"Then, even as the two race-legends woke again remembering ancient enmities, there woke with them also the felt knowledge that together they had fought and survived one Great War they had never made and that now they had entered another; that for nearly a hundred years the nation had been spread out on the top half of the continent over the powerhouse of the United States and still was there; that even if the legends were like oil and alcohol in the same bottle, the bottle had not broken yet. And almost grudgingly, out of the instinct to do what was necessary, the country took the first irrevocable steps toward becoming herself, knowing against her will that she was not unique but like all the others, alone with history, with science, with the future."
I am an immigrant to Canada, and one of the first things I learned in school about my new country was the founding myth of the two solitudes, English and French, out of which Canada was still painfully forging a national identity. (We arrived in '68, one year after Expo '67 had greatly heightened the national discussion.) Many years later, that discussion has become much more nuanced, and far less fraught. Younger people get impatient with the "two solitudes" idea, not merely because it excludes the Native people, and western aspirations, and all the wonderfully diverse immigrant contributions to Canada, especially since the end of WWII, but because they do not, I think, understand how fragile the notion of "Canadian" still was when this novel was published (1945); and I too remember that fragility well into the 60s and 70s. We were taught by our peers that Canada, and especially Canadianism, was a bit of a joke. It consisted in having French on the cereal box, and jeering at state-subsidised Canadian cinema. People who took Canadian literature courses were considered pretentious asses and not really interested in Literature. I admit to having had all those prejudices in my thoughtless youth. That's probably why I didn't read this classic novel then.
I missed a lot. First of all, it's just a good novel. It has what I have come to think of as the "Wuthering Heights" structure: two generations of characters, with similar but not identical circumstances to battle, and with different answers to the questions. The characters are well-defined, and those who are designed to be sympathetic are warmly so, while those who are the antagonists are, by and large, still humanised so that you can understand them even if you cannot like them. I knew Huntly McQueen, Janet Methuen and Father Beaubien, even though they were symbolic figures in the intellectual pattern. I loved Athanase Tallard, Captain Yardley, Paul Tallard and Heather Methuen.
Athanase and Paul, father and son, both contain the dichotomy within them - Athanase intellectually, and Paul by blood. The dichotomy kills Athanase, whom we grow to like very much, but Paul, largely by travelling and finding the larger world (but also by finding his own creative inner world) manages to find a way to live with it. Whether he will also find a way to live through WWII, MacLennan does not presume to tell us. This is not a conventional happy ending.
For a man in 1945, MacLennan writes remarkably good women. That's not damning with faint praise, either. It's just acknowledging that he really had to have a novelist's sympathy to cross over that particular line between solitudes. The women in his time were still very much constrained by gender stereotypes, and he demonstrates how that was beginning to change in the last major character conflict in the book, between mother Janet and daughter Heather. In the end, though, both defined their lives in relation to men, and if I have one regret it's that when the time came to talk sense to manipulative Janet, Heather stood back and let her husband Paul do it instead of doing it herself.
The descriptions of Canada, and particularly its landscapes, are love poems of the highest order. As with poetry, you simply have to take the time and give yourself over to the intertwining of thought and imagery.
If you're Canadian - even if you're young and cynical and irritated by the old nation-building struggles - you should read this. And if you're not Canadian, read this if you want to get a little closer (only a little, but closer) to understanding us.