Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650
Much of the action of The Mountain and the Valley takes place within the growing consciousness of the protagonist, who reads novels that have “more to do with the shadow of thought and feelings which actions cast than with the actions themselves.” These cerebral actions reflect David Canaan’s and Ernest Buckler’s own mental processes, their concern with precision in thought and expression, their quest for the right word.
As the novel opens, David stands at his kitchen window and stares at the highway and mountain that represent his life’s goal beyond the village or valley of Entremont, where he has lived for thirty years. Behind him, his elderly grandmother is engaged in hooking together a rug from rags and cast-off garments that once belonged to various members of the Canaan family. While the opening and closing frames (“Prologue” and “Epilogue”) repeat this scene of isolation, the intervening sections of the novel consist of a series of flashbacks revealing incidents from the past within this agricultural community in Nova Scotia.
As a child, David always looked forward to climbing the mountain, but when he begins his ascent with his father and brother, they cannot proceed because of an accident in which two men from their community have been killed. Both drowned men, it turns out, were the fathers of David’s and his brother Chris’s girlfriends, Effie and Charlotte. The ever-sensitive David is drawn closer to Effie in her sorrow, and during the school Christmas play he kisses her onstage, much to her surprise and to the heckling of some of the local members of the audience. An embarrassed David flees the auditorium and suffers his humiliation in isolation away from the rest of his family and community. While most of the other characters engage in farm work, David excels at school; he examines every shade of meaning in their manual dexterity, but he can never fully participate in their lives.
While Chris and Charlotte easily experience sex, David’s sexual initiation with Effie at the age of fourteen results in a sense of loss when they are discovered by some boys. Later, after David repeats the act with her in a damp field although she has a cold, she dies from leukemia, and David carries the burden of guilt with him for the rest of his life. At this same time in his life, he forms a friendship with Toby Richmond from Halifax, but once again this relationship ends in a kind of defeat when Toby marries Anna and they leave the region. David himself seems determined to depart from this parochial milieu after a disagreement with his father over moving rocks and cutting logs, but he turns back. He again suffers during farm work when his father and brother slaughter pigs: A nail rips along the back of his hand and he falls from a scaffold. His life is further scarred with the death of his parents and the departure of Chris.
The novel comes full circle as David stands at his window and his grandmother hooks together the rug of memory, knitting together the past. David leaves the farm and heads up the mountain in an almost mystical union with nature. As he approaches the summit, all the voices of the past rush in upon him, and he realizes that he wants to be the best writer in the whole world even as at the beginning of the novel he wanted to be the greatest general. Having reached his Promised Land, David Canaan dies with the snow covering him. “A partridge rose in the grey-laden air. Its heavy body moved straight upward for a minute, exactly. But David did not see that.” David’s greatest insight, the climax of the story, comes at the moment of his death when he is finally able to find the exact word to fuse language, vision, and action.