IN TIMES past, Canada and the United States have each nourished illusions about the other, and I am pleased to see that some of these are now fading away in the mist. The Canadians have nourished the illusion that we in the United States were simply waiting for the most opportune moment to invite Canada to become our Forty-ninth State; in short, that we had friendly designs on them. We for our part have nourished the illusion that Canada was a young country cousin, in the awkward stage and a little short of cash, but in the end he’d make out all right. Well, to my benighted countrymen who still think that way, I feel like saying, “Lord, how Cousin Willie has grown! You ought to go up and see him sometime!”
In a world of tumult Canada’s almost measureless resources provide reassurance and a solid foundation on which the free world can build. More first-grade iron ore than we have in the Mesabi Range, more hydroelectric power than Canada can possibly use for itself, uranium which will soon be processed at the rate of 10,000 tons a day, and in Pembina the biggest oil field on this continent, three times the size of the East Texas field — and the end is not yet.
All this marks Canada as one of the coming nations of the future. I see the change when I go up to New Brunswick to fish. Guides and their sons who used to lake such pride in our river are now driving trucks; the once barren acres of Labrador have become a mining community; the forests of Ontario are being opened up to new highways; oil wells are springing up in the wheat fields; new people are coming in. As a country opens up and the wilderness gives way to bulldozers, the old order changes. How Green Was My Valley, that poignant novel of Wales, has its counterpart in many a Canadian dist rict of today.
I write as an editor, not as an economist. What I want to know is the effect all this prosperity will have on Canadian literature. Good writing is often provoked by change, and the more violent the change the more poignant the writing can be. But it takes time; the opening of our West took fifty years to get into high gear and fifty years before it got into literature. The exciting things that are happening in Canada could have a dynamic effect on her literature; it could shake Canada free of certain old traditions and complacencies.
One theme of which we hear too little is the persistent growth of French Canada, that nation within a nation. Gilbert Parker, a Canadian who settled in London, first began to write about the French Canadians in the days of the vast Seigniories. After him there was silence — silence broken by Louis Hémon with his eloquent Maria Chapdelaine. But that promising young novelist did not live to give us more, and again silence settled in.
What is the impact of the French Canadians upon the Scoteh-Irish heritage of Ontario? There must be some intermarriage; there must be some humor in their contacts, at times even some conflict. It is a sensitive subject of course, but it is also life, and it is time for it to be written. I do not recommend Abie’s Irisk Rose as the best play Broadway has produced in this century, but there are in that comedy laughter, the spirit of reconciliation, and an acceptance of human nature that Canadians would do well to remember.
From the seafaring provinces come too few books about the sea. One of the best of those I have read in recent years is Evelyn M. Richardson’s We Bought an Island, which was awarded Canada’s Governor-General’s Medal and well deserved itHer story of that liny island of Bon Portage; of the care of the lamps, of ihe rescue of mariners washed ashore, of the teaching of the children, of the gunning parties in the fall, of the awakening to a subzero house, of t he heavenly respite of Christmas, and of Laurie’s illness — all this is a homely, touching story charged with affection. Think of the rugged coastline on the North Atlantic; where there are so many fishermen, could there not be another Captains Courageous or another playwright like Synge? The Canadian Navy gave a splendid account of itself in the Second World War. Why is it that from Nova Scotia, from Halifax, from Prince Edward Island, from Newfoundland, there has not yet come a story to compare with The Caine Muting or The Cruel Sea?
THE OPEN HEART, a collection of thirty-six informal, autobiographical essays by Edward Weeks, has recently been published. Subscribers wishing to have autographed copies of the first edition can place their order with their load bookseller, or direct with the Atlantic. Price: $3.50.
We look to Canada as the incorruptible guardian of virgin country. Their care of their forests; their ability to keep their rivers unpolluted and alive; the sanctuaries they provide for the great flocks of wild fowl—these are vital parts of their national responsibility which the Canadians may find it more difficult to maintain in the days of their new wealth. For prosperity has always trampled down natural beauty. And where will Canadians find a more lyrical theme for their poets than in this saga of the North Woods? The fine descriptive writers who paint in prose, men like Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, Farley Mowat, W. O. Mitchell, and Roderick HaigBrown, have found their subjects in the tundra, the wind-swept prairie, the dark forest and the white water. So, I am confident, will Canadian poets of the future.
I mean no disparagement when I say that the Canadian poets thus far— poets like Bliss Carman, John McCrae, Robert W. Service—have written in a compliant. English tradition. It was natural for them to do so. But in the days to come I believe Canada will produce a native poet who will break away from the past as sharply as Walt Whitman did; a poet who will never be mistaken for anything but a Canadian.
Literature always follows after the pioneer and the plow. I realize how long it took us to bring our experiences into print. The prairie schooner started rolling West in 1848, but not until forty years later, in 1888, did Owen Wister find in Wyoming and Montana the source material for The Virginian, that granddaddy of all westerns. The Territory of Nebraska came into the Union in 1867, but it was another fifty years before Willa father could write her finest novels about this same country — O Pioneers and My Antonia. The first oil well was tapped in Oklahoma Territory near Bartlesville in 1897, but it was not until 1930 that Edna Ferber wrote her glowing story of the Oklahoma Territory, Cimarron.
