A flying ace, a stone carver, twin sisters seeking adventure, a shattered Cree sniper—Canadian fiction is rich with perspectives and experiences of the First World War.
With nearly 61,000 Canadian lives lost, WWI remains the bloodiest conflict in our country’s history. It also represents a coming-of-age for Canada, with Canadian soldiers making notable contributors to the war effort, particularly on the battlefields at Ypres, Vimy and Passchendaele. These achievements sparked a new national pride and, with it, the idea that Canada could step out of the shadow of the British Empire and act independently in international matters.
Whether you have a passion for history, want to delve into Canada’s military past for Remembrance Day or simply want to learn more about an incredibly important time in our country’s history, the Edmonton Public Library has books that will take you back in time. Discover, through fictional narratives, the story of how real Canadians experienced the “war to end all wars,” from the transformative experience of war in the trenches to battles being fought on the home front.
The following list, by no means exhaustive, represents Canadian fiction titles that wrestle with the question of how WWI—with all of its heroism and horror—helped to construct our national identity and contribute to the people we are today.
1. Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery
While her brothers go off to fight, Rilla (the daughter of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Green Gables series) faces her own challenges as the far-off war brings upheaval, grief and change, even to the relatively safe harbor of Glen St. Mary, P.E.I.
This story has the distinction of being the only Canadian novel about WWI written by a female contemporary of the war.
2. Barometer Rising by Hugh McLennan
Set in Halifax during WWI, Barometer Rising is considered one of the essential novels in the establishment of a distinct Canadian literature.
It follows Penelope Wain, a woman who believes her lover was killed in disgrace while serving overseas, and her paramour Neil Macrae, who, unbeknownst to Penelope, has returned to the east coast to clear his name. The story takes place amid the horror and destruction of the Halifax explosion of December 6, 1917.
3. The Wars by Timothy Findley
In The Wars, author Timothy Findley employs multiple narrative perspectives to convey the horrific experiences of one young Canadian officer. Aptly titled, this novel examines not just the military conflicts of WWI, but also the emotional violence wreaked by the dehumanizing effects of trench warfare.
4. The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart
This novel traces the devastating effects of WWI on a brother and sister from the fictional town of Shoneval, Ontario. While focusing on the historical events of the Great War, it reaches back into the 19th century and forward to the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial in France in 1936.
5. Deafening by Frances Itani
Deafening is the story of a young, deaf woman in Ontario and her hearing husband who goes off to Europe to serve as a stretcher-bearer during WWI. By juxtaposing her profoundly silent life against his intensely loud and violent experience of the war, Frances Itani offers a unique perspective on the beauty and brutality of life and love.
6. The Deep by Mary Swan
Winner of the 2001 O. Henry Award for short fiction, this novella by Mary Swan tells the story of identical twin sisters who embark on a journey to war-torn France in 1918. There, amidst the horrors of WWI, they discover how a single action can change the course of events in many lives.
The Deep is available from the Edmonton Public Library as a book.
7. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
By focusing on the story of two Cree snipers, Joseph Boyden reintroduces the voices and experiences of Indigenous soldiers into our recollections of the First World War.
8. Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Gray
Billy Bishop Goes to War is one of the most dramatized plays in Canadian theatre. This musical goes beyond telling the story of Canadian WWI flying ace Billy Bishop. According to the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia, this play “critically examines… the nature of heroism and the reasons for and consequences of war.”
Billy Bishop Goes to War is available from the Edmonton Public Library as a book.
9. Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison
This anti-war novel by American-born, Montreal-raised Charles Yale Harrison has become a classic of WWI literature. It traces the story of a young Canadian soldier from his enlistment through to his ultimate disillusionment and his final conviction that war is a game requiring the sacrifice of naïve young soldiers for the sake of meaningless ideals.
10. Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead by Michael Winter
Though it’s a memoir rather than a novel, Into the Blizzard recounts two narratives. The first is the story of the young men who fought in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. The second is the author’s own story as he retraces these men’s footsteps one hundred years later.
In this poignant history, Michael Winter challenges readers to consider how we interpret history through the lens of the present.
Into the Blizzard is available from Edmonton Public Library as a book.
Canadian fiction on the First World War—along with other literary perspectives on the era—abounds in the Edmonton Public Library's catalogue.