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Authors: Gwethalyn Graham

Earth and High Heaven

BOOK: Earth and High Heaven
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Copyright © 2003 Gwethalyn Graham
First ePub edition © Cormorant Books Inc. April, 2011

No part of this publication may be printed, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit or call toll free 1.800.893.5777.

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for its publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities, and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation, an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, and the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit Program.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Graham, Gwethalyn, 1913-1965
Earth and high heaven: a novel/Gwethalyn Graham.

Originally published: Toronto: J. Cape, 1944.

ISBN 978-1-77086-031-5

I. Title.

ps8503.R775E3 2003 c813'.54 c2003-904232-4

Cover design: Tannice Goddard, Soul Oasis Networking/Angel Guerra, Archetype
Cover image: National Archives of Canada
Formatted for ePub by Bryan Jay Ibeas,
based on a text design by Tannice Goddard, Soul Oasis Networking
Editor: Marc Côté


Joyce Tedman

Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle,
Earth and high heaven are fixed of old and founded strong,
Think rather, — call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
The days when we had rest, O soul, for they were long.

Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran and blood sprang out and I was never sorry:
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.

Now, and I muse for why and never find the reason,
I pace the earth, and drink the air, and feel the sun.
Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season:
Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.

Ay, look: high heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation;
All thoughts to rive the heart are here, and all are vain:
Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation —
Oh why did I awake? when shall I sleep again?



Gwethalyn Graham's
Earth and High Heaven
appeared in 1944 to unprecedented success for a Canadian novel. At home it was awarded the Governor General's Award, while in the United States it was the first Canadian novel to top American bestseller lists for the better part of a year. Its sales would eventually top a million and a half copies, with translations into 18 languages, as well as Braille. In the ultimate stamp of popular approval, Samuel Goldwyn paid $100,000 for movie rights to the book (Cameron 156–7). These details suggest more than the appearance of a new kind of Canadian literary celebrity. They are striking because of the subject matter of Graham's novel and the timing of its publication.
Earth and High Heaven
offers an unstinting critique of Canadian anti-Semitism, in the years before and during World War Two, when Canada was ostensibly fighting abroad to destroy Hitler's brutal anti-Semitic movement. The novel's main character, a young Montreal woman named Erica Drake, confronts her father's smug prejudice by playing upon the irony inherent in his wartime anti-Semitism. “After all,” she taunts him, “we Canadians don't really disagree fundamentally with the Nazis about the Jews — we just think they go a bit too far” (51).

The novel's action takes place in 1942, culminating in the fall of that year, and is built around the growing bond between Erica, of “the Westmount Drakes,” and Marc Reiser, a Canadian-born Jew who grew up in the northern mining country of Ontario, a landscape to which he feels a particular bond. Marc's parents are Austrian Jews whose family prospered in the timber business in Europe. Upon arriving in Canada in 1907 they established a planing mill near the Algoma Hills.

Graham is almost note-perfect in her account of Marc's open-ended sense of his Canadian Jewish identity, which has only weak links with ancestral roots and traditional observance. In a climactic scene, upon returning to his home town, Marc attends Yom Kippur services in a public hall the Jewish community has rented and refurbished for the High Holidays. There, he muses on identity, ethnicity and faith:

He realized that his sense of identity with the men and women around him was more of race, of race suffering and race achievement, than of religion, for his religious convictions involved only a simple belief in one God, one God for everyone regardless of sect and regardless of the form of worship. Nothing is so timeless as the atmosphere of a synagogue, and whenever he had gone into one of the great synagogues of Montreal or Toronto or London, his immediate reaction had been one of an almost overwhelming sense of history and tradition so ancient and so powerful that even if he had wanted to escape, it would have bound him indissolubly and forever to his own people. (256)

Marc's deeper affiliations are with his family, his work as a lawyer in Montreal, his military service, along with his nostalgia for the Ontarian landscape of his childhood. His parents, apart from their immigrant past, are depicted as resolutely Canadian, with nothing markedly ethnic about them or their home apart from a few books and heavy furniture brought over from the old country:

It was a comfortable house painted white with green shutters and a wide front porch screened on three sides by lilac bushes. In the living-room there was an upright piano which nobody every played, some glassed-in bookcases containing, among other works, a complete set of Schiller which nobody ever read ... a canary named Mike which never sang, and half a dozen ferns in polished brass pots. Behind the living-room was the dining-room which was fairly large, but still not quite large enough to do justice to the fine, old, highly polished and somewhat massive furniture which had been brought from Austria... . Up the wide oak staircases there were four bedrooms, a bathroom and sun-room, and on the top floor, one room well furnished for the general servant of the moment, and three others full of trunks, hockey sticks, skates, schoolbooks, fishing tackle and everything else which Maria Reiser could not bear to throw out. (253)

This portrait is a bit too generic — too careful in its presentation of the Reisers as “just folks” — and it is one of the few spots in the novel where Graham's otherwise sharp ethnographic eye for cultural habit and style fails her.

