Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5789
Despite his relatively small output and rather limited fictional world, Sinclair Ross succeeded in universalizing the human concerns of his novels. Drought, poverty, and the hardship and anxiety they cause are universal concerns, but life on the Canadian prairies in the 1930’s and 1940’s becomes in Ross’s works a paradigm...
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- Critical Essays
Despite his relatively small output and rather limited fictional world, Sinclair Ross succeeded in universalizing the human concerns of his novels. Drought, poverty, and the hardship and anxiety they cause are universal concerns, but life on the Canadian prairies in the 1930’s and 1940’s becomes in Ross’s works a paradigm of the human condition everywhere. Moreover, at its most intense Ross’s fiction evokes a characteristic mood, a synthesis of human isolation, claustrophobia, and threatening nature that serves as his trademark, making his writing as distinctive and recognizable as that of his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
As Ross once noted, “Most writers have only one or two themes that they constantly develop in their work.” Ross, in contrast, has three: communication, or more often the failure of communication, in human relationships; the struggle to find an authentic self and live a fulfilled existence; and humankind’s struggle against the land and the elements. In Ross’s novels, man-woman relationships, in particular, are vitiated by a failure to communicate, or even a failure to attempt communication. In As for Me and My House, the Bentleys are isolated from each other by their emotional and psychological shortcomings. In The Well, a generation gap of attitudes and values separates the old farmer, Larson, and his young wife, Sylvia. In Whir of Gold, Sonny McAlpine’s emotional immaturity and prairie Calvinist attitudes destroy his chances of happiness with the good-hearted prostitute Madelaine. Among the prairie homesteaders, poverty, climate, physical toil, pessimism about the future, and a repressive Puritan morality are hardly conducive to romance.
Writing about women in Canadian and American prairie fiction, the novelist Robert Kroetsch asks, “How do you establish any sort of close relationship in a landscape—in a physical situation—whose primary characteristic is distance?” Thwarted in their attempts at closeness, Ross’s women become domineering and manipulative (Mrs. Bentley), sexually aggressive (Sylvia), or maternal and possessive (Madelaine). Love becomes a power struggle. The women’s superior social and intellectual backgrounds, or their emotional needs, cause them to treat their men as sons rather than as lovers. As for the men in Ross’s novels, Oedipal overtones—their failure in heterosexual love, their need for mothering women, the lack of adequate father figures in their youth, for example—are present in the principal male characters and may conceal a homosexuality that Ross does not overtly confront until Sawbones Memorial. Indeed, Ross’s men seem to have better rapport with animals than with other people, and the best-written passages in his later novels are those involving animals, especially horses. Horses serve as companions or as daring symbols of sexuality, independence, and the imaginative life.
For the artist, a recurrent figure in Ross’s world of outsiders and misfits, the failure of communication is especially acute. The aspirations of the artist find little nourishment in prairie society, or—by implication—in Canada and North America as a whole. The failure of Ross’s struggling painters and musicians to communicate their vision is symptomatic of the larger failure of the national imagination. In As for Me and My House, Philip Bentley’s paintings are as stillborn as his first child. In Whir of Gold, Sonny McAlpine’s musical ambition is blunted by prairie attitudes that burden him even in distant Montreal. In this respect, Sonny, like Philip, is a typical Canadian literaryprotagonist, incapable of great art or memorable literary heroism on account of the domination of a persistent puritanism. The failed artist as modern literary hero is a familiar type, best exemplified perhaps by James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, but when the Canadian protagonist discovers he or she is in disagreement with the dictates of the system, whether religious, social, or other, a peculiar Calvinist-Puritan conditioning causes the individual to blame him- or herself, internalizing the tension and engaging in painful and destructive soul-searching in an attempt to discover personal deficiencies.
