This week, Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their clubs for which bloggers read and write about books published in one particular year. This time the year is 1944 – an interesting one, as not only are there lots of intriguing books to choose from, but it’s also the first wartime year to be featured. I had a few options on my TBR and decided to start with this one, Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven, which has been reissued by Persephone.
The novel is set in Canada during World War II and, through the story of Erica Drake and Marc Reiser, explores some of the prejudices, inequalities and divisions which existed at that time. Erica is a twenty-eight-year-old journalist working for the Montreal Post, while Marc is a lawyer in his early thirties. The two are immediately drawn to each other when they meet at a cocktail party – it’s literally love at first sight and Erica is sure her parents will like him too. But when she attempts to introduce him to her father, Charles, she is horrified and embarrassed when Charles refuses to even look at Marc, let alone speak to him.
Erica struggles to understand her father’s reaction, but Marc is not at all surprised. The Reisers are a Jewish family whereas the Drakes are English-Canadians and these two groups – along with another major group in Montreal society, the French-Canadians – simply don’t mix with each other. However, Erica’s brother has recently married a French-Canadian and despite Charles Drake’s initial disapproval, he has accepted Tony and Madeleine’s relationship. Erica is sure that, in time, he will come to accept Marc too. To her disappointment and frustration, though, her parents don’t want to get to know Marc and aren’t interested in what he is like as a person – all that matters is that he is a Jew. Charles explains that he doesn’t want “a son-in-law who’ll be an embarrassment to our friends, a son-in-law who can’t be put up at my club and who can’t go with us to places where we’ve gone all our lives”.
Despite having grown up in Montreal, Erica has never given much thought to the level of division in society as it’s not something which has ever affected her directly. Marc, on the other hand, is under no illusions; he has been encountering attitudes like Charles Drake’s all his life and he knows exactly what he and Erica can expect if they get married. He tries to make Erica see what their lives would be like, but she is determined to stand by him no matter what.
Marc is very likeable from the beginning, which makes Charles’ attitude towards him all the more upsetting, while Erica is also easy to like and admire. Although we do see things occasionally from Marc’s point of view, it is through Erica’s eyes that most of the story unfolds and Erica who has the most to learn. Her relationship with her father is as much a part of the story as her relationship with Marc; she has always considered him a friend as well as a father and so it comes as a shock to her to find that he is so determined to oppose her wishes. At the same time, she becomes uncomfortably aware that she herself has prejudices of her own.
Earth and High Heaven is a fascinating novel; as so much of the story consists of various characters discussing their views on racism, prejudice and intolerance, it could easily have felt like nothing more than a polemic, but that never happens, which I think is largely due to the two main characters being so appealing and sympathetic. I cared about both of them from their first meeting in the opening chapter and I felt that the issues explored throughout the story arose naturally from the situations in which they found themselves.
This was a great read for the 1944 Club – and one which is still important and relevant today. I loved following Marc and Erica through all their ordeals, hoping and wondering whether they would find a way to be together in the end.