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.