Philip Bentley’s self-absorption and his unfinished pictures of headless figures and the false fronts of the town are a measure of the frustration of his search for meaning and significance in life. In this respect, Philip and the other artist-protagonists in Ross’s fiction represent humankind’s search in modern North America for an authentic existence, either by coming to terms with a repressive social, cultural, and natural environment (the Canadian way) or by overthrowing it entirely (formerly the American way). Ross’s characters are locked into themselves and unable to find any means of escape. This in turn leads to a withholding of emotion and strained relationships devoid of real communication. Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye called the trap preventing self-realization in Canada the “garrison mentality,” the tendency of frontier societies to barricade themselves psychologically and culturally against the alien wilderness behind the ordered “civilized” propriety of a transported Eastern culture rather than adapt to the new environment. The superficial Christianity that Bentley practices, for example, is inadequate to reconcile human beings with nature on the prairie; there are hints in As for Me and My House that a natural, pastoral paganism would be more helpful. Frozen in its own negations and reinforced in the Depression by an overwhelming sense of failure, Christianity engenders guilt and self-destructive behavior (in the turning to crime of the protagonists of Whir of Gold and The Well, for example) rather than encouraging self-realizing ambition, individualism, and instinct.
Indeed, by the time Ross came to write The Well and Whir of Gold, he felt that the real wilderness is in the human chaos of the modern city. The true prairie, as opposed to the garrison, is regenerative; it is the way to redemption and self-realization. Completely alienated from society, the criminal is the ultimate outsider, but in The Well, Chris Rowe, the small-time Montreal thug hiding out on a prairie farm, does find regeneration in nature, the courage to face punishment for his crimes, and probably an authentic existence within the community of prairie dwellers. Whereas in The Well a life in nature regenerates a young criminal, in Whir of Gold, Sonny McAlpine’s experience in the city almost destroys him. The keys to his survival are his nostalgic recollections of his prairie upbringing, especially those involving his horse, which serve as an anchor of self and identity amid the disorientation and venality of Montreal.
Ross’s third major theme, humankind’s struggle with the land and the elements, probably derives from experience and observation as well as from his reading of the literary naturalists, especially Thomas Hardy. Moods are known to be affected by climate and geography, but on the prairies of Ross’s novels, as on Hardy’s moors, characters and their relationships seem to be deterministically influenced by wind, heat, drought, dust, rain, snow, and ice. The psychological and emotional toll these elements exact leads characters to regard nature as part of an indifferent, even hostile universe. Ross was also, however, the first of the Canadian prairie realists to go beyond this naturalistic treatment of the landscape; his characters are psychologically conditioned by the prairie, but they also project their own subjectivity onto the external environment. In effect, they interact with it, so that not only is character determined by external environment, but environment also becomes an extension of the mind. Its challenge can test and strengthen the endurance of those who survive, uniting them in the common struggle against it; it can be a regenerative sanctuary for an urban fugitive such as Chris Rowe.
The defeated ones find little in religion to sustain the human spirit, at least the version of it proffered by prairie Christianity. One of Philip Bentley’s redeeming qualities is precisely that he cannot believe in deliverance through a faith reduced to hollow forms and meaningless rituals that hypocritically ignore the Christian virtues of charity and compassion. In a deeper sense, however, Ross is a religious writer in that the underlying concern of his fiction is humankind’s struggle “with the implacable blunderings of Nature” in an indifferent universe. In the face of this daunting situation, Ross holds up rationalists and humanists, such as Mrs. Bentley and Paul Kirby in As for Me and My House and Doc Hunter in Sawbones Memorial, who stake their faith on human courage, reason, and idealism, “all the things that really are humanity,” in Mrs. Bentley’s words. Others, such as Sonny McAlpine and old Larson, find solace in the illusory world of the past, a youthful world of happiness and material and spiritual well-being, unthreatened by darker realities. If Ross’s characters are escapist-dreamers, however, their dreams must sometimes be blown away, like the false fronts of Main Street in a windstorm, to reveal the reality in which a new, authentic self can be forged.
As for Me and My House
As a youth in Saskatchewan, Ross was encouraged by a United Church minister to enter the ministry rather than banking. Already skeptical about organized religion, although he taught Sunday school and played the organ in church, Ross “was not tempted in the least. But I began to think, ’Suppose I did, or someone else did who did not really believe in it, and felt trapped in the ministry.’ That was the origin of As for Me and My House.” Ross has revealed also that he once knew a minister whose plight resembled Philip Bentley’s. Mrs. Bentley appears to have been based, at least in part, on Ross’s mother, to judge by his recollections of her.
