Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

A major theme of Sawbones Memorial is the relative narrow-mindedness of Upward’s citizens. The town isolates eccentric or foreign elements in its composition, both in the past and in the present. Degrees of censure, rather than understanding, are typical of many of Ross’s anonymous speakers, and hence the town’s name may be construed ironically. The notion is also linked to examples of social affectation in the novel, and to some characters’ attempts to re-create an environment borrowed from elsewhere, such as Ontario.

A related motif is the discrepancy between popular belief and fact, or between appearance and reality. Many of these characters’ anecdotes and judgments have little foundation in reality, and the tendency to embroider along romantic or derogatory lines is strong. In Ross’s Upward, speculation has the force of truth and is often perpetuated as such. Only those few individuals not bound by the conventions of polite society, such as Doc and Harry Hubbs, know what is fact and what is fiction.

The novel also intermittently stresses the rigors of pioneering prairie life, along with those qualities which raised the survivors above their circumstances. The implicit message is that Upward’s contemporary residents fall well short of their forebears in this regard. It is similarly no accident that the economic transactions of this self-contained society, and its grudging generosity, are often topics of discussion.

Doc’s final reflections on Nick’s having had to survive in two languages as a boy is an epitome of the town he is leaving, as is his observation of the gingerbread on his home. It is the unchanging bedrock of human nature, the posing and limitations with which Ross endows many of his conversationalists, to which Doc has ministered. Nick’s imminent arrival may be seen as an evolutionary step for Upward; like his predecessor, he has the qualities of genuine accomplishment to set against the closed minds of some of his former townsmen.