg. The Free Press review called Detachment an "ambitious memoir… a fascinating and tragic story. … There are many journeys in this book, both physical and emotional… But it’s the story of the two boys that engages the emotions."
For Detachment Meirau was awarded the Alexander Kennedy Isbister award for non-fiction at the 2015 Manioba Book Awards, as well as the $20,000 Kobzar Literary Award, awarded every two years by the Shevchenko Foundation in recognition of a Canadian writer who most effectively presents a Ukrainian-Canadian theme in his or her writing.
By Joan Thomas (2019)
Shortly after her 2014 novel The Opening Sky was published, Joan Thomas was awarded the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley award for a writer in mid-career. With Five Wives sees Thomas is at the peak of her career.
The book fictionalizes the lives of family members of five Evangelical missionaries killed while on a real-life mission dubbed Operation Auca in the Ecuadorian rainforest. The Free Press review called it an "engrossing, thoughtful read, and a fresh testament to Thomas’s narrative powers — and her ability to locate a human pulse under the often-deafening drumbeats of religious and cultural tradition."
Prior to the book’s release in September 2019, Thomas ruminated on writing a fictional account of true events. "It’s kind of a gift to a writer when you don’t have to invent everything, when there’s a story already there," she said. "In some ways it’s a little bit confining, but I kind of love it — it gives you the infrastructure for the whole story."
After being announced as the winner of the 2019 Governor General’s award for fiction for Five Wives, Thomas reflected on what it meant to win the $25,000 prize. "I think one of the reasons this award means so much is that I so love the work of Manitoba writers who have been recognized before me — Miriam Toews, and Sandra (Birdsell) being nominated numerous times, and Carol Shields. I remember how pleased I was for the recognition of their books... it feels amazing to be in that camp."
By Casey Plett (2018)
Casey Plett may have moved to southern Ontario from Winnipeg a few years back, but her debut full-length fiction Little Fish, written while living here, is rooted in this city — and shows a writer with plenty of promise.
Little Fish chronicles the life of a 30-year-old transgender woman named Wendy living in Winnipeg who uncovers evidence that suggests her devout Mennonite grandfather, a farmer in rural Manitoba, may have also been transgender. She was shortlisted for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award at the 2019 Manitoba Book Awards, and won the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for transgender fiction, an award Plett also won in 2015 for her short-story collection A Safe Girl to Love.
But the biggest fish Plett reeled in for her novel was the 2019 Amazon Canada First Novel Award, which came with a $60,000 prize. "I’m just so grateful my book was published and got some attention," said Plett following her win. "It’s extraordinarily special to me that this story about this woman who is a lot of things that society isn’t terribly approving of, and that isn’t given recognition like this. When I first was writing the book I wasn’t quite sure how the content would be received, how the characters would be received."
North End Love Songs
By Katherena Vermette (2012)
Katherena Vermette could have just as easily made this list for her debut 2016 novel The Break, also the winner of the Amazon Canada First Novel Award in 2017. But it was North End Love Songs, the 2012 Governor General’s award-winning collection of poetry, that earned her widespread acclaim and opened doors that would lead to her writing fiction, graphic novels, children’s books and more.
"(North End Love Songs) was a very small thing that went into the world," Vermette said in a 2016 around the time The Break was launched. "It was this really small book that was supposed to do what small books do."
It did so much more. North End Love Songs, Vermette’s first solo collection of poems, offers vivid depictions of past and present in Winnipeg’s diverse neighbourhood, its flora and fauna (especially birds) and the voices of Indigenous women. Of the collection the Governor General’s award judges’ citation noted the book " attends to the demands of Indigenous and European poetics, braiding an elegant journey that takes us from Winnipeg’s North End out into the world. We enter the undocumented lives of its citizens and celebrate them through Katherena Vermette’s beautiful poems."
Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.
By Jenny Heijun Wills (2019)
The Korean-born Winnipegger (via southern Ontario, Boston, Montreal, etc.) hasn’t been a fixture on Manitoba’s literary scene for long, but quickly made a splash with last year’s memoir Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.
The book is a series of vignettes about Heijun Wills’s childhood; born in Korea, she was adopted by a white Canadian family as a baby. Older Sister chronicles her journey back to Korea to reconnect with her birth family and piece together her history. Of the book the Free Press review noted "While reflecting on that which families, in various incarnations, might owe to each other, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related forges and mourns familial bonds in necessarily relatable and devastatingly exceptional ways."
