Mazo de la Roche’s Whiteoak Heritage (1940)

How comforting it must have been, with WWII well underway, for Mazo de la Roche to bring home her characters safely, from the front of WWI.

The Whiteoak men return and bring with them a fellow serviceman, who takes a position in their household and, just like that, wartime is a thing of the past.

Renny’s return, in particular, however causes considerable disruption, as Eden observes to Mrs. Stroud, a widow who lives nearby.

“In that time he has had words with Grandmother about Wakefield. He’s had words with my aunt over this man Wragge he’s brought home with him. Aunt Augusta says it’s outrageous that such a fellow should act as butler in her father’s house. She says her father would turn over in his grave if he could see him handing about the soup.”

Grandmother is just as stalwart a presence in this book. “I’m a real old pioneer, I am,” she says, keen to distinguish between herself and those settlers who have maintained stronger ties with Britain.

Adeline feels a tremendous connection with this “new” land (firmly locating herself amongst those who have created this great nation with typical disregard for the land’s previous inhabitants and their traditions and connections).

Quite literally, in fact. “The feel of the earth under her foot was good. She took a long look at her foot before replacing it on the stool. She turned it this way and that, marvelling how foot and ankle had kept their contours, as though still ready to run or dance. This was the same foot that had sped across the daisied grass in County Meath, supple and swift.”

But this passage is significant, too, for her continued awareness of growing older. Not only for the persistent memories of Ireland, but for her memories of youth.

Fortunately, however, she continues to take great pleasure in life.

Indeed, she counts her blessings overtly, as though to reassure readers even more so than members of her own family, who likely take her presence and determined pleasure-taking for granted.

“She was not one of those old people who had to subsist on pap foods. She could eat the highly seasoned curry for which she had acquired a taste in India; she could eat English plum pudding with brandy sauce, or a chocolate éclair, and feel so little the worse for it that she always considered the game had been well worth the candle.”

Readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer stories, who adored the talk of Almanzo’s mother’s pancakes, and Caroline’s breads and sweets, will recognize the sense of luxury associated with spreads of whole foods, sumptuous and desirable.

“Here was spread just the lavish sort of tea she most enjoyed: chicken, cucumber, and fish paste sandwiches. Hot buttered crumpets with honey. Three cakes — a coconut layer cake, a dark rich devil cake, and a white iced cake crowned with halved walnuts. There was a dish of fresh bonbons. She stretched out a greedy, wrinkled hand, took one of these last and popped it into her mouth. The centre was marzipan and it stuck firmly on her upper plate. She did not mind this but stood, leaning on her stick, her brown eyes goggling a little, while she savoured the sweetness.”

Mostly, however, Adeline’s pleasures are simpler.

“She was propped up with pillows and had bed table across her knees on which she had laid out the cards for her favourite form of Patience. Her parrot, Boney was in his cage for it was one of his irritable days and he had, soon after breakfast, bitten Ernest. Now he was systematically throwing the seeds out of his seed-cup with a sidewise jerk of his beak, in search for a particular variety which he sometimes had as a treat. Each time he threw out a portion, he cast a piercing glance over the bottom of the cage and muttered an imprecation in Hindustani.”

Beginning to read the series with The Building of Jalna, it’s tempting to put the ideas of feminity and womanhood at the feet of Mazo de la Roche’s Adeline, as the matriarch.

But the first volume of the series was written in 1927 and is actually the sixth book in the narrative and Mazo de la Roche wrote five other books after that, all furthering the narrative in chronological order before going back in time and writing four others before writing this one.

Quite possibly, the woman at the heart of the story is yet to be introduced. But perhaps this is more a question of lineage than individual identity.

When Renny finally meets with the neighbouring Mrs. Stroud who received Eden’s report after Renny’s return, tempers flare and accusations are made.

“He laughed. ‘Then you’re not a woman!’
‘Can you say that, with such a grandmother, aunt and sister as you have!’
‘All three of them are unreasonable.’”

Whereupon Renny, too, counts himself as a Whiteoak, as unreasonable as all those who have come before.

2017-10-19T14:56:41+00:00

6 Comments

  1. JacquiWine October 30, 2017 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    I’m a little ashamed to say that I’d never heard of this author until you began writing about her work. So, thank you for these introductions – she does sound worthy of further exploration.

    • Buried In Print October 30, 2017 at 3:44 pm - Reply

      I was trying to think of a woman on the American scene whose work might be comparable, but I keep coming back to Edna Ferber, largely because of her popularity and mass appeal. But it’s not a perfect comparison in other respects.

  2. heavenali October 17, 2017 at 11:40 am - Reply

    I have heard of the Jalna books but I must admit to not knowing very much about them. So thanks for this review which has given me a lovely flavour.

    • Buried In Print October 19, 2017 at 3:00 pm - Reply

      They are no longer well known in Canada either, which is a little strange, as they were such a phenomenon. In the ’70s, there was even a TV series, too, which the older women in my family watched as loyally as they watched the BBC television productions (those which were broadcast overseas, on public television networks). These books are not as overtly feminist as some of the Canadian works which Virago picked up, but they are not too too too far off that mark either.

  3. Café Society October 17, 2017 at 9:14 am - Reply

    Oh my goodness! The memories. I be not read any of this series but fifty years ago, when we were fifteen or so I had a friend who was completely enthralled by them and worked her way from beginning to end. I haven’t thought about them in all that time. Maybe now I should follow Marion’s advice and read them for myself.

    • Buried In Print October 19, 2017 at 2:53 pm - Reply

      I can imagine, if I was reading them in my teens then, that I would have loved Pheasant’s character, especially her admiration of bolder and more independent women (than the past generations had been). It’s hard to picture, now, just how popular the books were. How successful and remarkable she was, as an author, too. Really, she was quite amazing, and Jalna was such a phenomenon! I wonder if your friend would enjoy them as an older woman, rereading, or whether they would simply have that nostalgic fondness we sometimes have for the books we read when we were teens.

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