Reading for #1944Club: Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven

In 1944, Canada was dealing with the Conscription Crisis, a military and political crisis following the forced military service for men in Canada during WWII. The Prime Minister was William Lyon Mackenzie King and King George VI was on the English throne. Tommy Douglas, leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, was elected premier of Saskatchewan, the HMCS Clayoquot was sunk off the coast of Halifax by a German U-boat, and the Montreal Canadiens won their fifth Stanley Cup. Poet bpNichol and songwriter Anna McGarrigle were born, and biographer John Wesley Dafoe and writer Stephen Leacock died.

Also in 1944, Gwethalyn Graham published her controversial novel, Earth and High Heaven, the first Canadian book to reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

Born and raised in Toronto, she eloped with the son of her business partner and, two years later, divorced and moved to Montreal, where Earth and High Heaven is set.

The city is an appropriate setting, with even more class and social divisiveness than other prominent Canadian cities, because of the additional tensions existing between the Catholics and the Protestants, and the French and the English segments of the population.

What the characters experience of the city is reflective of their positions in it. In Erica’s experience, for instance, she is viewing from a position of wealth and privilege, literally looking down on the rest of the city.

“They were winding their way up through Westmount, past the big houses set in their own gardens which sloped steeply down to the retainer wall running along the inner edge of the pavement. A little more of Montreal became visible with each hair pin turn in the road until at last they reached the street where the Drakes lived and the whole city lay spread out in the sunlight.”

Erica has inherited her privilege from her father, Charles; she is twenty-eight years old and working as a journalist, and has always enjoyed a good relationship with Charles. He is liberal-minded in many ways, and he affords his daughter more opportunities than many fathers would have done, but his prejudice against Marc Reiser is glaring from the beginning. A young Protestant woman and a young Jewish man are not a common match, not an acceptable one either, not to the family patriarch, not to other members of his class.

Erica is forthright and ambitious, intelligent and determined. But she is also quick to recognize a limitation, as with her friend René. Certain conversations with René were “useless” because she would never be able to alter his prejudices or change his opinions. He never gave her a fair hearing, because although he probably had more respect for her as a rational being than for most of the women he knew, he was incapable of regarding any woman as primarily rational. They were first and foremost simply women with reason a long way in the rear.”

And faced with this base prejudice, Erica and Marc undertake to also challenge broader social conventions. In a world in which she is viewed as primarily irrational and he is viewed as a second-class citizen (unable to rent an apartment he desires or attend an institution he admires), the two confront this injustice while simultaneously establishing and developing a relationship.

Originally the novel was to be made into a film, which was to star Katherine Hepburn, but it was still in development when “Gentleman’s Agreement” came out and that option expired. So readers cannot look to a film to extend the experience of reading this novel.

The author did, however, write another novel (Swiss Sonata, published in 1938) and a book of non-fiction called Dear Enemies (about French-English relations in Canada). She also wrote a stageplay (“Trouble at Weti”) and radio-plays for CBC. And those seeking more biographical information can check out Barbara Meadowcroft’s 2008 biography, Gwethalyn Graham (1913-65): a Liberated Woman in a Conventional Age, part of a series from Women’s Press in Canada.

This is a novel I’ve longed to read for years, since I first examined a list of the early winners of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in English and realized that she won twice, for each of her two novels.

The book has landed firmly in my stack this week, however, thanks to the #1944Club event, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Thanks for hosting, you two!

2018-10-17T17:22:46+00:00

11 Comments

  1. Simon T October 22, 2018 at 3:49 am - Reply

    Great review! I know how much Claire from The Captive Reader loves this, and this is further reason to get my own copy. Inevitable, really!

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 3:50 pm - Reply

      Maybe your next trip to Canada will be to Montreal? Nah, Erica actually says that it’s better in Toronto. Besides you haven’t seen all the old bookstores here yet! (But I do love Montreal, actually. And, also, now I am following Claire’s blog. Thanks.)

  2. […] She Reads Novels Buried in Print […]

  3. heavenali October 19, 2018 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    So glad you enjoyed this, I think it is a superb novel. Erica’s horror and deep sadness at her father’s reaction to Marc is wonderfully felt, the interplay between the characters is beautiful .

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 3:31 pm - Reply

      I appreciated, too, how neither parent approved, but they approached the matter differently with Erica, partly because they had different kinds of relationships with her (she being so close to her father) and partly because they were accustomed to dealing with conflict differently. It also seemed very realistic to me that Erica was not only dealing with her sadness about her father’s closed-mindedness but her realization that there had been less acceptance between her and her parents than she noticed previously, so she had to look back on her past differently too.

      “They knew I didn’t agree with them about a lot of things, of course, but they didn’t seem to mind and its taken me all this time to discover that the only reason they didn’t mind was because they thought it was just so much talk and so naturally it didn’t matter.”

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 3:31 pm - Reply

      Edited to add a link to Ali’s review.

  4. Helen October 19, 2018 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    I enjoyed this book too, as you know. I loved the characters and the way Gwethalyn Graham wrote about the relationships between them. It would have made an interesting film, so it’s a shame it never happened.

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 3:26 pm - Reply

      I’d’ve loved to see a film as well. The dialogue actually seems script-ready at times. I also really loved the relationship between the two sisters and the two brothers. Perhaps those relationships seemed even more ‘real’ than the two main characters, because they gave readers other perspectives on the couple.

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 3:26 pm - Reply

      Also, adding a link here to Helen’s review.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings October 19, 2018 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Very welcome, and thank you for joining in! This one is getting a lot of love, so I shall obviously have to keep an eye out for it! 😀

    • Buried In Print October 19, 2018 at 3:14 pm - Reply

      Well, it’s hard to resist a pretty Persephone package in combination with a gutsy heroine! (Even though my edition only possesses one of those qualities.)

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