As a casual traveler, it can be hard to truly get to know the culture and the country you are in.  It takes time, patience, and a number of quality relationships to understand what makes a people tick.  So, in order to both prepare and expedite the process a bit, I like to read books that help to orient me.  I’m not talking about Fodor’s or Lonely Planet, I’m talking about memoirs and fiction.

As Mark embarked on his travels through Canada, I wanted to orient the experience in the great works of Canadian Literature.  Having admittedly read very few works by Canadian authors before, and only, really, by accident, I thought it might be most purposeful to start with an overview of CanLit.  I picked up Survival.  And by picked up, I mean ordered on Amazon.  And by ordered on Amazon, I mean I accidentally ordered the Large Print version and was shocked when it came in a ginormous box.  I thought I was about to have volunteered myself into reading a textbook.

Luckily, Survival reads as anything but a textbook.  Atwood makes it clear that the read is not intended to be an overview.  In her foreword, she acknowledges the limitations of her work – she mostly deals with modern (the book was written in 1972) authors and does not attempt to survey the entire country’s mass of works.  The book is easily read (though assuredly not as easy in large print…oops) with her light and conversational tone.  I felt like I was having a coffee with the author rather than reading a textbook.

Stylistically, each chapter introduces a theme in Canadian Literature through short excerpts from indicative poems and works of fiction.  As a moseyed along through the pages, I found myself making notes of which authors, poems and books I wanted to make sure to scope out (check out my picks below!) – there were quite a few.

The Gist:

Each country/culture has it’s own preoccupations specific it its own history and geopolitics.  Authors are no exception, and as a result, their products reflect those preoccupations.  Atwood consistently returns to the idea of two other major preoccupations in her attempt to clarify Canada’s.

“Possibly the symbol for America is The Frontier, a flexible idea that contains many elements dear to the American heart: it suggests a place that is new…a line that is always expanding, taking in or “conquering”…it holds out a hope, never fulfilled but always promised, of Utopia, the perfect human society.  Most twentieth century American literature is about the gap between the promise and the actuality…”
“The corresponding symbol for England is perhaps The Island…an extended body-as-island metaphor…island-as-body, self-contained, a Body Politic, evolving organically, with a hierarchical structure in which the King is the Head, the statesmen the hands, the peasants or farmers or workers the feet, and so on.   The Englishman’s home as his castle is the popular form of this symbol, the feudal castle being not only an insular structure but a self-contained microcosm of the entire Body Politic.”

Atwood laments Canada’s self-deprecating view of itself, it’s culture (or lack thereof?) and it’s literature, noting that as a result of it’s history, colonial mentality, and proximity to a fierce world power/bully, it has had a hard time establishing itself and finding a seat at the world table.  The one overarching theme Atwood constantly returns to throughout her discussion of the minor themes is the idea of the victim.  Many others have summarized and analyzed this already, so I’ll leave that to them:

In summation, from Wikipedia:

The central image of the victim is not static; according to Atwood four “Victim Positions” are possible (and visible in Canadian literature). These positions are outlined below.

    • Position One: To deny the fact that you are a victim.[3]

This is a position in which members of the “victim-group” will deny their identity as victims, accusing those members of the group who are less fortunate of being responsible for their own victimhood.

    • Position Two: To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim (but attribute it to a powerful force beyond human control such as fatehistoryGod, orbiology.[4]

In this position, victims are likely to resign themselves to their fate.

    • Position Three: To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim but to refuse to accept the assumption that the role is inevitable.[5]

This is a dynamic position in which the victim differentiates between the role of victim and the experience of victim.

    • Position Four: To be a creative non-victim.[6]

A position for “ex-victims” when creativity of all kinds is fully possible.

The Minor Themes:

While there are some content-based themes that string through most major, recent works of fiction, Atwood notes that Canadians’ attitudes towards the subject matter are actually their signature.  Their values and interpretations are what lead CanLit to have a unique flavor onto it’s own.

      1. The Victim
      2. Nature the Monster
      3. Animal Victims
      4. First People
      5. Ancestral Totems
      6. Family Portraits
      7. Failed Sacrifices
      8. The Casual Incident of Death
      9. The Paralyzed Artist
      10. Ice Women vs. Earth Mothers
      11. Quebec: Burning Mansions
      12. Jail Breaks and Recreations

So What Does All This Have to do with Travel?

This book is both an expose on CanLit, and, inadvertently, an argument for reading about any place before visiting.  How better to understand where you’re going than reading about the world from a local’s perspective?  Writers emphasize the personal, the universal, the national and the cultural and help provide clues into their understanding of the world around them.

Some of my favorite sections dealt with how Canadian writers handle those who aren’t able to speak for themselves.  For example, in the chapter “First People,” Atwood explains that we often treat Indians and Eskimos as animals, in that we white folk write about them from the outside.  We bribe them to sell their histories as trophies, dancing for a bribe in order to welcome the white majority.  She writes that “an imported white man looks at a form of natural or native life alien to himself and appropriates it for symbolic purposes.”

That’s stuck with me.

Whether you’re idolizing the noble savage, victimizing the once free and beautiful as prisoners of society or looking down your nose at wild and violent beasts, you’re pigeonholing hundreds of peoples into one caged opinion.

And isn’t that what tourists continue to do?

When tourists extrapolate what they consider to be the culture, local and native peoples are “forced to play ‘Indian'” to fulfill expectations set by those outsiders who want a taste of “local colour.”  We create the cage.

And what does this have to do with understanding Canada?

Well, everything.

On Mark’s 5 hour train ride from Toronto to Montreal, he asked a fellow rider and American ex-pat/Canadian citizen for his opinion on what defines the Canadian Culture.

The man responded that, in essence, there weren’t many defining features, though they did apologize for everything.  I found this to mirror quite closely what Atwood described as Canadians’ internalized and inherited Calvinistic guilt, which is, generally, without cause.  She explains that the farther one is from their Calvinist god, the more the legacy of guilt continues separated from it’s objects.

He went on to further explain that part of the reason that Canuck culture has evolved in the way that it has is because of the harsh climates that settlers had to endure.  Atwood goes to great lengths to describe the various ways that Nature has had it in for Canadians from the start and how this survival theme is reflected in both the literature and the current culture.

In conclusion…

I found Survival to be an interesting insight into CanLit and Canadian culture.  While it cannot provide the whole context on it’s own, it does provide a new set of eyes for further reading and interpretation.  I recommend reading a few, varied works before embarking on this one so you’ll know what the hell Atwood is talking about, and then following it up with some more for added context and insight.

Finding CanLit interesting?  Check out these related reads below:

      • She Named it Canada (The Narrative Collective)
      • Lives of the Hunted (James Polk)
      • The Broken Ark (M. Ondaatje)
      • Hunters (Alden Nowlan)

Other Books I’ve Been Inspired to Read:

The book images below lead to affiliate links.  If you feel inspired to read any of the listed books and use the links below, I receive a small portion of the purchase price at no additional cost to you!  If you love what you’re reading and want more from where this came from, help a girl out 🙂  The text-links are non-affiliate links.

  • David (Earle Birney)
  • Brebeuf and His Brethren (Pratt, E.J.)


More CanLit criticisms:


Other articles you may be interested in:

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