As for Me and My House
First edition cover
|Publisher||Reynal and Hitchcock|
As For Me and My House (1941), by Canadian author Sinclair Ross, was first published by the American company Reynal and Hitchcock, with little fanfare. Its 1957 Canadian re-issue, by McClelland & Stewart, as part of their New Canadian Library line, began its canonization, mostly in university classrooms. Set during the Great Depression in the fictional mid-western prairie town of Horizon (the precise location of Horizon is not provided, and could conceivably be in either Canada or the United States), it deals with the experiences of a minister's wife, her husband and their struggles and hardships.
Mrs. Bentley, a Protestant minister's wife, writes journal (or diary) entries on a regular basis; the time span is just over a year (from 8 April 1939 to 12 May 1940, if the weekday noted with each entry is assumed to be correct). The couple has just moved to yet another small town, "Horizon." Mrs. Bentley, whose first name we never learn, despairs of Philip (her husband), who is becoming ever more remote. As she records her feelings, it is clear she, as she suspects of her husband, has nothing but contempt for her husband's flock. Mrs. Bentley sees herself and Philip as frustrated artists; she has a passion for music and, in her youth, entertained dreams of success as a pianist, and he spends much of his time sketching and painting.
Her journal tells mostly of her efforts to win her husband's affections, yet he appears to withstand her efforts, which are conflicted and subtly evasive. She strikes up a friendship with Paul, a local schoolteacher and philologist, while Philip engages the affections of Judith. They attempt to adopt a Catholic child, Steve, who seems to fulfil Philip's desire for a child that Mrs. Bentley cannot apparently deliver, but this arrangement falls apart. Eventually, putatively under pressure from an increasingly hostile congregation, they prepare to move to a city. However, it is plain that the congregation and town are nothing like as philistine as Mrs. Bentley insists—neighbourhood boys admiringly lurk outside the manse listening to her practise the piano and the audience for her recital in the church hall is vastly appreciative—but Mrs. Bentley is unmoved in her contempt for them and scornful of their applause for her bravura piano performance. Assuming that they are moving to a mid-sized prairie city in the middle of the Great Depression, Mrs. Bentley's dream of establishing a second-hand bookstore there as a means of escape from their unappealing life in a small town is patently absurd. Judith, who mysteriously has become pregnant, dies shortly after giving birth and the Bentleys adopt her child.
- Mrs. Bentley - a Protestant minister's wife
- Rev. Philip Bentley - her husband, the reserved minister
- Steve - the Catholic child temporarily adopted by the Bentleys
- Mr. Kulanich, his hard-working immigrant father, probably from Romania
- Paul Kirby - the local schoolteacher and philologist
- Judith West - a young woman who befriends the Bentleys
- Not named "Philip" - Judith West and Philip Bentley's illegitimate child
- Mrs. Finley - a leader among the women in Horizon
- George and Stanley - Mrs. Finley's brutal sons
- Mrs. Wenderby - a prominent member of the community
- Mrs. Ellingson - a friendly neighbour of Norwegian origin
- Josephine Bird - the wife of the local doctor
- Stanley Kirby - Paul's brother, at whose ranch the Bentleys stay for a short vacation
- Laura Kirby - Stanley's rancher wife
- Annie - Metis maid at ranch
- Joe Lawson - farmer in nearby village
The town of Horizon is populated by an Anglo majority, and minority groups from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Its community betrays a social stratification along ethnic lines typical of the region. At the top stratum of society there are well-off middle-class families of British origin and Protestant belief that operate their own businesses in town. At the bottom there is the immigrant underclass of unskilled railway labourers including Steve Kulanich's father. In between there are foreign-born settlers like Mr. and Mrs. Sven Ellingson, the Norwegian neighbours of the Bentleys, or country-bred people like Paul Kirby and Judith West, who have come to town for work.
Literary significance and reception
Claims have been made about its significance, including M&S's own claim in 1957 that this book was a "classic." Although the novel experienced poor initial sales in 1941, its courted ambiguity and classically unreliable narrator make it an object for boundless speculation and argument.
Despite the fact that there is nothing in the novel that definitively states that either the setting or the characters are Canadian, Paul Denham's 1980 summary of the novel states:
There are some very good reasons why the novel has come to be so important to the Canadian tradition. It is a study of the failed artistic imagination, and of an eroding puritanism; it is also ... a good example of Frye's concept of the garrison mentality, in its exploration of the peculiarities of the Canadian experience of nature and its relation to civilization. It is, then, a powerfully mythical novel in which many of the characteristic themes and attitudes of Canadian literature are sharply focused. Also, the patterns of imagery through which much of the novel's meaning is conveyed are densely and carefully worked... If we approach the novel as a poem, through its imagery, or as a model for the Canadian identity, we are likely to find it a very important work indeed.
- 1941, US, Reynal & Hitchcock, Pub date 1941, hardback (First edition)
- 1957, Canada, McClelland & Stewart, Pub date 1957, paperback; reprinted since, by M&S, U of Nebraska
- Denham, Paul (2005-06-08). "Narrative Technique in Sinclair Ross's As For Me and My House". Studies in Canadian Literature. Retrieved 2012-05-02.
- Wenzl, Bernhard. "'This is a fundamentalist town': The Prairie Town as a Site of Social and Cultural Conflict in Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House". Social and Cultural Interaction and Literary Landscapes in the Canadian West. Ed. Waldemar Zacharasiewicz and Fritz P. Kirsch. Vienna University Press, 2010, 173-179.
- Bernhard Wenzl, "'This is a fundamentalist town'..." p.174.
- Paul Denham, "Narrative Technique..." 2nd para.