Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Jalna by Mazo de la Roche

Classic Canadian family saga
Though little known south of the border, Jalna is an immensely popular novel in its native Canada. The book was originally published in 1927. Over the course of the next three and a half decades, author Mazo de la Roche would follow it up with nine sequels and six prequels, resulting in a 16-volume Jalna series that has sold tens of millions of copies. Perhaps the closest equivalent to the series in American literature might be the Little House on the Prairie books, but Jalna is more modern in time period and more modernist in literary style. Rather than Laura Ingalls Wilder, de la Roche’s writing is more reminiscent of Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, or Pearl S. Buck.

This first Jalna book introduces us to the Whiteoak family, who live on a farm in southern Ontario. The family is comprised of six siblings and half-siblings ranging in age from 38 to 9. Their parents are deceased, so the eldest brother Renny is the acknowledged head of the clan, but two elderly uncles and a 99-year-old grandmother also reside in the household. Jalna is the name of the family’s estate, which sits on the shores of Lake Ontario. It was named after a city in India where the late patriarchal grandfather served with the British Army. In this first book, the Whiteoaks seem neither poor nor well-off as far as farming families go. They appear to enjoy a prominent position in the local community due to their distinguished family history. Two of the older brothers, Renny and Piers, manage most of the duties on the farm. Their sister Meg, a spinster, manages domestic matters and mothers the youngsters. Brother Eden has just begun a career as a published poet, while younger brothers Finch and Wakefield attend school. Uncles Ernest, a lifelong bachelor, and Nicholas, divorced, are eccentric old fellows, and Grandmother is still active, opinionated, and cantankerous as she approaches her centenary.

Jalna is heavy on atmosphere and light on plot. The entire first half of the book is spent simply introducing us to all the characters. Then some family members get married, which brings new characters into the fold, and a few friends and relatives come by for a visit. The bulk of the text is devoted to illustrating the personality quirks of all these individuals and the interpersonal dynamics between them. What little there is of plot veers toward soap opera romance and defies belief. By the time the narrative commits such offenses, however, the reader is so charmed by Jalna and the Whiteoak family that one is complicitly willing to overlook the sensational excesses of the potboiler plot just for the pleasure of spending time with this ensemble cast. While Jalna is certainly no idyllic paradise, the real strength of the novel is the inviting way that de la Roche picturesquely describes this Ontario homestead. By the end of the book, you’ll want to live there.

The Literary Review of Canada once called Jalna “the quintessential Canadian novel.” As an American reader, I can neither confirm nor dispute that claim. However, as a Canadaphile tourist and dabbler in that nation’s literature, art, and music, I really enjoyed living vicariously through this Ontario family for a few brief years in the 1920s. There’s definitely a uniquely Canadian tone to the book that brings with it a breath of fresh air from the Great White North. Though I doubt I’ll make it through all 16 books, this certainly won’t be my last visit to the Jalna farm.
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