Thursday, May 6, 2010
EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN
I’m curious these days about subversive military themes that weave themselves through Canadian writing, especially novels. Throughout its history, Montreal has been the scene of overt and covert military operations: think Patriote Rebellion 1837. Think October Crisis 1970. Think Oka 1990. And it goes on...
So it happens that the first Montreal-based novel I picked up to read this week was Gwethalyn Graham’s EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN, which first appeared in 1942 to stunning acclaim. It won a Governor General's Award, topped the New York Times best seller list for 37 weeks, and was optioned by Samuel Goldwyn Mayer for the unheard of figure of $100,000 (but never made it to the silver screen).
Gwethalyn Graham moved to Montreal from Toronto, via Smith College. Set in Westmount, EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN a sober portrait of Montreal's Anglo elite viewed by an outsider. At times there's a claustrophobic sense of being trapped inside the four walls, and conversational routines of the Drake family home. Mr. Drake has lost his fortune in the crash of 1929, and given up all hope of ever gaining it back. His only son is off fighting in Europe, while eldest daughter Erica has a job as women’s editor of the Montreal Post. The distant war forms a dramatic backdrop to a personal story of two lovers held apart by family prejudice. It's Romeo and Juliet on Mount Royal, but the struggle is not between feuding French and English. In an era of widespread anti-semitism -- the polite variety found in Canada, contrasted with the kind that is ravaging Europe -- Erica falls in love with a young Jewish lawyer named Marc Reiser, and comes face to face with her family's deep-rooted prejudices.
What makes novels interesting is often what goes in the background of them. Not just subplots, but insights and asides not pursued or developed in a conscious way -- odd facts dropped into the narrative which illuminate a time and place.
Like Anne Marie MacDonald’s AS THE CROW FLIES, the plot of EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN is dotted with references to a world secrets, and threads a path through the repressed wilderness that is Canada. For example, there are glimpses of the nepotistic world of Montreal newspaper publishing is almost an extension of Westmount, and Erica holds her job partly due to her father’s connections.
Montreal is a divided city without hope, according to Mark, who came to Quebec from a northern Ontario lumber town where his family own a business. He finds himself unwelcome in the cozy upper class enclave where Erica and her family live their insulated lives.
While Erica battles her convention-bound parents for the right to date Marc , the real dramas going on in the outside world sometimes surface in conversation, only to be dropped because they`re insoluble.
A French-Canadian friend has heard rumours the Nazis are creating “human robots” in the conquered lands of eastern Europe. Marc, who has lost relatives in the holocaust, resents the dominance of the Catholic Church in Quebec, “responsible to no one and nothing but itself.”
Canadian politeness, bordering on censorship, drives the plot, forcing characters to address each other awkwardly as they endlessly debate the issues that seem almost quaint. The couple’s romantic decision at the end leaves much unresolved – but that’s not a bad thing. Their relationship may really be doomed, or they may overcome the social odds. Graham chooses to end the story in Montreal’s Windsor Station, at the moment when Marc catches sight of Erica, and starts to run toward her. The outcome of the war in Europe, and the progress of the undeclared silent war going on between elites in Canada, are left up in the air. The book ends on a day in the fall of 1942, with Hitler`s armies on the ascent in Russia.
War has also invaded the lives of Westmount's WASP community, even while Canada remains remote and aloof from the upheaval going on in Europe. Marc enlists in the Air Force while Erica’s brother Anthony is already overseas. Out of desperation at her family’s rejection, and in revolt against Canadian hypocrisy, Erica (28) decides, in the end, to join the women’s army corps and follow Marc to Europe -- The novel ends before they get there there – instead they become engaged, almost a plot necessity in a women’s novel written in 1942.
Nevertheless it holds our attention – both as a period piece and also a reminder of how much, and how little, Montreal has changed.