The winner of the seventeenth annual RBC Taylor Prize has yet to be selected but the five titles making up the 2018 shortlist, though diverse in subject, stitch together an emerging Canadian literary identity, one marked by confidence and optimism.
“For decades Canada has defined itself as not British or not American and I think this year we’re beyond that,” says juror Anne Giardini, who along with Christine Elliott and James Polk, make up this year’s panel of judges for the prize. “We are not looking at ourselves anymore as what we’re not; we’re very much looking at ourselves as what we are, what we can be and what we can bring—this was a coming of age year for Canadian non-fiction writers.”
The top five—culled from a staggering 153 Canadian written books submitted by 110 Canadian and international publishers—cover a rich array of stories and meet the criteria of excellence in the craft of writing, the use of the English language and quality of thought, as well as, elegance of style and subtlety of perception.
“We as readers are fortunate to have so many who write to these compelling standards,” says Giardini.
Vijay Parmar, president of RBC PH&N Investment Counsel, and a trustee of the RBC Taylor Prize, says through making the shortlist, the finalists already join an impressive list of talented writers including Ross King, who received the award in 2017 for his book Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of Water Lilies.
“We are very proud to sponsor the RBC Taylor Prize as it continues to celebrate and inspire exceptional talent from across the country,” says Parmar. “The prize plays a very important role in promoting literary excellence in Canadian non-fiction on a global scale, as well as developing the careers of the authors it celebrates.”
Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on Bering’s Great Voyage to Alaska by Stephen R. Bown (Canmore, AB), published by Douglas & McIntyre, examines The Great Northern Expedition to find a route to North America, as led by Danish mariner and cartographer Vitus Bering.
“The hardships and privations of the explorers, scientists, labourers and horses, sent across Russia by Peter the Great to seek a route to North America beggar the imagination. They built their own roads, ships and a new kind of social order, and made enduring discoveries, all in the teeth of monstrous winds, seas, storms, bureaucracy—and hungry little foxes,” writes the jury.
Yardwork: A Biography of an Urban Place by Daniel Coleman (Hamilton, Ontario), published by Wolsak and Wynn, is a humble meditation on nature from a Hamilton backyard.
“In vivid, exacting prose, Coleman tells us of the moods and beauty of the Niagara Escarpment, the paths of local animals, the wayward tricks of the water table, the rich indigenous history of the area, and of our modern inroads into the environment—highways, houses, slag and built culture. This is a masterpiece of nature writing, reimagining civics and possibilities, as Coleman surveys what he understands is “a holy land right here” behind his house and beneath his feet,” writes the jury.
Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine by James Maskalyk (Toronto; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), published by Doubleday Canada, explores medicine as practiced in a world-class Toronto hospital and “bare bones” clinics in Sudan and Ethiopia through the eyes of Maskalyk.
“Starting with A is for Airway, physician and humanitarian James Maskalyk leads us through the many ways in which our bodies sustain and fail us, and how we become better able to tend—and attend—to each other,” writes the jury.
Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, by Tanya Talaga (Toronto), published by House of Anansi Press, turns the reader’s eye to the history of Thunder Bay, Ontario as a proxy for Canada’s ongoing struggles with human rights violations against Indigenous communities.
“Talaga describes gaps in the system large enough for beloved children and adults to fall through, endemic indifference, casual racism and a persistent lack of resources. It is impossible to read this book and come away unchanged,” writes the jury.
In the Name of Humanity:The Secret Deal to End the Holocaust by Max Wallace (Toronto) published by Allen Lane Canada, is a treatise by the Canadian journalist and historian on the unlikely trio behind the secret negotiations to end the holocaust as the the Second World War came to a close.
“Max Wallace’s gripping account of the tense endgame of the Nazi nightmare is told in meticulous detail and with great compassion, culminating in the astonishing story of a Jewish freedom fighter bargaining for the salvation of the survivors with the devil himself, the architect of the killing camps, Heinrich Himmler,” writes the jury.
Despite some of the dark undertones of the questions asked in the books, the answers, says Polk, come from a place of optimism, a trait that embodies Charles Taylor , the Canadian writer and foundation of the prize’s namesake .
“They don’t all end in doom and gloom—there’s a charge to see how things are going to change and look at the future with some optimism,” says Polk. “This kind of thing is exactly where Charles was coming from long ago… he was a very optimistic writer about our nation.”
The winner of the prize, to be announced Monday, Feb. 26 at a gala luncheon, will receive $30,000 while the remaining finalists will each receive $5,000. The authors are also presented with a custom leather-bound version of their shortlisted book.
“It is no secret that prizes bring good books and positive attention in a fragmented media environment,” adds Giardini. “Prizes shine a light on important, well-written books, which means they are bought and read and discussed more widely.”
For Elliott, a first time juror for the prize, the biggest take away from the expansive list of Canadian non-fiction has been a sense of hope for the medium’s future.
“I think that non-fiction in Canada has a really solid place,” she says. “Young readers and young writers (should) be very encouraged by that and keep on writing these fabulous books.”
Giardini says she agrees, adding that bright things lie ahead.
“(These books) show a willingness to grapple with very difficult ideas in a very well-informed and thought-leading way—not colloquial, not small, not bounded or constrained by our Canadian-ness or our perspective as inhabitants of a frozen piece of this globe,” she says. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been prouder of us as Canadian thinkers and writers as I have been this year.”
Meet the finalists and hear them discuss their books at two public events, including a free 90-minute roundtable discussion with the shortlisted authors in the Lillian Smith Library on February 22, at 7pm, presented by the Toronto Public Library and the IFOA; and the Ben McNally Author’s Brunch on Sunday February 25, at the Omni King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto (for tickets, contact Ben McNally Books at (416) 361-0032 or visit benmcnallybooks.com ).