Mazo de la Roche’s Morning at Jalna (1960)

Although the last of the Jalna books written, Morning at Jalna is only the second in the sequence.

It is set while the civil war is raging in the southern United States, and readers are immediately informed that the Whiteoaks are sympathetic to the southerners.

Mazo de la Roche Morning at JalnaIn school, during the 1970s and the 1980s, I was taught that the American Civil War was fought between the south – which was in favour of slavery, and the north – which was against slavery. As a schoolgirl, I was convinced that this was a war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions.

Now the issue is recognised as a conflict over state and federal rights, in which the south believed that states should be able to form their own stance on issues like slavery (e.g. property-related issues) and the north believed that these decisions should be made at the federal level.

So that rather than a pro-slavery/anti-slavery conflict which focussed on morals, the conflict actually circled around the economic risks of the southern states seceding, with policies about slavery only coming under discussion later, when it became expedient to shift the focus to gain greater consensus. (I’m not sure the curriculum has changed much, however.)

It makes sense that the privileged Whiteoaks would be supportive of the landowners, echoing the principles of self-determination and independence which so many settlers pursued.

It’s unsurprising that they would be sympathetic to the Sinclair family, which is seeking asylum and working to organize resistance from north of the border. (They have even brought some of their slaves with them, because of course they cannot imagine life without them.)

From the perspective of the story’s setting, readers are reminded just how tentative the peace around the border appeared to be. The Sinclair family is afraid they will lose their inheritance and their livelihood, and the Whiteoak family fears a similar threat with a potential American invasion (1812 was not so long ago). Characters predict that the Yankees’ aggression is unstoppable; without active resistance, the Whiteoaks will be American citizens in short order.

From the perspective of the author’s writing, however, the novel is drafted in the heart of the Cold War, in which the relationship between Canada and the United States is characterized by union and interdependence, with the Civil War being viewed solely as a matter of morals, with the knowledge of the Union’s victory over the Confederacy a fact. (The work was published in 1960, and was apparently written quickly, compared to her other novels, so perhaps 1959?)

When Curtis Sinclair’s resistance activities swell, neighbours who are fervently against slavery become more vocal about their disapproval of the Whiteoak family’s hosting of the southerners. Philip resents the interference, claming that he does not support slavery but nobody should dare to choose his friends.

The Whiteoaks do not have slaves; they have staff. They are not comfortable hosting the three slaves who accompany the Sinclairs. However, these characters (two female, one male) assure the Whiteoaks that they do not wish to be free, only wish to return to their home with the Sinclairs (some to family, also to service).

Morning at Jalna2Mazo de la Roche does attempt to develop these characters, especially Belle, with detail and intensity; Belle’s religious fervour and her devotion are noteworthy. However, these three are most often discussed as a group (“the blacks”) and their engagement with the other characters is unpredictable.

Curtis Sinclair’s attempts to reassure his wife, Lucy, of his plan for their future, which involve monies to be paid, result in his directing her to rely upon Jerry, the male slave. He can be relied upon to shoulder this responsibility and make the necessary purchases and payments which confuse Lucy even before those events transpire.

Perhaps that is the most progressive element of this not-so-progressive story, the sense that some effort has been made to complicate characterization.

For instance, the Whiteoaks’ neighbour dispproves of Tite, simply on the grounds that he is a “half-breed”, but he is forced to reevaluate when Tite informs him of Curtis Sinclair’s subversive activities in the woods.

Mazo de la Roche is willing to include exceptions in these stories, but they remain exceptional, which maintains the stereotype as a status quo.

“You have boasted of your noble blood. Yet – here you are, proposing to marry a mulatto.”
“Belle is not black, or brown, or even yellow,” Tite said proudly. ‘She has the eyes of a white woman.'”

Just as the working-class woman fell in love with baby Gussie on the voyage to the “New World” and wanted to care for her more than her own babies. Just as Belle and Cindy and Jerry beg to return to their homes as slaves in the south, when the Sinclairs speak of their future. Just as Tite dallies with Belle but aspires to win a white woman’s heart.

The underlying question of supremacy is not progressive at all and the exceptions remain just that.

