Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Roman du Terroir
Publication Year: 1945
Edition Read: McClelland & Stewart New Canadian Library, Series Five. Afterword by Robert Kroetsch
Major Accolades: Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, 1945; Canada Reads selection 2013
A lot can be said about Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan, but no matter what one’s interpretation of the novel may be, the 1945 winner of the Governor-General’s Award is inarguably one of the most important novels in Canadian literary history and an undeniable classic. This novel was resurrected into the public consciousness with its inclusion in the 2013 Canada Reads debates, where it was the runner-up. As a dedicated student, collector, promotor, and all-around fan of Canadian literature, I am almost ashamed to admit that this is my first time reading this great book.
This is a big book, both in size and scope. It is a multigenerational coming-of-age story that spans from the end of World War I to the start of World War II against the backdrop of the identity struggles and politics of Quebec during the inter-war years. There is also a great deal of commentary on Canadian literature and many autobiographical elements weaved into the novel.
Of all the threads that could be tugged on with this novel, the one that fascinated me the most was the death of the rural parish – the urbanization of Quebec society. The first section of the book, with Athanase Tallard as the central character, is an excellent example of pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec; the clergy were almost supreme rulers of their parish, religion and language were everything, and political beliefs were absolute. As WWI wound down though, this rural way of life was changing; English people were moving in, some in the population were questioning the authority of the church, and industry is beginning to be established in the rural parishes. I would also argue that MacLennan’s novel marks the death of the traditional Quebec Roman du Terroir.
The final section of the book is also rife with autobiographical details and allusions to other modernist English and American literature. Paul Tallard’s decision to write about Canada almost directly mimics MacLennan’s own development as a writer. Paul’s development as a writer also has overtones of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The ideological missives throughout the last quarter of the novel are reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. MacLennan deftly shows that he is a writer’s writer.
What will stick with me most about Two Solitudes is that it is the story of generational change. It is cliché to say this, but this novel is just as relevant today as it ever was. Paul Tallard, born at the turn of the 20th century, came of age in the shadow World War I, entered adulthood during the Great Depression, and then finds himself by enlisting for World War II. I look at the story of people my age: I started university 3 weeks before the September 11 attacks, came into adulthood with the Afghanistan War in full swing and under the shadow the American war in Iraq, and I started my career in earnest at the height of the Great Recession. A person’s world views and ideology can’t help but be heavily influenced by such events. Past is prologue and history is cyclical; it would be hard for someone my age (mid-30s) to read this novel and not see the parallels between the treatment of Paul Tallard’s generation (the G.I. generation) by his elders and the flack my much-maligned Millennial cohort receives from the Baby Boomer generation.
Hugh MacLennan is such an important writer: five-time GG winner, author of other classics like Barometer Rising, Each Man’s Son, The Precipice, and The Watch that Ends the Night. Unfortunately, so many of his works are either out of print or in between editions (Barometer Rising for instance is transitioning from its NCL edition to a Penguin Modern Classics edition). Two Solitudes is one of those titles currently out of print, as bizarre as that is to believe. The title has been around in various editions over the years but was added to the New Canadian Library in 2003 (afterword by Robert Kroetsch), under series five, and was later re-issued under the fancier series six cover, which was the edition used in Canada Reads 2013. Fortunately, McGill-Queen’s University Press will be releasing a new quality re-issue in June 2018. Find a copy and add it to your bookshelf.
Throughout my almost two decades of collecting Canadian literature, I’ve created numerous spreadsheets to track my various goals: historically relevant series – like the New Canadian Library, certain authors, and important Canadian literary awards. The assemblage I am most proud of is my collection of English language Governor General’s Literary Award winners. Over the years, I have managed to round up all but one winner of the fiction prize, all the poetry and drama winners when the award was split in the early 80s, and many of the winners from the non-fiction, poetry or drama, translation, and both children’s categories. In total, my GG collection is 187 books. But I’ll have more on this collection in a later post. What I’m interested in today is the author of the one book I’ve sought after that has been the bane of my book collecting journey: Laura Goodman Salverson. Ms. Salverson is perhaps the most overlooked author in the early development, and perhaps the entire history, of Canadian literature.
Laura Goodman was born in Winnipeg on December 9, 1890. Her parents were Icelandic immigrants, Lárus Guðmundsson and Ingibjörg Guðmundsdóttir. It has been recorded that throughout her youth, her parents explored western North America with their young daughter in tow; Laura did not even learn English until the age of ten. These explorations with her parents helped steep Laura in her family’s Icelandic heritage and the history of this ancient and proud culture. In 1913, Laura married George Salverson, a railwayman.
Laura Salverson’s writings were meant to supplement the family’s income. In the writing she produced in the first part of her career, she focused on the trials, adversities and drama of the early 20th century immigrant experience, particularly in Western Canada. She lamented the loss of culture of immigrant communities in the Canadian melting pot of the time and she was highly critical of the “American Dream.” Additionally, Salverson was a staunch pacifist and very outspoken against World War I.
So why is Laura Salverson such an important figure in Canadian literature that should never have been forgotten? Three reasons:
- In 1937 she won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction for The Dark Weaver. Only the second year the award was given out, Salverson was the first woman to win the GG.
- In 1939 she won the Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction for Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter. The first woman to win in this category.
- Laura Salverson was the first person to win two Governor-General’s Awards and is still part of a very small group that has won GGs in multiple categories (a group that includes names like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, and Hugh MacLennan).