Like Ross’s next two novels, As for Me and My House is the story of an inner quest for the authentic self. It thus belongs to a literary genre that includes works as diverse as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). It is also kindred to a large number of Canadian works in which the search for personal and national identity is a dominant theme. Ross’s ironic vision is nowhere better illustrated than in the fact that Bentley’s search for an authentic self compels him to reject the church’s way, which is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Finally, he tears down the facade of his old self, but the new, authentic self must be forged in the secular, humanist crucible of art rather than in the empty chalice of the church. Sandra Djwa’s perception of the “latter-day Puritanism of the psychological search for self,” in a world where “Christianity has become a meaningless form without spirit, where people must learn to reject the false gods without before it is possible to find the true God within and an authentic sense of direction,” suggests the continuing contemporaneity of the book, if one thinks of the self-realization movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
As for Me and My House is a taut, intense, and bitter record of repressed, static lives in rural Saskatchewan in the 1930’s. It deals with the Bentleys’ year in Horizon, the fourth small-town prairie residence in twelve years for the thirty-five-year-old minister and his wife. Told in journal form by Mrs. Bentley, the book is an indictment of puritanical moral attitudes and cultural sterility. It is also bleakly pessimistic about the possibility of communication in human relationships, especially marriage. Outsiders by virtue of their position in the community and their parishioners’ awareness that to them Horizon is merely a way station in a stultifying series of prairie pastorates, the Bentleys are estranged from the townsfolk as well as from each other. With no real vocation as a minister of the Gospel, Bentley wants to believe he has some talent as a painter, but his daubing shows little evidence of this, mainly because his creativity is frozen by self-lacerating guilt arising from his clerical charade.
Embittered by his failure as a minister and twelve years of entrapment in drought and depression-ridden prairie towns, Philip seeks consolation through an adopted son whose natural father had abandoned him, but—in keeping with the melancholy pattern of discontinuity between the generations in Ross’s works—societal pressure (the boy’s Catholicism is unacceptable, as is his parental background) forces the Bentleys to give up their son. Philip lacks a natural father as well as a son. Having sired Philip illegitimately, his father died before he was born; Philip’s own child was stillborn. Despite, or on account of, the scorn to which his illegitimacy subjected him, Philip followed his father’s path, first into the ministry and then into art. He saw the church’s offer of an education in return for a commitment to the ministry as a means of escaping humiliation, but he had planned to leave it quickly for a painting career. He is prevented from doing so by an inanition of the soul that arises from marital responsibilities, economic conditions, and guilt over abandoning his flock. Adultery seems briefly to offer a way out for Philip, but Mrs. Bentley soon learns of it, and the other woman dies giving birth to Philip’s child. In what can be interpreted as a hopeful conclusion, however, the Bentleys adopt this child, and, with the money Mrs. Bentley has saved, they leave Horizon for a city life as owners of a used-book store. Their hope is that running the store will allow Philip time to pursue his painting without the crippling emotional and psychological burdens of the past.
The essence of Ross’s achievement in As for Me and My House lies in the rich complexity of character and theme realized through brilliant manipulation of point of view and language. For almost three decades after the book’s publication, it was assumed that Mrs. Bentley’s reporting was accurate and that her point of view was reliable. Certainly, if the reader accepts the point of view of her journal, then the town and her husband both fail her. She is the long-suffering, supportive wife, the superior woman languishing in a cultural and domestic wasteland. As late as 1957, in his introduction to the New Canadian Library edition of the book, Roy Daniells called her “pure gold and wholly credible.” If the reader accepts Ross’s implicit invitation to read between the lines, however, Mrs. Bentley’s self-indulgent meanness, her lonely pride, and her manipulation of Philip to satisfy her own ego are the reasons for her defeat and, to some extent, her husband’s.
