Sunday, September 27, 2015

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

Two countries must learn how to coexist

In the first half of this book, World War I approaches, and Athanase Tallard, the leading citizen of Saint Marc, Quebec, has a meeting with Huntley McQueen, Montreal banker. The town’s French speaking population is immediately suspicious of the English speaking outsider. McQueen has a plan to use the great Saint Lawrence river to power a factory, though a capitalist outpost would insidiously destroy this traditional farming community. Athanase, something of a freethinker, goes for the plan, thereby earning the enmity of the town’s priest and the uncooperativeness of the farmers. His older son, Marius, fully French, draft dodger, incipient separatist, is completely against the idea. Paul, the younger half brother, (also half English), still a child, has his life turned upside down by his father’s actions. In the second part of the book, World War II approaches, and Paul, now grown, an aspiring novelist, is unable to get work in Depression-era Canada. Torn between his two cultures, he falls in love with Heather, the wealthy WASPy goddaughter of Huntley McQueen.

This novel was a bit too musty for my tastes. The story was laid out in huge concrete blocks – everything is explained. But at least MacLennan wastes no time with the plotting – the reader is immediately plunged into the conflict. Although the characters never really felt like real people, they feel like placards. The only unpredictable character was the old sea captain, who has the ability to access both cultures. The writing was old fashioned, fancy schmancy, with some scenes deliberately shocking (but not really). And the female characters annoyed me – the women were defined solely in terms of their relationship with men. At least this was explicitly a Canadian novel about an essential Canadian dilemma.

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