Ross, (James) Sinclair
Ross, (James) Sinclair 1908–
Ross, a Canadian novelist and short story writer, is best known for his realistic portraits of Canadian prairie life which are as vivid as they are bleak. His characters are sympathetically drawn from childhood memory: they are presented as victimized figures whose struggle with isolation and loneliness reflects Ross's own view of the human condition. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
The bleak assumption of this beautiful novel [As For Me And My House] is that Philip Bentley has no ground whatsoever upon which he might stand, no communion at all through which he might discover saving dimensions of self. The overwhelming desolation which rims Horizon around—the hostile wind, the suffocating dust and sand and the even more suffocating and claustrophobic heat—recurs on the pages of Mrs. Bentley's diary as outward manifestation of the inner desolation felt by her husband. All that Philip can claim or cling to is his maddeningly inarticulate impulse to create. The novel is less like a story than it is like a cumulative picture in which Ross, by a remarkable, almost tour de force repetition of detail, grains a central scene upon the reader's consciousness so that all other details and even the action of the novel achieve meaningful focus in relation to the one scene at the center, repeated some thirty times. It is of course that in which Philip is shown retreating to his study where he will sit interminable evening superimposed upon interminable evening, drawing or fiddling at drawing, or staring with baffled intensity at drawings he has in some other time and place tried to draw. Yet, "Even though the drawings are only torn up or put away to fill more boxes when we move, even though no one ever gets a glimpse of them … still they're for him the only part of life that's real or genuine." The novel is a projection through the medium of Mrs. Bentley's remarkably responsive consciousness of the despair in which her husband is caught…....
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Horizon, the town that is the setting for [As For Me and My House], could be any place on the prairie in the thirties; yet again, it can be anywhere at any time. It is bleak, it is tired, it is horribly true; and yet there is an element of the flower blooming on the desert, and the flying of feeling that transcends all, that gives to As For Me and My House a prominent position in Canadian letters. This is a novel which, despite its Puritanism, its grimness, its dustiness, gives to the reader many of the elements of optimism and romanticism so often found in Canadian literature. (p. 17)
[One] is first captured by the writing in the book. There is an exact vividness, pure diction choice, observation that is accurate, and a rhythm that is controlled. Everything seems to move at its own pace, and yet the tension of the characters renders vividly the actual setting…. (p. 18)
[The] simplicity of style and intricacy of mood create a prairie so immense that it virtually stuns the mind. The physical limitations of existence in Horizon pummelled by the visitations of a cruel God—though He is never blamed for what goes on—are clearly etched in the mind by the almost unbearable monotony of wind, sun, snow, and drought. It is a place with a past and a future, but with no real present…. Environment plays a strong rôle in the story, an environment that is at once uncluttered and cluttered. (pp. 18-19)
The sky and the earth fuse into a huge blur, a haze which envelopes the town and its people and stills all but the faintest murmur of hope for the future. There is a vivid immobility that lies stark against the dullness of the endlessly shifting dust. The theme is of the prairies during the thirties—the unrewarded, unremitting, sluggish labour of men coupled with the loneliness and nameless terror of the women—and is the only action upon the stage that Ross presents before his reader…. These people are not hard to imagine, but they are very difficult to understand, and consequently difficult to accept….
[Everywhere] there are the unmistakable signs of Puritanism: the standards are rigidly set; the struggles, the tenacity of people in so bleak a circumstance, the horror of hypocrisy and of sexual sin. Jealousy, failure, slow realization of forgiveness, possible redemption and reconciliation after anguish and torment, all take their places in the lives of these tenacious people. The problem of fighting versus flight, and the all powerful will of God remain in the foreground; the nerves of all the people of the town remain taut to the breaking point. (p. 19)
[Ross] does not immerse [his main characters] totally, but rather just dips them into this sheep-dip of futility and sets them into a corner to let the bitter juices seep into their absorbent beings. Perhaps he has not dipped them for long enough, or again, too much, for none of the characters seem to rise out of the story as individuals of total belief. They are at once types and individuals, yet never really discernable as one or the other. Despite this vagueness, the characters can be analyzed; unfortunately, with varying degrees of accuracy.
Ross chooses a woman's point of view for this novel, and obviously has tremendous insight into a woman's mind, and this particular woman's troubles…. [Mrs. Bentley] is the narrator, and if the reader takes her at her literal worth, then all the characters become exceptionally clear. But she is a paradox, and there becomes the necessity to probe beyond what she says superficially and to make conjectures as to her real meaning. (pp. 19-20)
She becomes through the novel an epitome of a type of woman; she displays intelligence, responds to situations with courage and sympathy, and displays a vague hope for better times (typical of prairie women of the period: clever,...
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The futile cycle of eking existence from an indifferent world predominates [The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories]—a kind of rural Dubliners in which the same adult impotence replaces a similar childish Araby. Overall, the book spawns variations on the theme of isolation and its haunting melody is unmistakable. The storm which creeps into Will's house [in "Not by Rain Alone"], killing his wife but undoubtedly allowing the child to relive the same empty cycle as its parents, also invades Martha's home in "A Field of Wheat," not as snow but hail. At the same time it crushes "the best crop of wheat John had ever grown." These prairie inhabitants own nothing that is inviolate; they can retreat nowhere that is not whirling vainly in an absurd seasonal cycle…. [The] storm motif recurs in sporadic and tragic fashion, proving a principal antagonist in each of the stories devoted exclusively to the adult (as opposed to the child) experience.
In "The Painted Door,"… close to the finest [story] in Canadian literature,… [Ann's] husband wanders fatally into a blizzard after his discovery of her adultery (it is the only story which uses the adultery theme found in both Ross's novels). (pp. 77-8)
The story's conclusion does not appear gimmicky—rather a unique result of what Ross has established as part of the futility cycle. Ann decides that despite her affair with Stephen she does love her husband, and senses that any future lies with him. Yet she discovers him next day frozen to death, and on his palm a smear of white paint. Suddenly she realizes that John had indeed returned in the night, not merely in her dream, and had touched the freshly painted door of their bedroom as he watched the slumbering couple. In the husband's suicide the author intends us to discern an ending for a life that is less senseless, perhaps, than would have been his natural death: for Ross tells us earlier, "It was not what he actually accomplished that mattered, but the sacrifice itself, the gesture—something done for her sake." In future years John...
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Robert D. Chambers
A number of the stories [in The Lamp At Noon and Other Stories] are narrated from the viewpoint of a young boy between the ages of ten and fifteen. While he seldom felt inclined to use a distinctive idiom or dialect, such as Twain adopted for Huck Finn, Ross nonetheless wanted this youthful narrative voice to seem fresh and natural. He was also aware, from his own experience, that prairie farm boys in the 1930s entered early into the world of adult responsibility. The grim facts of the Depression required a maturity of outlook far beyond their years. Ross sought to combine the natural impulsiveness of youth with the tempered understanding and quiet acceptance of the adult world. Yet the meanings which the...
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