The many inconsistencies and outright contradictions in Mrs. Bentley’s journal suggest that her single perspective is actually a source of considerable ambiguity in the book and of ambivalence on the reader’s part. Several questions are raised: How accurate are her perceptions and assessments of her husband and the townspeople? How accurate are her perceptions of her own behavior and attitudes? Is the fact that the reader never learns her first name a clue to how nonrevealing her journal is? In 1969, William H. New argued that the reader’s ambivalence toward Mrs. Bentley arises not so much from uncertainty about her credibility as from Ross’s ironically pitting the reader’s viewpoint against hers in such a way that the reader comes to appreciate the depth and complexity of the narrator’s situation as well as Ross’s control of his material. Through ironic use of symbols such as lamps, moths, Philip’s study door, railroad tracks, and the false fronts of Horizon’s main street, and through imagery involving gardens, horses, heat, dust, rain, snow, and the prairie itself, Ross reveals Mrs. Bentley’s journal to be an exercise in self-deception and evasiveness. In the final analysis, this book about communication and its failure informs the reader of the impossibility of taking sides, despite the human inclination to do so.
When The Well was published in 1958, Ross had been living in Montreal for twelve years. The new urban environment awakened his interest in the motivations of the criminal mind, and remoteness from the prairie prompted a realization of its regenerative potential. In As for Me and My House, Philip Bentley leaves the prairie to seek an authentic self in the city; in The Well, Chris Rowe flees the city and achieves authentic selfhood through his moral regeneration on the prairie. Apart from this about-face, the two novels bear a close kinship. The setting of The Well is once more rural Saskatchewan; once more the characters fail to communicate and are claustrophobically trapped by the past as well as the present; once more they are psychologically conditioned by the prairie environment while projecting their own subjectivity onto it; and once more there is discontinuity between the generations.
The Well is a story of three barren misfits whose lives converge in the little prairie community of Campkin in the 1940’s. The central character, Chris Rowe, is a fatherless twenty-year-old criminal from Montreal whose petty larcenies have culminated in the shooting of an intended robbery victim whose fate the novel leaves in doubt. Handsome, tough, and arrogant, Chris nevertheless has a potentially sensitive, gentle, nature that has been brutalized by his urban upbringing. Fleeing on westbound trains to escape arrest, Chris accepts an offer of farmwork in Campkin, his intention being to maintain a low profile for a while before resuming his westward flight. He soon finds himself enmeshed, however, in a conflict for domination over him between Larson, his employer, and Larson’s wife, Sylvia.
Like Chris, Larson is pursued by the past. Ten years before, Larson’s first wife had died; his son, also named Chris, died soon after. Grief has warped Larson’s mind several degrees beyond eccentricity, despite outward symbols of material success such as his Cadillac and new young wife. Pathetically trying to relive the past, Larson makes a virtual shrine of the old homestead he began with his first wife. Its chief icon is the well they dug together, a symbol of their shared achievement and happy union. Larson also keeps a horse with the same name as his dead son’s horse, and he even imagines that Chris Rowe is the dead son returned. He treats Chris as a surrogate son, assuming he will take over the farm eventually and reestablish continuity with the edenic past.
To the extent that Larson’s aversion to the present stems from his longing for the pretechnological past, when farming offered pride of individual accomplishment and close identity with the soil, Ross is sounding a theme found in the work of other prairie realists such as Grove and Laurence: the human costs of increasing technology on the prairie farms. As usual, Ross’s focus is on the dynamics of one or two human relationships, but The Well can be read as a work of social criticism that probes, as Robert D. Chambers has put it, “some neglected side effects of that new prairie trinity: mechanization, mobility, and money.”
Larson’s wife, the voluptuous, ambitious Sylvia, had married Larson five years earlier to escape the poverty and drudgery of life as a waitress in Campkin. Partly because of a thirty-year age difference, there is neither love nor communication between them; in fact, Sylvia’s plan is to kill Larson and abscond with his money. If Mrs. Bentley’s designs for Philip are manipulative, those of Sylvia for Chris are evil and predatory. Her fantasy is that the adulterous relationship that quickly develops between them will make it easier for her to coerce Chris into helping her murder Larson, stuff his body down the well, and persuade the townspeople that he suddenly left on a train, as he often talked of doing. After a judicious interval, the two would marry and retire to California. In a luridclimax, Sylvia shoots her husband after wresting the gun from Chris, whose loyalty to his new surrogate father prevents him from doing so. Sylvia is eventually forced out of the house, never to be seen again. Larson expires, but not before he writes a note indicting Sylvia and exculpating Chris, leaving the farm to him as well. Chris still faces uncertain punishment for the Montreal shooting, but the important thing is that he now has the courage to do so. His refusal to be tempted further into crime by Sylvia, coupled with his loyalty to Larson, is redemptive. Once free of the trap of his past, his best instincts released by the regenerative powers of nature and the rhythms of farm life, Chris will have a chance to achieve authentic selfhood, an end to alienation, and even community with the prairie dwellers.