I intend these words of mine to be a spur and a hope, for I know that writing takes a long period of assimilation, and it takes independence. Canada has the makings, and I believe that it has come to a time of ripeness. Fresh hope and expectancy are in the air; here are the power and wealth of an untapped land and the feeling of destiny that goes with it. In Mazo de la Roche Canada has one of the ranking novelists of North America; there is no reason why there cannot be others. So let the new books come—and soon, please, while I am still here to read them.
The fallen sparrows
A critic has said of Rumer Godden that she has “three saving graces: an acute sense of psychological tension and overtone, a coolly notable skill at prose, a peculiar ability in atmosphere.” These are the graces which give distinction to her pretty, fragile novel, An Episode of Sparrows (Viking, $8.50). It is a story of children versus the adult world, and chiefly of one child, Lovejoy Mason, the neglected daughter of a blowzy actress. Lovejoy is put out to board with an impecunious couple who run a tiny restaurant in Cat ford Street, London. She lives on the defensive; neat, with carefully brushed hair, she holds her pride against the world; and since she gets no money from her mother and little front anywhere else, she soon learns to snitch things when people are not looking. One of the things she snitches is a gay packet of cornflower seeds; and having learned how to use them, she plants a hidden garden in the ruins left by one of Göring s bombs. To make it work she needs a trowel, good earth, and a strong ally to help her get it.
The boy she wants is Tip Malone, and the way she vamps him is a caution. With Tip’s help the garden is laid out, the beds outlined with bits of marble from a bombed graveyard. Then come the raids for the good earth, which are carried out successfully after midnight — raids which eventually arouse the Garden Committee, the formidable wealthy spinster Miss Angela Chesney, and the law.
Miss Godden has a most successful way of lighting up in swift, deft, poetic touches the interlocking lives of her characters, and in An Episode of Sparrows she uses her contrasts with skill, showing us now the wealthy, lonely spinsters, Miss Olivia and Miss Angela Chesney, living in the echoes of their big house on the Square; now the boisterousness of the Malone household where Tip is one of nine robust, demanding children; and now the grim piteousness of Lovejoy’s life as she ekes out her days with Mrs. Combie. Her mother’s visits become rarer and more alcoholic and finally cease altogether, and it is small wonder that the little girl should devote herself with such fierce passion to the one thing that is hers, the tiny garden.
It is also Miss Godden’s pleasure to poise her story so that while you read of what is happening in the present, you also have an overtone of what is going to happen in the future. “ ‘But it’s grownups who kiss,’ she was to say to Tip in surprise”; and by repeated use of that was to sag, the novelist conveys the realization that their childhood loyalty was to deepen into something lasting.
I never feel quite sure about the children. Miss Godden writes about these sparrows of the street with insight but also with touches of saccharin and show-off which makes them just a shade less than plausible. I cannot believe that Tip would have been vamped away from his gang so completely, and that Sparkey would have been so soft-headed as to betray his hero in the police court. The book with its highlights is a modern fairy tale, and Lovejoy a Cinderella in reverse.
To her short stories of American life Jessamyn West brings qualities which are rather rare in our fiction of today: buoyancy, refreshment, love outspoken, and courage in defeat. Her use of local color is faultless, and she has the gift of drawing character in a few sure, telling strokes. You enter her people’s lives at a point when something is liable to happen, and in no time flat you are absorbed in what they are doing. Her new collection of short stories, Lore, Death, and the Ladies’ Drill Team (Harcourt, Brace, $3.50), is a book of many moods. The lead story, “A Time of Learning,” goes back to the horse and buekboard days for its quaint and tender pathos, and reading it I am reminded of her first book, The Friendly Persuasion; and the finale, “The Singing Lesson,” is a lyrical embodiment of the one-room schoolhouse today. The title story, “Love, Death, and the Ladies’ Drill Team” — just to say that phrase is to grin — and its neighbor, “The Mysteries of Life in an Orderly Manner,” are both of them high comedy about Emily Cooper who has just been initiated into Pocahontas lodge in a small town in California; and the most lovable of all, “Learn to Say Good-by,” is a family story — brother, sister, and father as they are put on the rack at the Annual Riverbank Baby Beef Contest, a heartbreak so natural that you don’t know how to stop it.
The wilderness wish
Edmond Ware Smith is an editor and author; he does his intensive editing in Detroit for those two colorful periodicals, Ford Times and New England Journeys, and he does his more reflective planning and writing in Maine. Ten years ago he and his wife Mary — they were then grandparents — decided that they would escape to reality, “in a log cabin on a wilderness lake twenty-nine miles from the nearest telephone, and almost forty from a doctor and a grocery store.”and the unmitigated happiness which they have had Down East is set forth in the last third of Ed Smith’s new book, The One-Eyed Poacher and the Maine Woods (Frederick Fell, $3.95). From his woods life he has concocted a series of stories centered upon the escapades of Jeff Coongate, an indestructible bachelor who lives by his wits, by his gun, by his rum, by his avoidance of all game wardens, and with the friendly connivance of his one and only friend, Zack. These men are at once fabulous and true to Mopang County. Independence is their creed, they are generous until pushed, and they resort to violence only when necessary. In their doings Mr. Smith has somehow bottled the feeling, the flavor, the lingo, and the elixir of his forest country.