Is it Just?: A Classic Feminist Novel. University of Toronto Press
Come from Afar. Cormorant Books
The Time We All Went Marching. Goose Lane Editions
Considering this review is for Canadian Literature, I (erroneously) expected Gayla Reid’s Come from Afar to be set in Canada and peopled by characters with a deep attachment to Canada. Instead, Reid convincingly tells the story of Australian-raised Clancy Cox, who, as a nurse, functions as a lens through which the geography, politics, communities, and people of Spain are brought to life during the time of the Spanish Civil War. Reid’s use of poetic prose and explicit detail is reminiscent of both Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels. Yet, as she describes the Spanish landscape, and her war-numbed characters face tumultuous experiences with seeming nonchalance, her narrative evokes Hemingway’s Spain. Narrated by Cox’s daughter, the thrust of the narrative follows Cox through her memories of Australia to England, where she becomes romantically entangled with brothers Alec and Marcus. The only Canadian character of note is the late-appearing Douglas Ross, Cox’s eventual lover from British Columbia, and a soldier in the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion (Mac-Paps) on the side of the Spanish Republican Government. Initially, I found the fragmented, non-linear structure of the book hard to engage with. Yet, upon reflection, I see this structure as one of Reid’s strengths. It comes to productively represent the fragmented nature of war, Cox’s conflicted relationships and state of mind, and, most powerfully, the way that her daughter struggles to narrate and fill in the blanks of her mother’s story.
As with Gayla Reid, Arley McNeney tells a story rarely touched on in Canada; yet in McNeney’s case, the story is that of 1930s Depression-era British Columbia. To my knowledge, McNeney’s The Time We All Went Marching is the only novel, other than Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage, to explicitly tackle the subject. The narrative is composed of multiple layers. One layer is the flight of Edie and her son Belly away from her husband Slim. Edie’s journey is a breaking away from an oppressive life under Slim’s alcoholism and life in mining camps. In some sense, the most compelling aspect of the novel is Edie’s emergence from her stifling past life. A second layer is the story of mining. Where classic labour novels of Canada’s West Coast most often focus on forestry and fishing, McNeney expertly details the filthy, dangerous, and impoverished conditions of mining camps. The third layer skilfully follows Slim’s memories of labour organizing and the On-to-Ottawa Trek. This multilayered narrative necessitates a fragmented structure broken up by brief subheadings, yet this does not impede the flow of the story. Indeed, McNeney’s strength is her effortless ability to handle multiple stories at once.
The only unjust aspect of Minnie Smith’s Is it Just?: A Classic Feminist Novel is its title. Instead of the expected dogmatic treatise on feminism, Smith writes an engaging narrative about Mary and Guy Pierce that, despite its overall tragic plot, is often humorous and hopeful. It is this combination that makes her novel so compelling. The narrative focuses on the new home of the Pierces in the fictional location of Ortgeard, the Old English term for Orchard, in the Okanagan region of British Columbia. Originally published in 1911, the novel is a product of its time. It reads like a novel of manners in some places and sometimes seems clichéd. Yet the story it tells of Mary Pierce’s experiences on the family farm should be considered essential reading. Often, farm narratives, such as Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh or parts of Roderick Haig-Brown’s On the Highest Hill, focus on the centrality of men on the family farm and thus locate men at the centre of family and nation building. Smith turns this premise upside down by positioning the slothful, adulterous, and somewhat unintelligent Guy Pierce aside his hard-working wife, her successful friend Miss Todd, and the sympathetic Philip Hastings. In telling her story, Smith uses the actions of Philip to foreground the vast injustice of the law in British Columbia that gave men exclusive authority and control over family wealth and property.
Ultimately, the story of Mary Pierce is tragic as she works herself to sickness on the family farm. Yet it is in describing the strength and decline of Mary juxtaposed with both a sexist society and shifting attitudes that Smith excels.