In November, Heijun Wills’s memoir won the $60,000 Writers’ Trust of Canada Hilary Weston prize for non-fiction. Of the book the jury said, "Finely observed, meticulous and candid, this memoir offers its subjects no easy redemptions, only the chance to grow together towards greater understanding."
In response to the win, Heijun Wills told the Free Press, "I wanted to write something that was deliberately fractured because that felt a bit more reflective of what I experienced and what I continue to experience. I wanted to write something that began with the reunion as opposed to a story that ended with the reunion."
The Reason You Walk
By Wab Kinew (2015)
As the leader of the Opposition for the NDP in the Manitoba Legislature, these days Wab Kinew spends most of his time dealing with a wide range of issues that affect many Manitobans. But before he got his start on Broadway, Kinew chronicled his relationship with his father in a frank debut memoir that garnered attention beyond the province’s borders.
The Reason You Walk covers the year 2012 as he tried to connect with his accomplished, ailing and distant father Tobasonakwut, who died in December of that year. The author recalls struggles in his formative years as he searched for a clearer path forward, his forays into martial arts and music, and the issues faced by young Indigenous Manitobans.
Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation proved to be core themes throughout The Reason You Walk, which won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year award in 2016 and was a finalist for the $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize.
By David Bergen (2016)
David Bergen is no stranger to picking up awards for his novels; his 2005 book The Time in Between won the Giller Prize, he’s taken home numerous Manitoba Book Awards and in 2018, he was awarded the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Award for his lifetime contribution to Canadian literature.
In his most recent novel, Stranger, Bergen takes readers to Guatemala to tell the story of Íso, a young woman working at a fertility clinic for rich foreign women who becomes pregnant by an American doctor, has her baby taken from her and then must make her way to the U.S. to try to find the child. The Free Press review noted, "Passages in which Bergen lights on the connection between mother and child are profoundly moving... Bergen’s skill is most evident in his light handling of almost unbearable levels of complexity."
Stranger made the Giller Prize long list, and was a finalist for the Margaret Laurence award for fiction at the 2017 Manitoba Book Awards. His next book, Here the Dark, is a collection of short fiction and a novella that will be published in March by Biblioasis.
The Water Beetles
By Michael Kaan (2017)
Michael Kaan’s debut novel, The Water Beetles, was one of three novels written by Manitobans in the past decade to nab the Amazon Canada First Novel Award (along with Casey Plett’s Little Fish and Katherena Vermette’s The Break). In addition to that prize Kaan won the top fiction prize and book of the year awards at the 2018 Manitoba Book Awards, and earned a spot on the short list for the Governor General’s award for fiction.
Set in December 1941, Kaan’s novel tells the story of a young Hong Kong boy who flees to the countryside to evade the Empire of Japan as they invade during the Second World War. Told from a child’s perspective, the book is based loosely on Kaan’s father’s diaries and stories.
"I’m thrilled — very excited and very honoured," said Kaan of the nomination. "You hope to get recognition for your writing, but I wasn’t expecting this. It’s been great receiving all these congratulations from people. I’m a newcomer to all of this stuff."
When We Were Alone
By David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett (2016)
Winnipeg author David A. Robertson has made a name for himself as a prolific writer of books for children, teens and young adults; his Reckoner trilogy wrapped up in 2019 and he already has a pair of book slated to be published this fall.
It was his collabroration with British Columbia illustrator Julie Flett, When We Were Alone, that cemented his place as a writer to watch in Manitoba. The book follows a young girl who learns about her Indigenous heritage from her grandmother — from the beauty of long braided hair and colourful clothing to the horror of residential schools.
Of the win Robertson said, "It’s not our story — to me it’s the story of survivors, and I think that means even more to me. I was so grateful [Flett] was able to work on this book with me... I remember when I talked about the book for the first time with her... envisioning what the images were going to look like, we were crying, it was such a powerful moment that I felt like something special was happening."
In addition to a memoir, Black Water, slated to be published this September by HarperCollins, that same month Puffin/Penguin Random House will publish The Barren Grounds, the first book of Robertson’s new Misewa Saga.
Special thanks to Morley Walker, the Free Press books editor for the first half of the decade, for his feedback on this list.
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.