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  • Fiction
  • Lisa Salem-Wiseman

I confess to suffering from chronic indecision when it comes to my leisure reading. Without a prescribed course to follow, I tend to flit nervously from bookshelf to bookshelf, pulling a title and then replacing it, reading the blurbs and endorsements, rushing to my computer to compare reviews, and phoning friends and family for advice. Therefore, one of the most welcome consequences of my acceptance of this assignment was the freedom from the agonizing decision of what to read next. As box after box of books arrived on my doorstep, I learned to anticipate the joy of the unknown, as I discovered new authors, became acquainted with new works by familiar ones, and was repeatedly reminded of the rich and varied state of Can Lit at this time.

I didn't always over-think my reading selections; I spent much of my adolescence wandering the shelves of the public library, snatching books at random and devouring them in single sittings, without first researching the author, polling other readers, or analysing the cover design. In this manner, at the age of twelve, I happened upon Mazo de la Roche's Jalna (1927), the first novel in her sixteen-volume saga of the Whiteoak family of Southern Ontario. Instantly hooked, I quickly made my way through the other fifteen novels, drinking in the passions, secrets, and betrayals of five generations of staunchly traditional Whiteoaks in their big red brick house named after a military station in colonial India. Thus, I was delighted when I eagerly ripped open the first box of books I was sent to review, and discovered, sitting on top, the second volume in the series, Whiteoaks of Jalna, originally published in 1929, and now reissued by XYZ. At the centre of this entertaining novel is Finch Whiteoak, an eighteen-year-old misfit in his own family, which is dominated by his grandmother, the formidable centenarian, Adeline Whiteoak. Living under the same roof are Adeline's three surviving children, and the five sons and lone daughter of her youngest [End Page 13] son, Philip. De la Roche's male characters fit into one of two categories: the dominant, physically robust men with a passion for horses and no patience for sentimentality or weakness, and the sensitive, physically delicate men with a passion for the arts. The conflict between these two sensibilities is explored repeatedly throughout the novel, and to De la Roche's credit, she avoids facile resolutions; however, she does subscribe to a woefully simplistic genetic determinism that ensures that not only physical traits but character traits, personality, and talent, are passed down through the generations. Still, Whiteoaks of Jalna is certainly worthy of a new edition, both as a portrait of the colonial mentality in early twentieth-century Southern Ontario, and as an escape to a world of forbidden passion, consumptive poets, and lusty, red-headed horsemen.

Another voice from Canada's literary past is heard again in the reissue of Marian Engel's Sarah Bastard's Notebook, first published under the title No Clouds of Glory in 1968 and now available in a new edition by Insomniac Press. Sarah Porlock is an academic, or as she puts it, a 'lady PhD,' who studies Australian and Canadian literature in an attempt to locate her identity and her origins. Sarah, who at one point attempts to change her surname legally to 'Bastard,' is undergoing a crisis of both her national and personal identities. As a Canadian, she is one of those who 'operate from bastard territory, disinherited countries and traditions,' and as a woman, she experiences one doomed and unsatisfying affair after another. After disgracing herself in a drunken interview in the Toronto Star, in which she criticizes her department and calls herself 'one of the few intellectuals in Toronto,' she prepares to depart for Europe to find a place where she belongs and to become a great writer. Before leaving, she reminisces about past affairs, an abortion she now regrets, and her relationships with her mother and sisters. Sarah's attempts to negotiate a 'bastard' identity between the poles of Canada and Europe and amid the upheaval of the sexual revolution make for compelling...


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pp. 13-29
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