Roderick L(angmere) Haig-Brown

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Bradford Smith

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Colin Ensley [in On the Highest Hill] grew up in Canada's western lumbering country, hated conflict of any kind, was shy, withdrawn, and preferred the solitude of the mountains and forests to being with people. His teacher, young Mildred Hanson, thought him destined for greatness…. But all her encouragements and all Colin's travels including a trip to Europe made possible by the war failed to develop the greatness she had sensed. Colin remains shy and withdrawn, and when his beloved solitudes are destroyed by logging, he is destroyed too.

A few of the book's other folk—particularly Colin's father—come clearly into focus, but not enough to put springiness into a tale that Colin's own quietness seems to muffle.

Mr. Haig-Brown appears most inspired by the vast and unpeopled Canadian mountain country, which he evidently knows well. The reader who longs for forest solitudes, mountain climbing, and trap lines may find himself living vicariously through Colin Ensley. But Mr. Haig-Brown's skill as a storyteller is not sufficiently strong to arouse the enthusiasm of a reader, even a lover of nature, who expects more than the satisfying of such a special interest in his fiction.

The novel is competent on most counts but not exciting. Why not? I think because Mr. Haig-Brown has not clearly enough understood the central character on whom the whole book depends. We are led at the beginning to expect Colin to grow up to greatness, and we are disappointed. By the tests of our culture he fails because he fails to live with anyone or for anyone but himself. Mr. Haig-Brown seems to have notions of making Colin into a tragic character, but for tragedy one must have great aspirations, great struggles, in order that the ultimate failure may be full of meaning. Colin, despite his gentleness and his physical skill, never comes to grips with the world. His retreat is not even a retreat of one who has tasted the world's rewards and found them not worth striving for. The fixation on his mother is introduced too late and pursued too little to explain Colin and convince the reader.

It is possible that Colin's creator wanted to criticize a society in which such people as Colin must be judged failures. If so, he has failed to persuade, for Colin fails to contribute anything to society, and we have no other scale by which to measure a man's value.

Static rather than dramatic and lacking humor in either the wide or the narrow sense, "On the Highest Hill" is a book which will appeal primarily to readers who are already excited about lumbering, or western Canada, or living alone in virgin forest, or who find in Colin a spirit like their own.

Bradford Smith, "Quiet Chap," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1949, copyright renewed © 1977, by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 22, May 28, 1949, p. 34.

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Ann Schakne


Haydn Pearson