James Sinclair Ross was one of the most important Canadian writers of the twentieth century. He grew up in the western province of Saskatchewan, where after graduating from high school he worked as a clerk for the Royal Bank in a number of the region’s rural communities. In 1933 he was transferred to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and began to write short stories based on his experiences of life on the Canadian prairie. His two collections of short fiction, The Lamp at Noon, and Other Stories and The Race, and Other Stories, are important landmarks in his literary career. When several of his early stories were accepted by the prestigious literary journal Queen’s Quarterly, Ross decided to try his hand at a novel, and As for Me and My House was published in 1941.
Appearing at a critical period during World War II, and a year before Ross began his 1942-1946 service in the Canadian army, As for Me and My House remained largely unnoticed until it was reissued in paperback in the New Canadian Library series in 1957. It was then hailed as a masterpiece of Canadian literature and has maintained this canonical status despite the comparative lack of enthusiasm with which Ross’s later novels were greeted.
As for Me and My House is narrated from the point of view of Mrs. Philip Bentley, whose husband is the Protestant minister in a small prairie town. An aloof, artistic, and deeply sensitive man, Philip chafes against the restrictions of rural life while trying to honor his commitments to God and family. He manages to create a hell on earth for himself and others. The novel’s most impressive achievement is its balancing of a frank, and yet not unsympathetic, depiction of Philip’s unhappiness with a remarkably complex and assured development of Mrs. Bentley’s personality, which encompasses humor, wry self-knowledge, and stoic acceptance of her situation. As for Me and My House proved to be a rich source of material for late twentieth century critical approaches, such as feminism and queer theory, and it continues to figure prominently in any discussion of the best Canadian fiction.
Unfortunately, the work Ross produced over the following three decades was, with the exception of some of his short stories, much less warmly received. His second and third novels, The Well and Whir of Gold, flirted with the stereotypes of pulp fiction without either transcending or transfiguring them: The Well’s downbeat depiction of a rural sex triangle neglected the psychological origins of its characters’ motivations, while Whir of Gold’s breezy portrait of a love affair between two Montreal lowlifes lacked any sort of narrative interest. Critics have speculated that the Royal Bank’s transfer of Ross to Montreal in 1946, and his consequent detachment from the prairie origins so powerfully depicted in As for Me and My House, are at least partially responsible for the failure of these two novels. That this may well be the case is supported by his partial return to form with Sawbones Memorial, which takes place in rural Saskatchewan on a single evening in 1948. Here the atmosphere of small-town life is realistically but nonetheless affectionately invoked, as the protagonist reflects on how he has adjusted to a milieu in which small compromises and hypocrisies keep the wheels of social life turning. Sawbones Memorial thus seems to represent Ross’s coming to terms with those prairie origins that bedeviled Philip Bentley in As for Me and My House and suggests that his eventual return to Canada was made in a spirit of reconciliation rather than despair.
Ross retired from the Royal Bank in 1968 and, after a three-year sojourn in Athens and two years in Barcelona, settled down in the southern Spanish coastal town of Malaga in 1973. There he resided until the onset of Parkinson’s disease forced his return to Canada in 1980. A further decline in his health required residence in the extended-care ward of Vancouver’s Shaughnessy Hospital, where Ross passed away on February 29, 1996.
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