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!