If As for Me and My House is Ross’s best novel, The Well is in many ways his weakest. Ross admitted his failure to “get inside” the criminal mind to make Chris Rowe a sympathetic character. The ending is wildly melodramatic, as Ross also acknowledged. “I would like to do it again and give it a different ending,” he stated. “I see now how it should be done.” The book suffers also from a thinness of texture, a lack of intensity and power, attributable to Ross’s decision to substitute the flat, banal language of barely literate characters for the richly metaphorical prose of As for Me and My House, and to the general lack of complexity of character, theme, and point of view. In view of these flaws, the book’s cool reception seems justified.
Whir of Gold
In two important ways, Whir of Gold, Ross’s third novel, is a reverse image of The Well. The latter is a Rousseauistic study of a victim of urban corruption in Montreal whose innate goodness is brought out by the morally regenerative life in nature; the former is a Hobbesian study of the nasty and brutish life of a prairie youth in the same city. Again, a man and a woman compete for domination of the young hero, but whereas in The Well the man is basically decent, despite his misfortunes in life, and the woman grotesquely evil, in Whir of Gold the reverse is true. In other ways, Whir of Gold resembles The Well quite closely. Like Chris Rowe, Sonny McAlpine is arrogant, alienated, and female-dominated. Like Chris, Sonny is drawn into crime. In common with both of the earlier novels, Whir of Gold is concerned with entrapment, the failure of communication, and the baneful influence of the past. Its conclusion is more pessimistic than those of Ross’s previous novels. Indeed, Sonny McAlpine’s struggle and eventual defeat as a musician may represent Ross’s pessimistic answer to the question of whether Philip Bentley’s move to the city will really enable him to develop an authentic self. In the thirty years between As for Me and My House and Whir of Gold, Ross seems to have concluded that neither the rural nor the urban environment in Canada is capable of nourishing the artistic imagination.
The plot is simple and familiar, sometimes to the point of cliché. Determined to prove his superior musical talent and plagued by guilt over his sensible choice of a career in popular rather than classical music in the Saskatchewan farm community where he was reared, the young, innocent Sonny takes his clarinet to Montreal, but competition and commercialism in the wicked city combine to thwart his ambitions. Out of money and hope, he is contemplating retreat to the West when he meets Madelaine, a good-hearted nightclub floozie as lonely as he. Mad, as she is called, is from Nova Scotia, a place as remote in spirit from Montreal as is Saskatchewan. Comrades in alienation, the two decide to live together in Sonny’s skid-row rooming house immediately after a first-night sexual encounter. More spontaneous and generous than other female characters in Ross’s works, Mad nevertheless has comparable plans for her man. Once he is sexually involved with her, her idea is to return with him to Nova Scotia, where they will manage a restaurant and live a simple, healthy life far from the psychological rat race and moral wasteland of Montreal. In effect, she tries to trap Sonny into domesticity, as Sylvia tries to trap Chris Rowe through her plot to kill Larson.
