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Seeking Certainty in Uncertain Worlds

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Somewhere along the way I got the impression that the fundamental property of a novella isn’t its brevity, or that it’s stuck somewhere between a story and a novel, but that it’s this: a novella wrestles with the worst day of a protagonist’s life. I like the German tradition in novellen that the story comes to a surprising but logical end, which for me as a writer means I need to convince the reader there is no other possible outcome than the ending we arrive at together.

You’ll read a lot of different definitions of novellas, mainly about word length (10,000 to 50,000 words by some accounts, shorter or longer by others), but for me, the novella, like a poem, loves a turn, tastes its words as it delivers them, and lasts in the mind long after the book is closed.

This selection of Canadian works is short on novellas but each one is novella-ish in its love of language, its unforgettable characters, or its inarguable nature—some of these read like ur-texts, like they’ve always existed and we were lucky enough to find them washed up intact onshore.

One aspect or another of each of these books echoes an element of the stories in Night Watch—whether my characters mourn fraternal love or work themselves to pieces over the course of a calving season, they are deeply worried, deeply human, and like the rest of us, traveling through territory that used to be familiar that we now find strange, trying to find certainty in their uncertain worlds.


Somewhere along the way I got the impression that the fundamental property of a novella isn’t its brevity, or that it’s stuck somewhere between a story and a novel, but that it’s this: a novella wrestles with the worst day of a protagonist’s life.



The Girl and the Wolf, written by Katherena Vermette, illustrated by Julie Flett

As the day grows darker and night comes on, a helping kind of wolf talks a little girl in a red dress from panic to the ability to help herself. I love this book: what seems simple isn’t, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, until it is familiar again. We know so many stories of girls lost in the woods, but rarely do they get to find themselves and rarely do they learn to trust themselves along the way. Despite its brevity, Vermette and Flett’s book is full of mystery, tension, the taste of ripe berries and fresh water, and, once the girl finds herself in “air that smelled like her family,” relief.


I am a Truck, by Michelle Winters

Surprising and delightful, I am a Truck, is unapologetically original, easily moves between French and English, takes no pauses and no prisoners. It’s deeply of its place, and yet its love story is one we recognize, no matter where we’re from. It’s a whirlwind. A heartsink. A hopeful miniature of love and life. Everything a story wants to be, this story is it.


Book Cover Split Tooth

Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq

Split Tooth hurts to read: an ache for the past that’s remembered in all the sensory, blurred confusion of a child’s recollection, but also a gut-wrenching hurt for baldly told adult transgressions and betrayals, real physical and mental fuckery a child is not equipped to handle but endures all the same. Tanya Tagaq puts it all in, the beautiful and the awful, not privileging the one over the other, and it’s up to the reader to parse the story and survive it as best she can. Tagaq lets a natural friction build in her candid juxtaposition of the prose and poetry. You don’t rest and breathe, reading this book, you soak it all in: the landscape, the lichen, the wind, the tundra, the tumble of children, the laughter, the fear, the magic alive in the great wide world. It’s true to life and awake to the miraculous, and breathtaking in its relentlessness.


Orrery, by Donna Kane

“…let me be your honey-tuft, your candlesnuff/ your pom-pom, tinder, hoof” (Fungus Love). Poetry for the win. Donna Kane’s long-lusted for third book of poems is a journey outward (far into outer space) as well as a journey inward. I love how these poems muscle out what it’s like being human in the world. Each is a story of discovery, whether sensory or metaphysical. They’re stunning.


Album Cover Battlefords

"Battlefords," by Hawksley Workman

Much of the innards of my book attend to the details of childhood and growing up, just as this summertime snow-globe of a song by Hawksley Workman does. Banana seat bikes, freezie-stained lips, broken arms in the heat, all add up to a fairly quintessential 1970’s-80’s Canadian childhood, but so too, I hope, do dirt-stained mattresses dragged and abandoned by children mid-field on which they collapse to dream, and sweating in a snowsuit listening to an exhausted dad tell a story to a frozen windshield while you all hurtle across the frozen north.


Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese

Medicine Walk is set on the Nechako River, which is the backbone to my three novellas. While I wanted to set my stories in a real, living landscape, I wanted to avoid conflation with my hometown and the city I live in now, so I named the towns in Night Watch after the old railway stops along the Nechako River Valley. Wagamese populates that same valley with unforgettable characters living their most important moments. I love how his story has the cadence of footsteps on a worn path or humping it through fir forests—Wagamese has written a book about coming home in all its meanings, and it’s a gift to follow his characters through the landscapes of their hearts as well as the wild world.


The Lesser Blessed, by Richard Van Camp

Reading The Lesser Blessed when I was a teenager gave me the kick in the butt to begin that I needed. It wasn’t that I was sure I could write, but that I was suddenly sure I wanted to; after following Larry Sole on his journey in Fort Simmer, I knew ferocious, northern literature was a genre and I would do whatever it took to add to it. The Lesser Blessed will leave you smarter, sorer, heartful and heartsick all at once. Larry’s first-person narrative is brave, beautiful and terrifyingly honest.


Reproduction, by Ian Williams

Reproduction does what unforgettable books do: compel and delight in almost equal measure. The rest, after compulsion and delight, is sparks and shards and sweet relief once the narrative comes full circle and the story is fully told. Reproduction barreled me along, rolling me around in the wake of two unlikely lovers, their mothers, and the duration and aftermath of their coming together. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, even as Williams had me in absolute thrall of his gospel. Imagine the ability to do that.


The Innocents, by Michael Crummey

While I have reread most of Michael Crummey’s books more than once, The Innocents is too harsh and gorgeous for me to subject my heart to again just yet. Give it another year. When I am ready to read prose that conjures a physical place and the passage of the seasons of Newfoundland to such a beautiful and excruciating degree, and when I am ready to reconnect with Evered and Ada and the truths of their meticulously drawn minds again, I will go back to their cove and relive the awful beauty of this gem-like story: faceted, deep, as gorgeous to hold in the hand as to read out loud, and I will be changed and haunted by it once more.


The Order of Good Cheer, by Bill Gaston

We dropped in for a dinner with Bill once on very short notice (which he graciously hosted despite the chaos of our kids in person and the chaos his kids had left in their wake) where he told me he was interested in what novellas could do in close juxtaposition. I was writing Grayling then, my first novella, and desperate even for anyone to admit they exist, so I waited for The Order of Good Cheer impatiently and was rewarded with a fantastic read that has stuck with me. Modern day Prince Rupert smashed up against 1600s New France in its beginnings seems incongruous and odd, but each story works its magic against the other and the resonance between them makes an unforgettable sound. Gaston’s writing is pure and direct. It offers insights into humanity that make the bright spots of love and light brighter against the truth of the day-to-day. The matter-of-fact way that Gaston uncovers a whopper of a true feeling stuns me every time, and his canny contrasting of these two novellas-in-a-novel’s clothes is delightful.


About Night Watch:

Full of humour and compassion, Night Watch collects three novellas that explore the lives of rural veterinarians. Wigmore’s vets struggle to stay awake during unending calving seasons, reaching for moments of stillness and grace between phone calls and farm calls; they balance their own family’s births and deaths with shepherding animals through caesareans and euthanasia, covering miles of road in their vast jurisdictions during harsh winters and muddy, ruthless springs. Travelling from small towns in northern BC to the south of France and Fiji, sometimes in the span of a night and sometimes over a lifetime, the men and women in Night Watch work with their hands, keep their hearts in check, and strain to define themselves against the backdrop of an unforgiving job that puts them at the mercy of the elements—and each other.

February 11, 2021

Books mentioned in this post


Night Watch

The Vet Suite

by Gillian Wigmore
edition: eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged: animals, women authors, family life

Three poetic novellas centred around the author’s background of growing up as the child of a veterinarian.

