Literally in Toronto

toronto.jpg

What do the novels Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright, Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, and In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje have in common? They are all set in Toronto.

The first book I ever read that was set in Toronto was Atwood’s The Edible Woman. As a grade nine student attending a down town high school, to read about Marian McAlpin and Duncan meeting at places that I not only knew, but could walk to after school, was an exhilarating experience. It gave me a sense empowerment — it was as if I better understood the protagonist’s identity struggles simply because I used the same subway stations. Even now, ten years later, every time I walk by Park Hyatt Hotel (formerly the Park Plaza) I think of Marian enjoying a cocktail on the roof top lounge overlooking the city.

Having visited several European cities that celebrate their literary incarnations, achievements, and heroes through commemorative plaques on the sides of buildings and parks, I’ve always wondered why Toronto doesn’t do the same. Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough, but as far as I know there is nothing in Rosedale indicating that Timothy Findley (author of The Wars, for which he won the Governor General’s Award for fiction) was raised in this affluent Toronto neighbourhood.

This lack of literary consciousness inevitably leads to two conclusions: A) authors are reluctant to choose the Toronto landscape as a backdrop for storytelling, and B) Torontonians and tourists are not interested in our literary history. However, I’ve recently learned this is not exactly the case, at least, not entirely.

Earlier this week I came across Bibliotravel.com. This website, which is run by Canadian librarians Fiona Scannell and James Schellenberg, describes itself as a “free online resource for identifying books set in distinct locales.” And it does just that. Bibliotravel.com provides lists upon lists of books based on their settings. Looking for a book set in Dublin, Ireland? Just use the search engine and you get nine results: a play, two memoirs, and several novels (Joyce’s Ulysses is conspicuously missing.) The information is user driven, so that bibliophiles can add their favourite books to the ever growing and diverse catalogue of works and locations.

While navigating through Bibliotravel.com, I surprisingly learned that our city is in third place in the world with 135 listed books that feature Toronto as either the main setting, or one of many settings. In first place is New York with 255 books, and London is in second with 237.

The website takes some liberties when defining a location as a “setting.” For instance, Roch Carrier’s childhood classic The Hockey Sweater is included in the Toronto list, but I remember distinctly that the entire story is set in Quebec — unless the scene where Toronto based Mr. Eaton replies to Mrs. Carrier’s letter counts as being set in the Big Smoke. Other than this small discrepancy, the website is a great resource with a lot of potential. One thing I would like to see incorporated into each book profile is an inventory of the streets, stores, parks, and other local landmarks that are unique to a particular city.

Although Toronto based literature is a long way off from being celebrated in the public realm by locals and tourists alike, Bibliotravel.com serves to clarify at least one misconception: that there are plenty books out there about or featuring Toronto.

What is your favourite book set in Toronto?

photo of Allan Moak’s A Big City A B C taken by Patricia Simoes

16 comments

  1. Bibliotravel is a great idea, but its selection of books obviously isn’t representative. I love Toronto, but there’s no way it’s a more common literary setting than Paris (135 vs. 114) — Paris has the advantage of both size and age. And the notion that Ottawa is the world’s fifth-most written-about city (92 books, ten times as many as Dublin) is simply absurd.

    There is a massive book called Toronto: A literary guide, though I believe it focuses more on the authors who’ve lived here and not the characters.

  2. Catherine Bush’s ‘Minus Time’ is an excellent Toronto novel (pub. 1993). Much like Atwood, Bush takes great care to describe the colour of the subway tiles, the rattle of the streetcars, and the sights and smells of Spadina on a summer night. In addition, Minus Time takes place in the not-too-distant future (or even an alternate present), when California’s big earthquake has turned Toronto into the filmmaking capital of North America, and signs at the waterfront warn us not to ‘swim at our own risk’, but to ‘keep out’. Charming and prescient at the same time.

  3. Imagining Toronto (www.imaginingtoronto.com), created by Spacing contributing editor Amy Lavender Harris, has compiled a comprehensive list of literary works set in Toronto.

    It may be that Imagining Toronto’s effort to compile that bibliography is partially responsible for the large number of listings on Bibliotravel.com

  4. Michael Redhill’s Consolation is my favourite. It has Toronto the old and Toronto the new. Love it.

  5. Oh, I forgot another all time favourite: The Song Beneath the Ice by Joe Fiorito.

  6. It’s so weird that you’re mentioning this right now. I just finished reading Alias Grace a few weeks ago while I was on a trip to Tokyo. I was really excited as I was reading it because of all the local settings. When they mentioned the bordellos on Lombard Street, i was trying to remember where that street is because I know I have walked past it!

