Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
Ernest Buckler wrote poetic prose about Nova Scotia, particularly of life in its Annapolis Valley. He spent some seventy years there and lived elsewhere for only a few years in his twenties. Having taken his B.A. degree in mathematics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he took an M.A. degree in philosophy at the University of Toronto. He then worked in Toronto for the Manufacturers Life Insurance Company before returning to the Annapolis Valley in 1936, at age twenty-eight. Buckler spent the remainder of his life on a farm near Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, except for his last few years, which he passed in a rest home in Bridgetown. From his small room there he could look out on a mountain looming as significantly as the one in his first and best-known book. He described himself as a farmer who wrote, rather than as a writer who farmed.
Nevertheless, from the later 1930’s he was writing short stories, poems, and articles which were published in Esquire and such Canadian periodicals as The Atlantic Advocate, Saturday Night, and Maclean’s, as well as radio scripts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Some of these short stories prefigure characters and episodes in his novel The Mountain and the Valley, which he said took him six years to write. This Bildungsroman shows the maturing of David Canaan, the sensitive observer amid a farming family whose members also have deep feelings but do not or cannot articulate them. Significant turning points in David’s development and in his relations with his parents, brother, twin sister, and friends are presented in the novel’s six main sections. Buckler’s capacity for combining realistic detail with symbolic import, expressed in rich imagery and luxuriant language, is the outstanding feature of his prose. The prologue and epilogue frame the last day of David’s life, when he finally ascends the mountain and dies while experiencing a vision of the writer’s power to express the unity of life.
Buckler’s second novel, The Cruelest Month, concerns a group of people who assemble in a rural retreat, where they engage in a series of long discussions of self-revelation and self-analysis. These discussions lead to various changes in the characters, further stimulated by the cathartic effect of a threatening forest fire. The novel is self-consciously literary, from the echo of the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) in its title to the names of the protagonist, Paul Creed, and the retreat, Endlaw, which anagrammatically invokes Walden. (Buckler continued to engage in such wordplay in Whirligig.)
His next book, Ox Bells and Fireflies, consists of vignettes about country life, drawing largely on his own experience of a way of life that had passed or was passing. Anecdotal and affectionate, these memoirs make pleasant reading. Nova Scotia: Window on the Sea treats the same material, but it is complemented by many fine photographs by Hans Weber. A collection of Buckler’s short stories, including “Penny in the Dust,” the very moving story of a father and son, was edited by Robert D. Chambers and published under the title The Rebellion of Young David, and Other Stories. Some of these stories have affinities with episodes in Buckler’s novels. The whimsical and witty side of Buckler is seen in full in Whirligig, a collection of satires, humorous sketches, and light verse. In it, for example, Buckler has Ophelia asking advice columnist Ann Landers how to deal with her problems with Hamlet; eavesdropping on rural telephone lines and bawdy epigrams are also discussed.
Not surprisingly from one with professional training in philosophy, Buckler was keenly aware of the problem of subjectivity in perception. In David’s transfiguring experience as he climbs the mountain in the last chapter of The Mountain and the Valley, he realizes that his “inside was nothing but one great white naked eye of self-consciousness, with only its own looking to look at.” As he looked at the frozen landscape, however, “it was as if the outline of the frozen landscape became his consciousness: that inside and outside were not two things, but one.” This recognition leads Buckler constantly to describe phenomena as realistically as possible and to present them metaphorically, in a quest to express a unity which can be apprehended only for a moment. At its best, his richly imaginative prose conveys a sense of what such unity might be.
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