Russell F. Hirsch
Canadian Corner: J. Fitzgerald McCurdy
As a kid growing up in the Harry Potter generation, I devoured fantasy novels—and since a new HP book only landed on the shelf every two years or so, there were plenty of other fantasies to feast on in the meantime. But it was rare to find a fantasy with a Canadian flavour. That changed when my mom brought home a copy of J. Fitzgerald McCurdy’s The Serpent’s Egg from the bookstore.
McCurdy’s novel with maps of Ottawa and the magical land of Ellesmere.
Here was an epic fantasy in the Tolkien style with elves and dwarves and bearded staff-wielders, but the kids in the adventure were… Canadian?
Well, I’ll be…
In The Serpent’s Egg, the heroine Miranda and her friends—all from Ottawa—are whisked from their homes by a druid, through a portal in tunnels under the Canadian Parliament buildings (which were built by dwarves, you know) into the magical world of Ellesmere, which they must rescue from the evil demon, Hate.
I remember it being surprising, a bit befuddling—and ultimately refreshing—to read something that was so unabashedly Canadian. Growing up in Alberta, I had never been to Ottawa, but the novels still held an extra layer of resonance for me simply by having the word Canada on so many pages.
In high school, when I did visit Ottawa and tour Parliament for the first time, I’m sure I was unconsciously viewing it all with an extra layer of awe, because I had felt the enchantment of the place in a book before I had even visited. The Library of Parliament, which is surely the most enchanting room in the country, holds a particularly prominent place in the book, and probably in the hearts of all bookish Canucks.
Certain books from childhood leave you with a lingering feeling. I remember feeling engrossed by McCurdy’s fantasy world, which had an intriguing blend of science and magic. And I remember feeling appreciative of a Canadian book that allowed itself to show some of the patriotism we usually keep so carefully bundled up in this country.
Hands up–who wants more Canadian fantasy for kids?
For the first time since childhood, I reread The Serpent’s Egg this summer. Looking back, there are parts that come off as over-written, there are adverbs everywhere, and occasional clichés, but the action is jam-packed and above all, the danger is genuinely compelling. Lots of fantasies have a baddie that is the incarnation of all evil, but this demon, Hate, and its minions really are awful adversaries that make intense, life-or-death stakes for the characters.
What hadn’t changed was the pride—and honestly, still some of the surprise—at seeing the “true, north, strong and free” fantasized. I hope McCurdy helped blaze a trail that other Canadian authors will follow in the future—and which some others already have. (See for example, Ken Oppel’s The Boundless).
So, if you’re looking to “stand on guard and read,” try The Serpent’s Egg, and follow the continued adventures of Miranda and her fellow Ottawans in the rest of McCurdy’s trilogy, The Burning Crown and The Twisted Blade.
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