While we tend to see the problematizing of history as a distinctly postmodern concern, two of Agnes Maule Machar's (1837-1927) nineteenth-century historical novels, For King and Country (1874) and Marjorie's Canadian Winter (1893), show that even the most (apparently) hegemonic narratives of the period remain concerned with problems of historical representation and the vexed relationship between past and present. Through the process of uncovering certain hidden moral 'truths,' various ethnic, political, and moral tensions of the period that complicated Canada's past— as well as its present— show through. Although Machar never fully subverted contemporary assumptions about history, her attempt to reconcile many of Canada's national conflicts provides a window onto nineteenth century Canada.
In her 1990 novel Disappearing Moon Café, Sky Lee capitalizes upon the slipperiness of public and private historical narrative in order to examine the cultural codes of race and gender in 1920s Vancouver. Lee uses the unsolved 1924 Janet Smith murder case as a correlative to the fictional Wong family's history, creating a counternarrative of Chinese-Canadian history that questions historical master narratives. Smith's murdered body functions both as a contaminant that infects the Wong's family history, and as a catalyst that inspires their familial regeneration and prosperity. The novel's staggered narrative also emphasizes the ways in which the Wong family's history resists completion and dismantles the generational story's traditional trope of defining the self through family. If Smith's death signalled the need for greater social and cultural tolerance, then her reinstatement as a referent in Lee's novel demands a broader perspective of Canadian history and citizenship.
In John Steffler's The Afterlife of George Cartwright , fur trader George Cartwright's journal is revised and amended by former lover Mrs. Selby, who adds her rendition of events in a way that mirrors the novel's treatment of the historical journal. In the supplementation of a document that describes the era of British colonialism in Canada, Steffler provides a postcolonial revisioning of Canada's past, one which is not engendered and written exclusively by British men. The novel's dialogic form criticizes the idea of a universal Canadian experience in the historical journal and, by extension, in Canada's history. But rather than setting up its own version as the final representation, the novel discloses the processes employed by the group in power to establish a version of history that reflects its own interests rather than the truth.
In Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy, three modes of representation, oral, visual, and written, tie together five interrelated stories that span eighty years. Because of its shifting present, the novel reassures the reader of its own reliability within the hermetic world of the text; simultaneously, however, Vanderhaeghe throws doubt on the possibility of ever adequately representing history. In a sense, Vanderhaeghe's depiction of historical truth as elusive and unreproducible parallels Walter Benjamin's notion of the aura: the mystical, intangible, and unreproducible quality in a work of art that distinguishes it from other works and from copies of itself. Representation becomes, for Vanderhaeghe, an impossible attempt to recapture a truth that absents itself as soon as the historical moment has passed.
Through the experiences of Hannelore Schmitt, a German war widow, Suzette Mayr locates The Widows in the context of debates in contemporary German society about Nazi brutality. The novel suggests that it is only through a confrontation with history that German citizens can experience liberation, not only at the level of the individual citizen, but also at the national policy level. Simultaneously, the novel expresses skepticism about the Canadian immigrant identity, parodying historians who have constructed Canada's cultural memory in the contemporary multicultural movement. The creation of a utopian women's community at the novel's end therefore suggests the vision of a nation which truly incorporates difference into its daily life.
Author Thomas Wharton discusses the process of writing history in his historical novel Icefields (1995). He talks about the historical pioneering figures of the Canadian Rockies, the sense of "mountain metaphysics" he writes about, and the tradition of writing about the mountains. He also discusses the influence of modernism on his novel, calling Icefields "a modernist novel slightly out of its time." He comments on the relationship between Icefields and his second novel, Salamander.