As Mad sees it, the chief obstacle to this scheme is Sonny’s neighbor, Charlie, the only other character of consequence in the small, claustrophobic world of the novel. A small-time, street-mean crook, Charlie exploits Sonny’s weaknesses (primarily, a self-destructive urge arising from the guilt he feels about wasting his musical talent) to involve him, against the vehement opposition of Mad, in robbing a jewelry store. In the robbery, Sonny is shot and is himself robbed of his share of the loot by Charlie. The relationship between Sonny and Mad is likewise doomed, as are most male-female relationships in Ross’s novels. The protagonist’s emotional immaturity causes him unconsciously to seek an Oedipal relationship, which Mad’s need to mother conveniently satisfies. Because of his insecurity, however, Sonny is unwilling to risk commitment, reacting to Mad’s mothering as a smothering possessiveness and to her praise of his sexual prowess as proof of his limited talent. Ross implies that Sonny’s background—specifically, his repressive prairie puritanism—is largely responsible for both his lack of feeling for Mad and his guilt over his shabby treatment of her.
Sonny, it appears, was Mad’s “whir of gold,” a fleeting vision of happiness, beauty, and self-fulfillment. The book’s title and central symbol derives from an incident in Sonny’s childhood. Out of curiosity and cruelty, he once pursued and killed a flicker bird in an attempt to capture it. The bird’s wings “flashed like a whir of gold, a gust of feathered light,” before the bird died. Years later, Sonny’s pursuit of a musical career leads to the deathly alienation of the criminal world, and his aborted relationship with Mad to the bleak realization, once she leaves, that he has rejected probably the best chance for happiness he will ever have. The whir of gold is a fragile thing, impossible to capture. To attempt to do so is to destroy it, and also to destroy oneself through its false promise of permanence.
Ross’s deep pessimism about human relationships in Whir of Gold is presaged in much of his earlier fiction, where puritanical constraints conflict with the human instinct for beauty, imagination, freedom, and daring. Sonny has an innate predilection for these, but his farm upbringing and moral background have indoctrinated him with practicality, restraint, discipline, and caution, values dictated also by a prudent regard for the often hostile natural elements of the prairie. Not that beauty, imagination, freedom, and daring flourish in Montreal, but Sonny’s failure there is partly a deterministic result of his projection of prairie attitudes onto the city, just as earlier Ross characters project their fears onto the external prairie environment.
Unfortunately, Whir of Gold is not a powerfully realized novel. It does not make a profound or relevant statement about psychological repression and cultural alienation. In deferring to trends in popular fiction—inarticulate characters, limited lives, disjointed language, sordid settings—Ross denies it depth of meaning. Referring to the novel’s “desperate brand of naturalism,” Chambers has pointed out that “Ross’s pages are covered with mundane and trivial things, as though the endless plates of bacon and eggs and all those nice hot cups of coffee will somehow cohere to underpin a work of art.”
The use of Sonny’s first-person point of view weakens the novel further. Sonny is a vapid Candide, a vacuous Ulysses, and the other characters are mere literary extensions of his personality. Ross professed an interest in the motivations of the criminal mind (though he admitted he probably lacked sufficient insight), but Sonny is incapable of understanding Charlie’s character or his own drift toward crime. Similarly, the forays into metaphorical language, so successful in As for Me and My House, seem artificially literary because they are inappropriate to Sonny’s character. In contrast with the richness of symbols found in As for Me and My House, Whir of Gold has only two symbols of any significance: the whir of gold and Sonny’s horse, Isobel. Finally, the structure of the book is poorly balanced, with the central Sonny-Mad relationship starved for development in the second half because of Ross’s increasing preoccupation with the robbery.
Apart from its successful interweaving of several perspectives in time, Whir of Gold did not advance Ross’s reputation as a novelist any more than did The Well. In fact, it confirmed the uneasy doubts of some that Ross was a one-book author who had reached his peak in his first novel. Perhaps he was essentially a short-story writer, albeit a good one, lacking the technical resources or sustaining vision required of the novelist.
