The best books that reveal the hidden history of Western Canada

Lynne Bowen Author Of Whoever Gives Us Bread: The Story of Italians in British Columbia
By Lynne Bowen

Who am I?

As a young person I loved to read history novels, but each book had to be about either British monarchs or American generals. Then I watched the movie Bye Bye Blues, a Canadian prairie story by Anne Wheeler, and realized for the first time that the story was about me, about us. It was such a heady feeling that I decided to study Western Canadian history at university. Three weeks after I got my M.A. from the University of Victoria I was offered the chance to write about Vancouver Island coal miners and the rest, as they say, is quite literally history.

I wrote...

Whoever Gives Us Bread: The Story of Italians in British Columbia

By Lynne Bowen,

Book cover of Whoever Gives Us Bread: The Story of Italians in British Columbia

What is my book about?

Italy exported more of its people per capita than any other country in Europe. I discovered the unique role Italian immigrants had played in labour history when I was researching and writing the lives of coal miners and, in particular, of Robert Dunsmuir, the miner who became the richest man in British Columbia. Fifty years before Italians were crowding the ghettos of eastern North America and twenty years before a railroad traversed the continent, Italians were sailing around Cape Horn to get to the Fraser River gold rush. They were called “scabs” by labour unions, “undesirable” by the Canadian government, and “enemy aliens” by the RCMP, but they persevered and became vibrant citizens of British Columbia.

The books I picked & why

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The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia

By Jean Barman,

Book cover of The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia

Why this book?

A mule-drawn wagon train moves precariously along a narrow road carved out of a steep rock wall—this book lives up to the promise of its cover. The book jacket blurb entices lovers of history like me: “British Columbia is regularly described in superlatives both positive and negative—the most spectacular scenery, the strangest political campaigns, the mildest winters, the most rain, the most aggressive resource developers, the biggest peace and environmental movements, the closest Canadian ties to Japan and China, and the richest native culture.” The author, Jean Barman, is one of my mentors and an inspiration to everyone who is interested in British Columbia history.

The Englishman's Boy: A Novel

By Guy Vanderhaeghe,

Book cover of The Englishman's Boy: A Novel

Why this book?

I love a book that weaves fiction into historical events. The Cypress Hills are on the Canadian side of the international border where it cuts through the North American central plain. This was a gathering place for First Nations and Metis people, but the area also attracted American whisky traders and wolf hunters. The reasons for the massacre that occurred in 1873 are disputed, but fifty years later, the last living survivor, by then a grizzled bit player in Hollywood, tells his story to a young screenwriter.

Broken Ground

By Jack Hodgins,

Book cover of Broken Ground

Why this book?

Jack Hodgins, Western Canada’s literary wunderkind, put Vancouver Island on the literary map with his short stories and novels which demonstrate the truth in the adage “write about what you know”. As a writer I learned this from Jack and I also learned that if I find a subject fascinating my readers will too. In Broken Ground, his seventh novel, Jack writes about World War One veterans, still haunted by the horror of the trenches, as they struggle to farm amid the massive stumps of a former old growth forest.

The Dunsmuir Saga

By Terry Reksten,

Book cover of The Dunsmuir Saga

Why this book?

The late Terry Reksten, a researcher par excellence, spent much of her career writing about Robert Dunsmuir, a former indentured coal miner who became the richest man in British Columbia, and his descendants. Terry devoted most of this book to the building of Craigdarroch Castle and to the way Dunsmuir’s children and grandchildren spent his fortune, but it complements the coal mining books I have written that tell the stories of the men who dug the coal that built that fortune.

The Stone Angel

By Margaret Laurence,

Book cover of The Stone Angel

Why this book?

Who would have thought that a novel about a ninety-year-old woman determined to avoid being put into a nursing home would become required reading for high school and university students? And yet this novel has been listed by several sources as one of the greatest Canadian novels ever written. Laurence’s writing style inspired me and gave me the assurance to write about Western Canadian history. It demonstrates one of the reasons why Laurence was named posthumously as “A Person of National Historic Significance” by the Canadian government in 2018.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Canada, British Columbia, and the film industry?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Canada, British Columbia, and the film industry.

Canada Explore 216 books about Canada
British Columbia Explore 32 books about British Columbia
The Film Industry Explore 23 books about the film industry

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley, Volume 7, Lives of Girls and Women, and Stone in a Landslide if you like this list.