Two Solitudes

Hugh MacLennan 1945, Macmillan of Canada

I have just finished reading Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes and I have been completely taken aback by it. No novel I’ve read has ever so definitively captured the Canadian mind set. Certainly works by writers like Mordecai Richler or Margaret Atwood speak in a very Canadian voice but MacLennan has defined the seemingly undefinable; what is a Canadian?

While the book deals with a particular period of Canadian history when Canada was really growing into a nation in its own right I think that the period isn’t terribly important. It does serve to illustrate the mindset more clearly, but the book is timeless in its theme. Canada and Canadians were, are and always will be in some sense two solitudes. We tend to define ourselves not by what we are, but by what we are not. One of the characters, Huntly McQueen, compares Canada at one point to a prudent man who does nothing in a time of crisis and thereby survives it well because in any choice of action there is at least a 50/50 chance of being wrong. It is even more clearly illustrated by the brief appearance of the character Dennis Morey who says, "But Canada isn’t England, and too many Canadians try to pretend it is&ldots;.. Does our western prairie look like anything in England, for God’s sake? &ldots;..After a while they’ll get another idea. They’ll pretend we’re exactly the same as the States. And they’ll start to imitate ideas from down there. But is there anything in the States like the Saint Lawrence valley? For that matter, is there anything in the States like us - the collective us?" In fact the book is full of references to Canada by what it is not, and I think most Canadians tend to look at it that way.

One of the characters suggests (and I have heard this said before) that geographically North America should have been divided by longitude not latitude, for those in Alberta have far more in common with their neighbours in Montana than they do with other Canadians like those in Nova Scotia who should have more in common with their neighbours in Maine. Geographically this may be true, but suggest that to an Albertan or a Nova Scotian and the reaction would be furious. We are NOT Americans, and we’re really very snobbish about it. Nor are we British. The Canadian sees the American as loud, boorish, capitalist to a fault, even less educated than ourselves. We see the British as uptight, to traditional, even anal retentive. But asked to define what a Canadian is the most we seem to be able to come up with is &ldots; polite. It is this history of defining ourselves by what we are not; we are not English, we are not French, we are not American, we are not Scottish, we are not Ukrainian, we are not anything; that seems to have defined Canada. Perhaps it is this that has led to the prevalence of the hyphenated Canadian? To say we are a Canadian doesn’t really say anything, so we have to add something to it?

I think perhaps it is this that has made Canada somewhat snobbish, or at the very least defensive about who we are. I mean if I’m not mistaken I think we may be the only country in the world with content laws such as the ones we have governing broadcasting. If you think about it, that’s a pretty defensive type of mindset. We are defensive because we’re insecure in large part because we can only define ourselves by what we are not. MacLennan captures this exceedingly well in the conflict within his characters and they become symbolic of the country itself. Yardley is a Nova Scotian living in Quebec, yet he will always be a Nova Scotian in his heart saying, "When a man’s been born down there it stays his home no matter where he goes to live afterwards." Being from Nova Scotia myself I can tell you that that statement rings very true. I’ve heard it or something very like it said a million times, and always by someone from ‘back home’. Athanase is an old world Quebecois but he tries to break from the rigid traditions. Paul cannot define himself as French or English. Marius fights against the loss of the old ways. Heather welcomes the loss of the old ways. Each must attempt to define themselves, again not by what they are but by what they are not.

MacLennan has done such a marvellous job of capturing that elusive and slippery idea and done so in an intricately woven tale. He captures the sense of it without crushing it by trying to define it. I tell you I am halfway tempted not to return the book to ILC (only kidding guys) otherwise I guess I’m going to have to scour the used book shops to find a copy for myself. This is one I definitely want to add to my collection.


Here on Earth

Alice Hoffman, 1997,

Alice Hoffman’s "Here on Earth" is a dark novel of obsessive love. Rich imagery and powerful prose weave an intense atmosphere of deep secrets and mystery.

March Murray returns to her childhood home in New England after an absence of almost 20 years where she is forced to confront not only her own past but the dangerous boy she had loved then. Interwoven are her relationships with her troubled teenage daughter, her husband in California, her childhood friends, her brother, the dear old family friend, who’s funeral she is there to attend, and her own complex and mixed emotions.

Hoffman’s creation of Massachusetts in October is as bleak and grey as her story. "In October, darkness begins to settle by four-thirty and although the leaves have turned scarlet and gold, in the dark everything is a shadow of itself, grey with a purple edge." However, for all it’s beautiful stark imagery and atmosphere laden sets "Here on Earth" lacks something. It takes more than pretty words to create good story.

It was once said that "Story is something happening to someone you have been led to care about." Unfortunately this novel doesn’t seem to contain a single character we really care about. Hoffman wanting to create a sense of ‘realness’ to the story attempts to make her characters more honest or true by showing them as fallible human beings, as we all are. What they don’t have is any redeeming characteristics, except perhaps for Hank who really appears to be simply an innocent bystander. The problem is not that we dislike the characters, we may even feel some sympathy for March, but there is little empathy, we don’t know the character well enough to like her. There is a lack of depth or dimension to the characterizations that would make them believable. It’s like seeing a well dressed stage but the actors are all cardboard cutouts.

March Murray in rekindling her relationship with a dark and dangerous man from her past, a love that can only be described as obsessive, seems to go brain dead. We get the sense of a person running on auto-pilot. She has completely abandoned the care of her daughter, her marriage of 19 years and herself, but it rings hollow. While we know prior to the reunion March is worried about seeing Hollis again in part because she knows she is obsessed with him and is concerned what she might be willing to do to have that relationship back. However once that reunion has taken place March falls flat, we don’t get any sense of the continued turmoil of her decisions. We see her walk through the actions, but we never get a sense of the inner struggle and turmoil. Even in obsessive or dangerous relationships, even when a woman makes bad choices for the wrong reasons she is aware that she is making them. The story is in the internal conflict, in the justifications and arguments she has with herself, and subsequently the other people in her life. Woman, people in general, are quite capable of making dramatic, bad choices in the name of love or obsession, but rarely is it as dramatic a night and day scenario as portrayed in this novel. The idea that the reunion with Hollis flipped some sort of switch in March and suddenly she went from a thinking, responsible woman to some sort of zombie who can’t even make her daughter’s breakfast doesn’t wash.

The same can be said for rest of the cast. We never get to see enough of them, we’re never allowed to pry inside far enough to understand the complex motivations that make people human and characters sympathetic. Hollis is angry, dangerous and obsessed, but we never really get to see the ‘why’ of it, there is nothing to sympathize with, so we’re lost as to why March sympathizes with him.. In my experience, while there are sociopaths in this world, most people behave in a way created and generated as a result of cumulative life experience and how they’ve perceived and reacted to those experiences. Even the most amoral of people, we can see and understand and even sympathize with how they became that way. We’re never given that view into Hollis.

All in all I found "Here on Earth", despite critical acclaim and popularity to be a lot of very tasty gravy, but I’d liked to have had a little meat with it.