Sawbones Memorial reassured the doubters by proving convincingly that Ross was more than a one-book novelist, although its success is attributable in part to a form that utilizes the economy and precision of the short story. It succeeds also because in it Ross returns to the time and place he knows best, the Canadian prairie during the 1930’s. Like As for Me and My House, it has a central intelligence who is perceptive and ironically detached. Unlike the two- or three-person relationships he minutely dissects in earlier novels, Ross creates a large, diverse cast of thirty characters in Sawbones Memorial, and while the townspeople seem no less petty and narrow-minded than before, those on the side of life, a generous and enlightened few, dominate the action in the novel. If, as Ronald Sutherland has insisted, a new Canadian literary hero has replaced the old, Doc Hunter must be counted a member of the new breed. Certainly his self-reliance, independence, and acceptance of life are preferable to Philip Bentley’s intense struggle with his demons of guilt and self-doubt. Perhaps, as one reviewer stated, Ross himself “has stopped fighting life and come to terms with it.” Perhaps the fact that the book was written in Europe during Ross’s retirement, at several removes in time and space from Ross’s Saskatchewan of the 1930’s, explains the mellow, often humorous tone. In any case, the book is more hopeful than any of its predecessors, despite its return to some of Ross’s familiar, depressing themes.
Sawbones Memorial comprises a collection of reminiscent vignettes depicting life in Upward, the small town that Doc Hunter has ministered to through forty-five years of pioneering, drought, and depression. The raison d’être of the vignettes is a ceremony held in April, 1948, to mark the doctor’s retirement and the opening of the new Hunter Memorial Hospital. Accordingly, both reminiscing and looking to the future are in order. Though the action is limited to a few hours of the present, by the end of the novel Ross has roamed back and forth through four generations and several decades to lay bare the attitudes and preoccupations, tensions and antagonisms, and hypocrisies and prejudices of Upward’s citizens.
Representing the full diversity of the community, the characters include farmers, storekeepers, teachers, ministers, and housewives, people old and young, living and dead, absent and present. They do not develop psychologically so much as they show the effects of time. Through the episodes in which they appear and reappear, they comment on the action, on Doc Hunter, and on one another. Occasionally, the same incident is retold by different characters, the contrasting viewpoints giving rise to comic or tragic irony. Little by little, the reader comes to know the characters. Doc Hunter’s is the unifying point of view for those of the thirty characters whose stories constitute the book; conversely, the reader comes to know him through his shamanlike role in the lives of the other characters. The central character and intelligence, Doc is also the focus of attention at the gathering, as he has been the focus of the town’s hopes and fears for more than four decades. His own suffering, it is implied, broadens and deepens the efficacy of his mission as a doctor. It seems he was married too long to a frigid wife and thus shares with other Ross protagonists an unfulfilled emotional life, though his experience has neither embittered him nor lessened his philosophical tolerance of human imperfection, of which there is God’s plenty in Upward.
As with many fictional studies of small towns, from Winesburg, Ohio, to Peyton Place and beyond, Upward’s appearance of respectability, especially its straitlaced attitudes concerning sexual morality, conceals a closetful of skeletons: rape, abortion, incest, murder, euthanasia, to name only a few. As the town’s sole physician for almost half a century, Doc Hunter knows the contents of the closet better than anyone, a fact that gives pause to those who would prefer to forget their past in order to gossip more self-righteously. The more admirable characters, on the other hand, are often outsiders, defined as anyone who deviates from Upward’s conventional standards of moral and social behavior. More so than Ross’s earlier outsider-protagonist, these are very human characters whose struggles and triumphs the readers can share.
Sawbones Memorial is also more ambitious in form and conception than Ross’s earlier novels. The large number of characters, the experimentation with multiple points of view, the reliance on dialogue, monologue, speeches, and flashbacks to convey information, reveal personality, and establish mood (much as in drama and film), are all new. The dialogue is especially remarkable in that each character is individuated through diction, idiom, intonation, or rhythm. (Ross has said that the idea of using nothing but the speech of his characters to construct a novel came to him as he overheard fragments of reminiscences at the opening of the Royal Bank’s new head office in Montreal.) It is true that the book turns against two familiar themes: the failure of communication and the stultification of the spirit in the small prairie towns of Ross’s time. The roots of human alienation, whether personal or social, are still to be found in agonized confusion over sexuality, but Ross deals with a larger range of human experience than before, including such timeless concerns as the nature of human evil and the evil of human nature, birth and death, youth and age, courage and cowardice, cruelty and compassion. For one day in time, at least, in the spring of 1948, these are reconciled as Doc Hunter speaks of retirement and the continuity symbolized by the new doctor’s arrival. It is all beginning again, “just as it was all beginning that day” when he first arrived.