- Her first novel, The Viking Heart, was a longstanding title in the New Canadian Library (series number 116)
None of these books are still in print and they have not been in print for many years. The Viking Heart, the story of 1400 Icelandic immigrants to Manitoba and their experiences from 1876 to World War I, was taken out of print as of the third series of the New Canadian Library (late-1970s/early-1980s). The Dark Weaver, a pacifist novel about a group of Nordic immigrants to Canada who volunteer to fight for the British in WWI, seems to have only been published once in Canada, the original 1937 Ryerson Press edition, and once in Britain, the 1938 Sampson Low, Marston & Co. edition. Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter, Salverson’s autobiography which is a deeply personal record of the Nordic community’s conflict and assimilation within the English majority, was reprinted as recently as 1981 by University of Toronto Press as part of its Social History of Canada series.
Salverson’s early works can be read through a variety of lenses (her later works drifted towards traditional Nordic romances and adventures that got away from her earlier Canadian based books). She can be read to gather insight into the early 20th century immigrant experience, anti-war sentiments around the time of WWI, Western Canadian settlement, and more generally, Salverson is a woman’s voice at a time when there were few women writers making waves. That is, I should add, these works can be read that way if you are able to get your hands on the text to read.
The Viking Heart and Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter are still relatively easy to find on used book sites. Abebooks has 25 listings for Confessions ranging from $4.00 for an 80s reprint to $250.00 for a signed original copy and The Viking Heart has 15 listings ranging from $10 for a New Canadian Library edition to $80 for a signed first edition. The Dark Weaver though has gained a reputation of being the unicorn for CanLit collectors. This book is notoriously hard to find – there are no listings anywhere on the internet for a used copy and libraries will typically not lend it out due to its rarity and age of the volumes on hand. Even finding a photograph of the book is challenging. The Dark Weaver is the only GG Fiction winner I do not have on my bookshelf. Since Salverson died in 1970, her work is not in the public domain, so it is also not on any ebook sites like Project Gutenberg Canada. The only available version of the text anywhere is on the Peel’s Prairie Provinces project page of the University of Alberta’s library website; the text available is a scanned image of each page of the 1937 edition. If you are hardcore enough, like me, you can go through and download the individual TIFF image file of all 416 pages (I believe this took me about three hours). So, you can read this book, but you must put some work in for it.
Ultimately, I think Salverson is just one symptom of a greater problem in Canadian literature of important titles going out of print, but this is an article for another day. In three years, Salverson’s work will enter the public domain, so it is likely that availability will increase then. This, however, is a copout. I find the fact that some university press or academic publisher has not re-issued her most important works, in an edited ebook form at the very least, a great cultural shame. Salverson needs to take her place among the important Canadian writers of the 1930s and be held high with names like Stephen Leacock and Gwethalyn Graham.
References and Resources:
When I first started this blog in June 2010 I had modest intentions. My primary goal was to simply have a creative outlet to lay down some thoughts on the Canadian literature I was consuming as I had no one in my immediate social circle that had the same taste in books as I did. The site grew steadily and after just a few months I had a solid library of posts. In early 2011, I started getting emails from publishers, including well known Canadian publishers like Brick Books and Goose Lane; I was also having regular conversations with writers directly via Twitter. These editors and writers were actually asking me to review their novels, story collections and books of poetry. I was even getting unsolicited books in the mail from some of these publishers. I was once quoted on Canada Reads to start a discussion and I was interviewed by The Toronto Star about the death of a well known book reviewer. Once the novelty of all this wore off, I found the whole idea burdensome and took a break from posting. In the ensuing years, I would sporadically return with a few reviews or articles and then disappear again for months at a time. I could never put my finger on it but I would always quickly lose my passion for managing this blog. Then in 2015, shortly after my son’s second birthday and a career move, I unceremoniously gave up on the blog and left it in limbo.
In mid-2017 my family moved to a new house; after unpacking and getting comfortable in a new position I recently took, I got back into the habit of nightly reading and I started thinking about this site more and more. I started to wonder why I kept taking regular breaks from posting… why do I keep starting up again… should I give this site to someone new who is more engaged…. I came back to the question of “why did I start this blog up in the first place?” Looking back at my 27-year-old self in mid-2010, I would say my main goal was to talk about Canadian books. Full stop. In exploring my thoughts on a particular book I could take so many angles – characters, writing, plot, themes, humour, social relevance, historical relevance. I could go full on academic and put that English degree to work – apply a critical lens such as a Marxist reading, analyze the work using Foucault’s ideas of panopticism, venture down the road of new-historicism and explore the sociological context of the piece. The pattern I fell into, especially once publishers and writers took notice of my blog, was treating my posts more like critical reviews than anything else.
Throughout my formal education in literature (a BA with an English major and half of a Master’s degree), I approached literature in a starkly different way from a lot of my peers. My overarching view of literature (and all acts of cultural creation) is that every work is the intersection of history, geography and psychology. With the guidance of a few of my favorite professors in my younger days, I also came to understand that each time we read something, we re-evaluate each of those intersections on multiple levels because of our own contemporary contextual biases. This is how I approach everything I read and ultimately, I feel this is how I need to approach my writing about books.
One thing is clear, I am not a book critic. Most book bloggers aren’t critics yet they pretend to be (perhaps they are addicted to the free review copies). I pulled away from playing the critic a little bit once I stopped taking review copies from publishers and authors, but I still struggled to find my voice in my posts. After thinking about this lately, I feel ready to revive The Canadian Book Review with a fresh new perspective and approach. I am not interested in doing critical reviews of books. I am interested in talking about books – what spoke to me, what did I like to not like, how this relates to contemporary life, some historical tidbits of the book or author I find interesting – all within my particular window of how I see literature.
So with that, I am happy to say that The Canadian Book Review is back in business. I hope this new iteration of my blog does not disappoint.