This book (Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House) ended up being a completely different book than I expected. It is a story about a minister and his wife in small prairie town during the Depression. The wife, who never names herself in her diary, is an exceptionally keen observer, and the writing is pretty incredible. So I thought I would settle in for a book about the importance of faith in a small community, much along the lines of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Within a very few pages, we find that it is an almost complete inversion of that.
While there is not a great deal of plot in this novel, I am still going to have to discuss the main events and thus SPOILERS abound.
And on the 8th day, there were SPOILERS...
Curiously, in the Afterward, Robert Kroetsch makes a big deal of the diary starting on April 8th, as if the novel all took place on the day after the last day of Creation and everyone was exhausted. That may be too much heavy symbolism, but it is certainly true that the town residents are a suspicious lot (imagine the town residents from The Music Man layered over with much more bitterness and religious prejudice). The minister and his wife are given a small house right next to the church, but it is a fairly ugly building that leaks and they have an outdoor privy that has actually collapsed a couple of times! So these are fairly primitive conditions, but it seems not so different from the other towns that the couple have lived in. Apparently, there is something slightly off about the minister and his appointments only ever last 3-4 years, before he is asked to move on.
Indeed, within a few pages we learn that he and his wife don't believe in organized religion at all! This is merely the most reliable way for an educated man to make a living during the Depression. The wife has clear contempt for most of the town residents, while the minister clearly doesn't think much of them but really has the most contempt for himself. He is a failed artist and writer, and much of the novel consists of the wife asking herself if he could have made a go of it without having her around. The strain on their marriage is extremely high.
So already you can tell that this isn't going to be an uplifting story, though it is a fairly compelling one, particularly for those interested in marriages on the rocks. However, I seem to be a bit under the weather these past few days, and I might have put this novel off for a bit had I known how depressing it would be. I've never watched Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, though I expect the affect must be more or less the same as with this novel. Many of the scenes are incredibly claustrophobic, and they recalled Bellow's Hanging Man. (That may be a bit of a stretch, however.) At other times, particularly during the winter, the wife goes on long walks through the town just to get out of the house, and there is a very comic scene where she ends up on a railroad handcar brought back to the station, just as the town wives are there to comment and scold her for not acting like a minister's wife.
For a short time, the couple tries to foster a local boy named Steve, though the town does not approve at all, since Steve is a Catholic. The minister more or less loses his head over Steve and agrees to buy him a horse (for $100, when they are dirt poor!) and the wife wonders whether having a child would have improved their relationship -- or actually made things worse. Anyway, the novel was definitely heading into Barbara Comyns's territory
(with the minister being one of the feckless people that I can't stand
reading about), when all of a sudden agents of the Catholic Church turn
up and take Steve away to go into an orphanage out east. (Talk about efficiency...)
Viewed from the outside, the minister doesn't seem like a catch, though at several points the wife talks about how she has subsumed her whole life into his. There is a local schoolteacher, Paul, who seems in love with the wife, and while this makes the minister jealous, she feels Paul is insignificant next to the minister. (Again, this seems crazy to me, since Paul is one of the few decent people in the entire book, but some people just refuse to accept happiness even when it is offered to them.) The wife becomes jealous of Judith, a young girl in the church choir, but it seems that she has better grounds of jealousy than the minister does against Paul. She wonders what she can do to win back her husband and set him on a better track.
At this point, the wife decides on a last-ditch scheme to raise $1000, so that they can open up some store elsewhere, just so that the minister doesn't have to make a living as a complete hypocrite. While the minister is skeptical, he goes along. Judith becomes pregnant and refuses to tell her family who the father is, so she is exiled back to the family farm. The wife is certain that the minister is the father, and she suggests that they adopt the child. (There are definitely shades of Sarah and Hagar here, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the diarist was actually named Sarah.) The novel ends with her plans apparently coming to fruition, and the new family unit moves away from Horizon almost exactly a year after they arrived. It presents itself as a happy ending, though it doesn't feel like one to me. It would be quite appropriate if Ross came back with a sequel showing how they were just as unhappy in their new setting, which is certainly how I expect things to unfold.
This is a solid, well-written book, but it is one that left me feeling just somewhat soiled. I didn't much care for the characters, aside from Paul (and the doctor's wife). But mostly it just left me glad that I didn't have to live through the Depression when people's options were so cramped and their spirits so low.