It is the Westmount Drakes — social, economic, and cultural paragons of wartime Montreal — whom Graham aims to portray with the greatest care. She does so, not only to convey a colourful section of mid-century Montreal society, but more importantly, to present these Westmounters as paradigmatic Canadian hypocrites, whose anti-Nazism does not preclude a genteel, yet deeply felt racism. Erica's break with her family — in particular her cultured but heavy-handed father — is based on her wish to marry a man whom her father describes, with malevolent eloquence, as being “from a social point of view ... unmanageable” (53). This kind of euphemism veils a deeper fear and resentment of the Jew as a nightmare figure,

a crazy conglomerate of a shyster lawyer, quick, insinuating and tricky; a fat clothing merchant with a cigar in his mouth, employing sweated labor with one hand and contriving to outsmart both his competitors and the Government with the other; a loud-voiced, flashy young man pushing his way up to the head of the queue; a skull-capped figure muttering incantations in a synagogue; a furtive, greasy individual setting fire to his own house or his own shop in order to collect the insurance ... all this not only combined in one individual, but an individual who was determined not to be assimilated but to remain an outsider, and who was perpetually turning up where he was not wanted, overrunning hotels, beaches, clubs. (149–50)

Charles Drake is not heard expressing these phantasms. Rather, the impact of his fears on his daughter is what Graham brings home to the reader, so that Erica's father's “obsession” comes to symbolize an aspect of Canadian life that Erica had not fully grasped (150). “You know, Charles,” she tells her father, “I had illusions about practically everything. About you and Mother and this precious country of ours, and the kind of world we're supposed to be fighting for — I was so full of illusions that really, I must have been quite a spectacle.” (232)

It is through her attention to Marc Reiser as an individual and companion that Erica comes to recognize what she calls the

voices [that] were talking against a background of signs which she had seen in newspaper advertisements, on hotels, beaches, golf courses, apartment houses, clubs and the little restaurants for skiers in the Laurentians, an endless stream of signs which, apparently, might just as well have been written in another language, referring to human beings in another country, for until now she had never bothered to read them. (31–2)

Earth and High Heaven
succeeds as a kind of narrative high wire act — strung along the line of a fairly stereotypic romance, a kind of Hollywood
Romeo and Juliet
, complete with interfering oldtimers and family hatreds raised to the level of tribal feud, is a sharp-edged social critique of a nation's conscience and capacity for bad faith. One wonders if it was this juxtaposition of themes that made the novel such a success. But with hindsight, the critique of a nation's conscience does not seem to be very likely wartime fare.

To place the novel's reception within the context of its times, it is worth considering Gwethalyn Graham's response to prewar anti-Semitism, as well as to the fierce onslaught against the Jews of Europe that came to be known as the Holocaust. The first thing that might be said about
Earth and High Heaven
is that it is not an early contribution to Holocaust literature. Although it is set in 1942, when the Germans' “Final Solution” was in full gear, and published in 1944, when the scope of this slaughter, its numbers, and the communities destroyed were known, Graham does not mention mass killings or offer a detailed examination of what she refers to as “the war news” (126). Marc Reiser mentions only once that he has lost European relatives to the Nazis, and that other family members were “sent to Poland” and not heard from again (190). Toward the end of the novel, in what feels like a bit of authorial editorializing, Marc considers his own link with “the Jews of the world,” including those in “barracks, concentration camps, prisons, torture-chambers and pitiful, futile barricades” (255). This oblique take on atrocity, set alongside an explicit examination of anti-Semitism, might well have suited contemporary readers. Anti-Semitism is an old story, while its extreme expression between 1933 and 1945 was something new to digest.

Approaching atrocity obliquely was a habit of the times, much to the embarrassment today of news and governmental agencies who must recognize it in their past.
The New York Times
, for instance, consistently under-reported the ongoing genocide in Europe. Max Frankel, a onetime executive editor at
The Times
, has called this the paper's greatest failure, “the staggering, staining failure of
The New York Times
to depict Hitler's methodical extermination of the Jews of Europe.”
The Times
, Frankel suggests, as the “premier American source of wartime news ... surely influenced the judgement of other news purveyors.” Some of the embarrassment of riches among Frankel's evidence includes the fact that during the war, the paper's front page made only six mentions of the Jews as Hitler's “unique target for annihilation”; 1942 reports of gas chambers killing up to 1000 a day were relegated to the back pages; and no article “about the Jews' plight ever qualified as
The Times
' leading story of the day.”

Graham's firsthand knowledge of Europe was prewar, based on a six month stay, which included involvement in the growing refugee crisis created by German expansionism, race laws, and rising daily brutality. Before this she spent part of her adolescence at a Swiss school for girls, where, according to biographer Elspeth Cameron, she befriended “an Armenian, an Italian, a Pole, and an American Jew” (153). It was upon this experience that Graham based her first novel,
Swiss Sonata
, for which she won her first Governor General's Award. For Graham, Cameron adds, the Swiss scene exemplified “in microcosm the fierce international currents swirling through Europe” in the prewar years (154). These experiences set Graham apart from the Canadian mainstream on such issues as immigration and the refugee crisis. In late 1938 she contributed a calmly argued opinion piece to
Saturday Night
magazine, entitled “Economics of Refugees,” in which she debunks economic arguments for restricting immigration, and argues against the claim that Jews are unassimilable. (In doing so she makes no mention of the mass of Polish Jews targeted by the Germans, but rather, lobbies for the “blue-eyed” and “keen featured” Jews of Vienna). More relevant to
Earth and High Heaven
in the
Saturday Night
piece is her call to conscience in the prewar moment, alongside her critique of Canadian cold-heartedness:

BOOK: Earth and High Heaven
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