Although set on a precipice during wartime and named for promise and anticipation, Morning at Jalna is a very traditional novel.

Like Gone with the Wind, it might have been a bestseller, satisfying many readers wholly and completely, but fear and uncertainty colour the tale irrevocably for contemporary readers.

2017-10-27T09:47:26+00:00

11 Comments

  1. Alley June 14, 2017 at 7:00 pm - Reply

    Interesting book, and as was said above, I hadn’t really considered how people in other countries would have studied the US civil war (cos self-centered American)

    • Buried In Print June 15, 2017 at 12:24 pm - Reply

      In some ways, I don’t think much about this either, even from the margins. It really hit the reset button for me, for instance, hearing Camilla Gibb talk about how the “Vietnam War” was also the “American War” depending on your perspective (she was discussing her book The Beauty of the Humanity Movement and the research/travelling she did to write it), but throughout school it was always the “Vietnam War”. Well, that’s a great reason to read – to keep on our toes!

  2. iliana June 13, 2017 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    You bring up a good point… I wonder how the Civil War is taught nowadays and if anything has changed from when we were in elementary school. And, it’s interesting to think about the larger implications of a war – how it affected other countries, etc. Again, that is something we never seemed to get to in school. Very interesting!

  3. Laila June 8, 2017 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    How interesting! I have never even once considered how people in Canada reacted to the American Civil War. (Probably a stereotypical self-centered American thing to say!) I didn’t even know these books existed. I was a fan of Gone With the Wind (movie and book) and the “North and South” miniseries with Patrick Swayze as a kid in the 1980s. My mom was a history buff and this would have been right up her alley too. But both of the things I’ve mentioned certainly have problematic elements to modern readers/audiences.

    • Buried In Print June 9, 2017 at 10:50 am - Reply

      Heheh. I know what you mean. As a teenager, I rewatched “North and South” (on VHS, home-made) so many times and I loved GWTW enough to complete a 1000-piece jigsaw of it and buy the anniversary boxed set when it eventually came to video. Younger-me probably wouldn’t have questioned the things in this Jalna story for one second. I don’t think I questioned much of anything.

      Not only is it interesting to hear another county’s perspective on one’s own national history, but I’m still amazed that Canadian schoolkids now don’t necessarily learn that slavery existed in Canada as well, that we were not simply the terminus of the Underground Railroad and here from the beginning. No wonder people don’t want to talk about where their coffee and cocoa beans come from: much more comfortable to pretend it didn’t and doesn’t happen.

  4. Naomi June 7, 2017 at 7:37 pm - Reply

    It’s interesting to read about the perspective of history she writes into her books, and I can see how it might have been really popular in 1960. But, yikes, those stereotypes!

    • Buried In Print June 7, 2017 at 7:50 pm - Reply

      OOH I kinda wished that I’d left it until the end, because facing this as the second read in the series certainly gave me pause, but now that I’m on the other side of it, I’m glad that I read it in chronological order so that it won’t be the last of the Jalna books I do read. Rather like I’m sorry that The Tangled Web would be the last of LMM”s books to read (and I don’t want to finish on that note)!

  5. Karen June 6, 2017 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    I’ve never heard of this author. Interesting how our understanding of civil war has come down to that very simplistic idea thst it’s pro versus anti slavery factions.

    • Buried In Print June 6, 2017 at 4:36 pm - Reply

      She lived in England for a time, too, Karen; the pictures of her home are impressive indeed. Perhaps as a bestselling author, she was something like Danielle Steele of later years?

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings June 6, 2017 at 9:33 am - Reply

    I’m following your posts on these books with interest, as I recall my mother having copies when I was young. Sounds as if some of the elements certainly don’t sit well with modern views, but nevertheless it’s interesting looking at these things as historical documents.

    • Buried In Print June 6, 2017 at 4:34 pm - Reply

      Did she have the same paperbacks? Still interesting, yes. And as much as I am determined to follow the chronology of the Whiteoak story, I’m also aware that most of this volume’s readers would have already been very attached to the characters and perhaps just happy to be back in their company again (as one is, with series one enjoys) regardless of the details of the story.

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