Friday, June 14, 2013

The Higher Hill by Grace Campbell

A slice of Canadian life during the War of 1812
I bought this book for its illustrations. It contains fifteen beautiful wood engravings by Franklin Carmichael, an excellent printmaker who is best known as a member of the school of Canadian landscape painters known as the Group of Seven. Also a professional graphic artist, Carmichael not only illustrated the book, but also designed and typeset the first edition.

The Higher Hill is a historical novel by Canadian author Grace Campbell. Originally published in 1944, it tells the tale of a few Scotch-Canadian families who live in rural villages along the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Kingston. The parents are immigrants with memories of the Scottish highlands; the children are native-born Canadians. The heroine of the story is Felicity McKay, a young woman rounding the corner from adolescence to adulthood. Felicity has an enthusiasm for painting and discovers that she has real talent as an artist. Though she feels it may be her true calling, like many young women she must decide whether to pursue her dream or give it up for the more traditional feminine roles of wife and mother.

Since it focuses on the growing pains of a teenage girl, The Higher Hill might very well have been meant as young adult literature for the readers of its day. In some respects it resembles a Canadian take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. For today’s audience, however, the book will probably appeal more to parents whose daughters are off reading about vampire romance. The prose, written in an unadorned, naturalistic style, makes for a pleasant read. The book’s biggest fault is that it has too many characters, and Campbell doesn’t make them distinctive enough to distinguish them from one another. It’s hard to keep track of who everyone is and how they are all related to one another. The first half of the book mostly follows the daily lives of these characters as they manage their farms and homes and engage in their various romances. The second half of the book takes a more suspenseful turn when war comes to the region. The conflict in question is the War of 1812, in which the Canadians fought on the side of the British against the Americans. The book starts out very languidly and picks up steam as it goes along, but the plot is neither particularly exciting or memorable.

That’s not such a bad thing, however, for this really isn’t a book about plot, but more of a book about atmosphere. The real value of Campbell’s novel is the vivid picture it draws of what life was like in this time and place. She has obviously done her historical research well. She picturesquely depicts the agricultural practices, seasonal activities, social conventions, and the menu of every meal with a ring of authenticity. The characters and settings vary enough that the reader is given a broad spectrum of experience—rural and urban, rich and poor, military and civilian. Although the book wraps up its final chapter with a life lesson, it’s almost an afterthought. It’s evident that Campbell’s chief reason for writing the book is simply to document what life was like for these Canadians of the past, who I’m guessing were her forefathers. To that end she is quite successful. This is probably one of those regional classics that’s beloved in its native realm but little known outside of it. Even so, anyone who appreciates historical literature and has an interest in the history and culture of Canada will enjoy The Higher Hill.

Franklin Carmichael, wood engraving llustrations from The Higher Hill, 1944

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