Friday, June 30, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 36th Review - The Lamp at Noon

I am choosing to close out the challenge with Sinclair Ross's The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories.  I basically started off the challenge with Ross (As for Me and My House was the second book I reviewed last July).  While I admired, and to some extent enjoyed, that novel, I didn't come back to this collection because it was by Ross, but because it was particularly short (just about 120 pages plus a solid, though spoilery, Afterward by Margaret Laurence).  Thus, I was fairly sure I could read it in the allotted time.  To match that aspect of the book, I'll try to keep this review short and to the point.

Some SPOILERS ahead

Basically all the stories are short and have a fairly solid ending (something missing in many of the stories from Gallant's The Moslem Wife).  In many cases, the ending is tragic (a crop is completely lost due to the weather, a man freezes to death, a baby dies due to an unrelenting dust storm, fire wipes out an entire stable-full of horses), giving the story an air of finality.  In one case, the ending was quite comic.  There is quite a nice twist at the end of "The Outlaw."  This one didn't do a lot for me at first, as it seemed predictable (young boy rides horse he is not ready to ride -- disaster ensues). In fact, the boy is thrown from the horse into a snowbank, but he doesn't die (he just gets mild frostbite on his ears).  While he is scolded by his parents, actually they are secretly proud of him for finally taking the necessary steps towards manhood.  I recall Faulkner sometimes used a similar device and probably countless other authors who wrote coming-of-age stories.

One feature of almost all these stories is the isolation of the small farm families and their separation from each other (often living more than a mile away from the nearest neighbour).  In at least one case, this isolation and the constant toil has driven a man mad.  But really it is the vastness of nature on the Prairies and how the weather could easily wipe out crops, snuffing out the average farmer's hopes, that is the real subject of Ross's tales.  In almost all the stories, the wives are not content to lead these limited lives, particularly since the reward is so uncertain.*  A few rebel, though none particularly successfully.  In one case, it is the young son who brings home a musician (who plays a mean cornet) rather than a useful field hand to help with the crops, but the musician only lasts half a day before he has to be driven back to town.  Still, that moment of beauty, hearing the cornet at night, will sustain the boy for a long time, and perhaps lead him to try to find a way to escape farm life.  Certainly as an outsider, I can't understand how one would be so driven to work the land, particularly after the many years of poor crops that form the backdrop of most of Ross's stories.  Had I been born into a farming community, I expect I would have ultimately found a way to escape into town, just like Violet from Munro's "A Queer Streak" from The Progress of Love.  It's enough for me to experience this life vicariously.  On the whole, I thought The Lamp at Noon was a really solid, if short, collection, giving quite a bit of insight into life on the Prairies.

* I was in a bit of a rush to get this review posted yesterday.  I should have linked to this video of "Ain't It Hell" by Skye Wallace, which is about a woman who ends up in an unhappy marriage as a farmer's wife out on the Prairies.

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