    I ended up picking up a biography about John A Macdonald after this just because I wanted to learn more about what it was like here been at in the 1800s!

  7. Bottom Bracket by Vivian Meyer. I highly recommend it, a great read.

  8. Many scenes in Robertson Davies’ acclaimed novel Fifth Business take place in Toronto.

  9. Toronto Noir – a mystery/fiction anthology filled with different stories with each story set in a different neighbourhood or area of Toronto. I’ve never read it but saw it at Chapters the other day and it looked interesting.

  10. Mention is made of the lack of commemorative plaques about our writers. Well, of the 508 historical Toronto plaques posted on my site, torontohistory.org, exactly 2 celebrate our writers; Morley Callaghan and Robertson Davies. You can see them by going to the site, clicking on Subjects in the menu then clicking on Arts.

  11. Thanks, Dylan, but I deserve no credit for Bibliotravel’s Toronto literature list — it’s been growing organically for several years. The Imagining Toronto library (http://www.imaginingtoronto.com/library.html) does list several hundred literary works set in Toronto (as well as some dozens of scholarly works exploring Toronto writers and literature & place in general), but it’s far from complete — there are hundreds or thousands more works not (yet) listed there. I’m working on it, though.

    As for plaques and other motifs recognizing local writers and literary sites, Project Bookmark Canada (http://www.projectbookmarkcanada.ca) is working on this very thing. It’s my understanding that they’ll be placing ‘bookmarks’ in the form of plaques identifying various Toronto literary sites sometime in the next year or so. Next year’s Doors Open Toronto is literary-city themed, so undoubtedly you’ll have a change to explore even more literary sites this way.

    I’m currently completing a book exploring literary representations of Toronto. It’s called Imagining Toronto, and is scheduled to be published by Mansfield Press this fall. The book traces Toronto’s literary genealogy, but more importantly, tries to show how inextricably our experience of place in this city is tied to the stories we tell about Toronto’s neighbourhoods, cultures, buildings and landscapes. As Michael Ondaatje writes in his iconic Toronto novel, In the Skin of a Lion (McClelland & Stewart, 1987), “before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting.” Volume II, on which I have just started work, will extend this analysis to cinematic, television, art, architectural and musical representations of Toronto.

    And my favourite book set in Toronto? This changes, but for a while now it’s been Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Noman’s Land (Coach House, 1985), a collection of stories that creates a mythology of Toronto. My favourite line(s): “The past was the secret and mysterious city, the city within the city, the city of the alleyways and swimming pools and the city of the lakeshore. And the lake, which cared nothing for time, would often cast up strange relics of the future, as well as the past, upon its shores.”

    I’m also very fond of Darren O’Donnell’s Your Secrets Sleep with Me (Coach House, 2004) and Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians (originally published in 1960, this book was reportedly the first to feature the new City Hall on its cover. The Torontonians was republished by McGill-Queen’s Press last year). Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies (poems about Nathan Phillips Square) won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1968, I think. And I second the vote for Catherine Bush — who features Toronto settings in most of her beautifully written and powerful novels.

    Other writers/works you might find interesting: Austin Clark’s ‘Toronto Trilogy, exploring the struggles of West Indian immigrants making room for themselves in a sometimes-bigoted 1960s’era Toronto (The Meeting Point, Storm of Fortune and ). Farzana Doctor’s Stealing Nasreen (Inanna, 2007), one of a small number of Toronto novels focusing on the experiences of its largely Muslim characters. Mobashir Quereshi’s amusing and probing R.A.C.E. (Mercury Press, 2006), in which a parking enforcement officer finds himself named to a top-secret police unit investigating the Radical Association of Criminal Ethnicities.

    There is a Toronto novel (or poem or play) about nearly every Toronto neighbourhood, experience and culture. I agree that it’s high time we paid more attention to our own rich literary heritage.

  12. My favourite has to be Timothy Findley’s “Headhunter”, which is a bit of a freaky take on the city. Though reading “In the Skin of a Lion” always makes me miss Toronto.

  13. Easily “Jonathan Cleaned Up-Then He Heard A Sound” by famed children’s author Robert Munsch. An amazing book about a young boy who discovers he has a TTC station behind his wall. The illustrations were superb, with Old City Hall and the red pleather TTC jackets drawn to a tee.

  14. Charlotte Vale Allen’s award-winning “Daddy’s Girl” was of course set in Toronto, but a later best-selling novel, I think “Time/Steps”, also started off with a Toronto setting.

  15. Consolation by Michael Redhill (2006) is amazing. All kinds of historical stuff about Toronto. I am reading it right now and don’t want it to end.

Comments are closed.