Reading Calgary: How 12 authors have captured our city's character
Towards a Calgary literary canon
Originally published on May 13.
It's been said a place doesn't exist until it has been written about in literature.
There was a time when Calgary was considered a "lesser" city because it was thought that novelists and poets hadn't evoked it on the page. Some even suggested this was the city's fault – that Calgary was somehow unworthy of literature. Too new, too transient, too shallow. They were wrong.
Authors have been writing Calgary since the North-West Mounted Police set the city in motion in 1875. Globe-trotting writers described our frontier town in its first few decades. By the early 20th century, Calgary started to appear in fiction and poetry about prairie settlements. In the 1980s, writers, from here and away, were mapping the city's urban geography and experience.
When we read Calgary's literature, we become aware of our city's deeper identity. Here are a few authors from around the world, who have captured our complexity.
Letters from America by Rupert Brooke (Charles Scribner, 1916)
Hordes of people… prey on the community by their dealings in what is humorously called 'Real Estate'… What a sowing, and what a harvest!
This 1913 travelogue shows Calgary in the fever of one of its early economic booms. The young English poet, Rupert Brooke admires the old pioneers who settled the West, but he has harsh words for the influx of American real estate speculators. The raucous profiteers he meets in Calgary are involved in what Brooke calls "the tragedy of the West … a gigantic national gambling of a most unprofitable and disastrous kind."
The Prairie Child by Arthur Stringer (A. L. Burt & Company, 1922)
It's the women, and the women alone, who seem left out of the procession.
A realist novel published in 1922 considers the contrasts and social tensions in the young and aspirational Calgary. The narrator, a rancher newly arrived in the city, notices the gap between settlers and the native peoples they are displacing. Parachuted into a Mount Royal mansion, she finds herself out of step with the women in Calgary society. As for the city's insistence on positive thinking? "One can get tired of optimism, especially when it is being so plainly converted from a psychic abstraction into a municipal asset."
Plainsong by Nancy Huston (HarperCollins, 1993)
Go West young man, we sang, grinding the bones and blood of their ancestors into cement with which to build our houses, our skyscrapers, our solid grey dreams.
Calgary expatriate Nancy Huston explores the shadows of the city's pioneer mythology. Born in 1900, Paddon Sterling falls in love with a Blackfoot woman during the Depression. As he listens to his lover's stories about growing up on the Gleichen reserve, he recognizes the frontier mentality that has thwarted his lover's people and his own aspirations.
In the Bear's House by Bruce Hunter (Oolichan Books, 2009)
They followed the overgrown wagon ruts of the old Fort Whoop-up Trail, still visible beyond the gravel pit and the school.
This coming-of-age novel gives us Calgary's social geography during the 1950s and 1960s. Trout Dunlop grows up in working-class Ogden on the city's east side, learning the layers of Calgary's history and society through family stories that go back four generations. He loses himself in the raw prairie steps away from his house and dreams of the oil-rich Devonian Sea six miles below the room where he sleeps.
Pourin' Down Rain by Cheryl Foggo (Detselig, 1990)
There was nothing amiss, nothing lacking in Bowness.
Cheryl Foggo's memoir describes the city through the eyes of a girl descended from African-American prairie pioneers. Her street in 1960s Bowness "contained the closest thing to a Black community that one would find in Calgary in 1961." As Foggo comes of age in a predominantly white city, she realizes her difference, her strength and her deep sense of belonging to the place where she was born.
Café des Westens by Norman Ravvin (Red Deer College Press, 1991)
The air had lost its fragrance in the neighborhood of the Café des Westens. No longer was there the rich beery smell of flour being bleached. The Robin Hood mill, denounced as an eyesore years before, had been torn down with every other structure built before 1960.
Set in the 1980s, this novel charts the city through three generations of a Jewish family. The story centres around a run-down café frequented in the 1920s by immigrants in what was once a thriving Jewish neighbourhood at the west end of downtown. The novel shows the different ways a woman, her son and grandson relate to a city during the throes of its latest reinvention.
Long Change by Don Gillmor (Random House, 2015)
One of the effects of expensive oil was it made people feel they were smarter than they were … They convinced themselves it wasn't market forces (and some manipulation) that made them rich; it was wisdom and insight and corporate courage.
In Long Change, we see inside the oil patch through the life of one Calgary oilman. Geologist Ritt Devlin rides booms, busts and three marriages – the last one inspired by real-life Calgary oil couple, Earl and Dorothy Joudrie. Ritt experiences the wild excesses of the city in the 1970s. When the price of oil plunges, he walks through the gloomy streets downtown, wondering if Calgary has turned against him.
Between Men by Katherine Govier (Viking, 1987)
It was a striving kind of place. Always trying and never, by accident of geography, arriving.
Novelist Katherine Govier explores the connection between a city fixated on the future and a dark chapter in its frontier past. After a decade in Toronto, a young historian, Suzanne Vail struggles when she returns to her chauvinistic hometown in the early 1980s. She pieces together the grisly 1889 murder of a Cree girl above a bar on 1st Street West and the subsequent jury trial that decided the accused blacksmith was not guilty. A century later, the rawness of frontier Calgary reverberates both in the swagger and vulnerability of the modern city.
Restlessness by Aritha van Herk (Red Deer College Press, 1998)
[T]here are warm spaces here, if you know how to find them.
Restlessness is a character study of Calgary. Novelist Aritha van Herk looks beyond the city's glass-and-steel surfaces to explore its psychology. Set largely in the Palliser Hotel, the story includes a walk downtown on a sultry February evening. Touring the "shoulders and flanks" of Calgary, we observe a layered city that has not only shaped a woman's identity but claims her heart.
419 by Will Ferguson (Penguin, 2012)
Laura's windows were aligned not with the mountains but toward downtown; they looked onto that sandstone-and-steel city below its Etch-a-Sketch skyline, a city that was constantly erasing and rewriting itself.
In 419, Calgary is an oil capital entangled in the global net of 21st century geopolitics. Laura Curtis lives in an apartment above the North Hill shopping mall. Her father's death in a car accident on Ogden Road propels her into a perilous Nigerian internet fraud. We discover how the mercurial price of oil that changes Calgary's skyline is tied to an international culture of greed.
Monoceros by Suzette Mayr (Coach House, 2011)
[T]he dead boy and Ginger wrestled into scorching sex in the dead grass, hot enough to start a grass fire, their bodies flaring in the dark, in the middle of a February chinook.
Novelist Suzette Mayr invites readers into the intimate spaces of present-day Calgary. The novel explores a community in the city's northwest reeling after the suicide of a bullied gay teenager. We visit a Tim Horton's drive-through on 12th Avenue, an Ethiopian restaurant in Kensington, and a gay bar called "Home." Outside, the moody mid-winter landscape contains long shadows and tragic secrets, fantasies and love.
Blue Sunflower Startle by Yasmin Ladha (Freehand Books, 2010)
Can loving you be more than an act of imagination? Can one love a place like a lover?
For a girl who emigrates from Tanzania with her family in the 1970s, Calgary is a cherished landscape. Later, as an adult working abroad, she imagines the city seeking her out as a lover might do. "Soft as a kiss, home grazes my nape." Calgary presents itself to her in its ordinary details: a snowy grocery store parking lot, a Pineridge jeweler's shop, the trip she'll make across the brown fields near Nose Hill to buy a bunch of tulips from Safeway next time she's home.
Shaun Hunter has lived in Calgary most of her life but is only beginning to discover its literature. Her blog, Writing the City: Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers, is a treasure hunt through the city's literary landscape. She posts a new find every Friday.
Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.