There have been many Christmases in Mazo de la Roche’s novels, too: not quite a hundred, but several.
“Ninety-nine Christmases had been celebrated at Jalna. In its first Christmas Philip and Adeline Whiteoak had been young people and their three children infants. Now all those five were in their graves and the youngest to join in the celebration was Victoria Bell, who arrived in her father’s arms, and the unborn Whiteoak, still curled up in his mother’s womb. Victoria Bell, strong of back and bright of eye, sat upright, enthralled by all she saw. Boughs of spruce and hemlock made every doorway seem the entrance to a bower. Evergreens and holly were entwined on the banister. Mistletoe was not forgotten.”
In a series rooted in tradition (fledgling traditions in Canada based on more established traditions in the Old Country), these holidays were important for family members and readers alike.
But here, in the final volume written for the series, just three years before the author’s death, with only one other volume written afterwards (the second, in story-order, Morning at Jalna), the preoccupation is with time passing.
“Through the open doorway she could see the falling leaves, some dun-coloured, some still green, but mostly varied in scarlet and gold. They were, she thought, as the minutes in the hour, the hours in the day, the days in the year, the years in a lifetime.”
As a conclusion, a celebration of the government’s centenary is suitable.
“This is an occasion. We shall never see its like again. It’s seldom that the same family lives in the same house for a century. Of course that’s not long in the Old Country, but it’s a long while here.”
And there are many recurring themes and motifs for devoted readers:
- the occasional mention of a novel (Alayne leaves a copy of Hardy’s Woodlanders for a family member who is recuperating from an illness, although the comment is not on how much it is enjoyed but on the fact that it was her kind of story not their kind)
- the continuing struggle for outsiders to feel included in the family (like Alayne, for instance)
- intermittent descriptions of the natural world (“At dawn a flockof wild geese flew overhead going southward. Their disturbing cries sounded above the roar of the waves.”)
- the on-again-off-again question of young Adeline’s marrying (“I have enough in my life, as it is. I have you, Daddy, I have Jalna and the family. Why should I want another man hanging about?”)
- the importance of home (“Homecomings, thought Finch, were the very best things in life. Home leavings, a kind of death.”)
- and unhappy marital unions (“‘You do well,” said Christian, ‘to hang on to your freedom. It’s the best thing in life – for a man. It’s different for women. If they can grapple a willing slave, to work for them till he drops, they don’t need freedom.’”)
All of this makes for a satisfying reading experience, bringing this sequence of stories towards a resolution, which manages to hint of a future simultaneously. Ending with a New Year is a terrific idea.
“The New Year was on the way and for it the weather had turned brilliantly but bitterly cold. A gusty wind, straight from the Arctic, blew the fine snow in bright clouds across the crusted surface of the deep snow in the graveyard.”
But even better? I just loved the final New Year’s scene, with Renny and his dogs (being a cat AND dog person). This makes me think that it was a scene designed more with Mazo de la Roche in mind than Renny, for as much as Renny and the other Jalna men love their dogs, Renny loves his horses even more and often heads directly for the stables when times are tough.
Never mind. It’s a lovely scene, into which readers can imagine themselves.
“They came tumbling out – the bulldog, the spaniel and the little Cairn terrier. They were rejoiced to be with him. He had a ham sandwich for each of them and one for himself. Together they ate them under a few pale stars that now appeared, and a brightness of dawn in the east.”
To a sunset over a long series and a sunrise over the next reading project on the horizon–