Full of humour and compassion, Night Watch collects three novellas that explore the lives of rural veterinarians. Wigmore’s vets struggle to stay awake during unending calving seasons, reaching for moments of stillness and grace between pho …


The Girl and the Wolf

by Katherena Vermette, illustrated by Julie Flett
edition: Hardcover
  • age: 0 to 5
  • Grade: p to k
tagged: native canadian, wolves & coyotes, survival stories

While picking berries with her mother, a little girl wanders too far into the woods. When she realizes she is lost, she begins to panic. A large grey wolf makes a sudden appearance between some distant trees. Using his sense of smell, he determines where she came from and decides to help her. Through a series of questions from the wolf, the little …


I Am a Truck

by Michelle Winters
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook Audiobook (CD)
tagged: small town & rural, contemporary women, literary

Finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

A tender but lively debut novel about a man, a woman, and their Chevrolet dealer.

Agathe and Réjean Lapointe are about to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary when Réjean’s beloved Chevy Silverado is found abandoned at the side of the road-with no trace of Réjean. Agathe handles her grief by fond …


Split Tooth

by Tanya Tagaq
edition: Paperback
tagged: literary, magical realism, native american & aboriginal

Longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 Amazon First Novel Award
Shortlisted for the 2019 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
Winner of the 2019 Indigenous Voices Award for Published Prose in English
Winner of the 2018 Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design – Prose Fiction
Longlisted for the 2019 Sunburst Awa …




by Donna Kane
edition: Paperback
tagged: women authors, canadian

Orrery is a collection that orbits around the theme of Pioneer 10, an American space probe launched in 1972 to study Jupiter’s moons. Having achieved many firsts before reaching Jupiter and a few more after being hurled away from the solar system, the probe was retired in 2003 when NASA stopped sending signals to it, leaving it to wander alone th …


Medicine Walk

by Richard Wagamese
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged: family life, native american & aboriginal, coming of age

"One of the finest novels of the year." (Vancouver Sun) By the celebrated author of Canada Reads finalist Indian Horse, this is an unforgettable journey of a father and son, set in dramatic landscape of the BC Interior. For male and female readers equally, for readers of Joseph Boyden, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas King, Russell Banks and general litera …


Lesser Blessed

by Richard Van Camp
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
tagged: literary, coming of age

Internationally praised and the subject of a critically acclaimed film, Richard Van Camp’s bestselling novel about coming of age in Canada’s North has achieved the status of an Indigenous classic and it was included in CBC’s list of 100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian. This special 20th anniversary edition features a new introductio …



by Ian Williams
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged: family life, literary, urban life

A hilarious, surprising and poignant love story about the way families are invented, told with the savvy of a Zadie Smith and with an inventiveness all Ian Williams' own, Reproduction explores unconventional connections and brilliantly redefines family.

Felicia and …


The Innocents

by Michael Crummey
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged: literary, coming of age, siblings

*NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2019 BY The Globe and Mail • CBC • Toronto Star • Maclean's
Crummey's …


The Order of Good Cheer

by Bill Gaston
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
tagged: literary, historical

Indian summer, 1607. Intrepid explorer and map-maker Samuel de Champlain has founded a new and precarious settlement in Annapolis Royal, New France (present-day Nova Scotia). As winter looms, two threats emerge: boredom amongst the men and the deadly sickness scurvy. Champlain hits upon the idea of a moveable feast -- an order of "good cheer" -- wh …

Into the Western Canon (by Gillian Wigmore)

I started to cry, sitting in a third year English class, listening to Smaro Kambourelli introduce the central BC setting of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook. I tried to hide it, but I hadn’t known I was missing my own landscapes in Canadian literature so badly. It was that day, that class, and that incredible academic who introduced me to the canon I wanted to write toward, but it was further reading into these books that convinced me that the best books are ones that require work, that engage the imagination and don’t fill in all the blanks. These are the books that make me want to write into and from the west. *** Gillian Wigmore grew up in Vanderhoof, BC, and graduated from the University of Victoria in 1999. She has been published in Geist, CV2, filling station, and the Inner Harbour Review, among others. Wigmore won the 2008 ReLit Award for her work Soft Geography and was also shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay BC Book Prize. She lives in north central BC with her husband and two children.
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