Timeless Tour: CanLit's Lost Voices by Susanna Kearsley

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CanLit's Lost Voices by Susanna Kearsley

CanLit's Lost Voices by Susanna Kearsley

For the Timeless Tour with Simon & Schuster Canada, the authors were asked to prepare additional written pieces. Today we have a special piece written by Susanna Kearsley about lost CanLit voices.

Several years ago, I wrote a guest editorial for the National Post’s Afterword called “Curating CanLit”, in which I used lessons I’d learned from my past in museum work to analyze how we, as Canadians, have chosen to relegate parts of our own literary past into the dusty back cupboards, away from the light.

I wrote of my surprise at learning that the Governor General’s Award had been won several times in the past by novels that were plainly popular fiction.

In fact, when Franklin Davey McDowell’s The Champlain Road won the GG in 1939, one reviewer described it as “a tale of love and war set in the early 17th century. This is not to imply that the novel is without merit, merely to state that it falls more in the Sir Walter Scott genre.”

I was not taught about The Champlain Road at school. Nor was I taught about Alan Sullivan’s Three Came to Ville Marie, a novel of historical romantic fiction that won the GG in 1941.

Nor did any teacher ever mention Gwethalyn Graham, whose novel Earth and High Heaven—the story of a socially forbidden romance between a Protestant woman and a Jewish soldier in WWII Montreal—not only won the 1944 Governor General’s Award for Fiction (Graham’s second GG), but was also the first Canadian novel to hit the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

She was followed a few months later by fellow Canadian Thomas B. Costain, whose romantic historical novel The Black Rose spent 18 weeks at the top of the NYT list (Costain I had heard of, but only because, like me, he had been born in Brantford, Ontario, and my parents kept several of his novels on our shelves at home).


In 1955, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction went to Lionel Shapiro’s romantic D-Day novel, The Sixth of June, which Hollywood filmed with stars Robert Taylor and Dana Wynter.


In my piece for the National Post, I noted:

“As a writer of popular fiction, my discovery of these and many other writers that were left out of the syllabus was life-changing, because all of a sudden my image of what CanLit was—what it had been, and could be—was totally changed. I felt less like a square peg surrounded by round ones, and more like a logical, natural link in a long and proud line of Canadian writers.”

We’ve always had writers of popular fiction, who’ve written great books, found success, and done well. In the past, we acknowledged them, gave them awards, equal space, and respect.

In a perfect world, they’d be restored to the place they belong in the history of CanLit.

Why do you think they’ve been so carefully curated out?


Thank you ever so much Susanna for this thoughtful piece! CanLit holds a special place in my heart, as it does yours, so I am most appreciative to be able to include this for the Timeless Tour. This also speaks wonderfully to what touched me the most when reading Bellewether, in that you are speaking to how history has been changed and removed in the Canadian literary awards and how  history that is shown, presented and put forward, as it was in Bellewether. It also speaks to what I had to say briefly, in our kick off post about why we love to read historical fiction – there I noted that I learned a great deal of Canadian history that I was never taught, and today, I’ve learned even more in terms of CanLit, a dearth in my education for sure.