Oprah Bookclub, 1954

If Oprah had had a bookclub in 1954, she would have chosen Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel.

And I say this because, despite the ongoing debate amongst booklovers about the significance of Oprah’s Bookclub, she has featured many of my favourite writers (e.g. Jane Hamilton, Ursula Hegi, Rohinton Mistry, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Isabel Allende, Carson McCullers).

Whether or not you personally back her efforts, she has picked some amazing authors and found countless new readers for deserving books.

And I’m certain that, had she been making those efforts in 1954, she would have waved Ethel Wilson’s novel in front of millions.

I’ve recently read two of Ethel Wilson’s earlier works, Hetty Dorval and The Innocent Traveller, as well, but although I enjoyed them very much (and although I still hold that The Innocent Traveller would be a perfect match for Persephone‘s reprint series), Swamp Angel stands alone. As does its heroine, Maggie.

It is, in many ways the story of a woman’s self-discovery, but although there are elements that you might identify as conventional in that regard, there are others that are surprising. (As Mrs. Severance tells Maggie, “Everything happens again and it’s never the same.”)

And, speaking of surprises, there are several in this novel, so I’m going to watch what I say. In fact, I’ll start with a quote from George Bowering.

(Have I mentioned lately, how much I love the New Canadian Library‘s practice of having Afterwords rather than Prefaces, so that you’re not tempted to read them before the novel and end up spoiling the discovery of the novel itself?)

Swamp Angel is a short novel and a highly complex one. On re-reading it we are rewarded with the assurance that we will never be able to tell anyone what it is all about. Wilson’s feigned simplicity is the most complicated trick of all. For a careful reader the text is as difficult as this world our home.”

I agree. And even though on re-reading it myself, there are some things that I could pull out and tell you, if someone else had pulled out those elements and told me about them, I don’t think I’d have found them that intriguing.

For instance, if someone had told me Maggie is a fly-fisherwoman, I surely would have let this book settle to the bottom of my TBR pile, but in the context of this novel, her ability is not only understandable but admirable.

Even the epigraph which explains one meaning of the term “Swamp Angel” wouldn’t have caught my attention. But rediscovering the small, nickel-plated revolver with its pearl handle, being spun in the hands of an old woman is an image I won’t soon forget.

“Mrs. Severance twirled the Swamp Angel as if absentmindedly, then like a juggler she tossed it spinning in the air, caught it with her little hand, tossed it again, higher, again, higher, spinning, spinning. It was a dainty easy practiced piece of work, the big woman with the Swamp Angel.”

Maybe even out of context, you’ll find this a little interesting but, trust me, if you could see the rest of the scene, see the other people who are nearby and understand the effect that seeing this gun spin in this old woman’s hands has on them, understand what led them to surround Mrs. Severance that night in the first place, you would be even more interested (although I think that would have happened before page 30 anyhow).

Even within a few pages, Maggie took hold of me unexpectedly. Just as she did Mr. Spencer. “[He] now regarded the young woman with some respect. She was unpretentious. Her gray eyes, rimmed with dark lashes, were wide set and tranquil and her features were agreeably irregular. She was not beautiful; she was not plain. Yes, perhaps she was beautiful.” (8)

You’ll see that the language is straight-forward and I could see some readers complaining that it’s repetitive in some instances (as with all that tossing and spinning) but, for me, her prose has a rhythmic quality, as though  she read it aloud whilst composing, and I love the way the sentences ebb and flow and the way her descriptive passages bring British Columbia to life.

“In the daytime you will see that some of these motor hotels are set in old orchards, and among the rows of neat homogeneous dwellings stand old cherry trees, sprawling and frothing with white blossoms in the spring.”

It was also fun to see Lytton appear in this novel as it had in Hetty Dorval, which finally inspired me to see if this town actually exists and it most certainly does.

“People tell me there’s two great rivers in Europe act like that but I’ll bet they’re no prettier than the Thompson and the Fraser flowing in together….I’ll show you where when we get to Lytton,” says one character travelling on a bus through the province.

But that’s all I can say without spoiling Swamp Angel for future readers. I am juggling too many books, too many challenges (this one counts for both the Canadian Book Challenge 3 and the What’s in a Name Challenge), and I am perpetually Buried In Print, so whether I should take time to re-read this novel was something to consider, but now I’m so glad that I did.

What about you: are you tempted to read Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel?



  1. […] The basis for the argument for Maggie Lloyd’s bravery (and other laudable qualities) comes much later in Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel. But nobody can tell this tale better than Ethel Wilson and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you. All I can say is that it’s well worth reading if you have a propensity for literary heroines. (And, yes, I know: I’ve said this before.) […]

  2. Kate May 3, 2010 at 6:49 pm - Reply

    I read (and studied) this book way back in high school. I loved it then, and have re-read it since. But I must confess that I have not read anything else by Ethel Wilson. It is interesting – I think that I was the only student in our whole class (average age 18) who actually liked this book; and I know that neither of my sisters liked it when it was their turn to study it. I am thinking that you would generally have to be a bit older than 18 to appreciate it.

    • Buried In Print May 4, 2010 at 8:17 am - Reply

      I think that’s probably true, Kate: I was likely the only person in my class who loved Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel too (the class would have been 17-18 on average). But, selfishly, I’m really glad it was on the curriculum because it might have taken me ages to “discover” Laurence’s works otherwise and she is a favourite of mine. If you really liked Swamp Angel, you might enjoy Love and Salt Water too.

  3. Buried In Print April 19, 2010 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Thanks Wandra, Tricia, Kat and Melwyk. I hope if you read (or, re-read, Melwyk) Swamp Angel, that you enjoy it.

    I’m sure some people bought but didn’t read the Oprah books, but I’m sure lots of people did read them too. I think I’d point people to The Innocent Traveller first, too, (and it’s really interesting to read some of Stouk’s biography of her to see how many of those personalities — Topaz, too — were rooted in reality), but I’d be stuck (not having read Equations of Love yet though) between that and this one as my favourite.

  4. Melwyk April 17, 2010 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    This is actually my least favourite of Ethel Wilson’s books. I love her short stories to excess, and The Innocent Traveller is a favourite of mine. Perhaps I should give this one a reread though, and see if it speaks to me more now than the first time I read it. You’ve pointed out some highlights I am now curious to look at again.

  5. […] looking forward to Ethel Wilson’s 1956 novel, Love and Salt Water, because I loved re-reading Swamp Angel and found many delightful bits in her short stories this month as […]

  6. Kat March 26, 2010 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    I’m certainly willing to read any Ethel Wilson now that you’ve written about it! I have a copy of Hetty Dorval (not the Persephone, though) and now will actually read it. Swamp Angel sounds terrific, but I have to put a cap on my spending for at least a month.

    And I love the Oprah Book Club! Yes, she chooses issue-oriented novels, the complaint of many, but often they are top-of-the-line, as you point out, and I have a feeling she really likes to read. I was very pleased when she started the club–what a good idea!– and non-readers as well as readers started reading her books. I met someone who was on the Book Club on TV! A compulsive reader who somehow fit the profile they wanted (she sent a letter). I’ve fallen behind lately on her books (well, for five or six years), but I understand the book of short stories she chose was a finalist for an award.

    Some hate the whole idea of the Book Club and say people bought but didn’t read the books. It seemed a very odd and snobbish belief of readers!

  7. Tricia March 26, 2010 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    Sounds intriguing – I would definitley give it a try.

  8. Wanda March 26, 2010 at 11:02 am - Reply

    Short, complex, I like both keywords — and
    after reading your review yes, I’m tempted!

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