Friday, August 23, 2019

Whiteoaks by Mazo de la Roche

Canuck Dynasty
Whiteoaks, or Whiteoaks of Jalna, is the second book in the Jalna series of novels by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche. Whiteoak is the name of a family, and Jalna is the name of their farm in southern Ontario. Over a period of more than three decades, de la Roche published 16 novels in the Jalna series, which became immensely popular in Canada. When all the sequels and prequels are taken into consideration, this is the eighth book in the chronology of the Whiteoak family, but the second to be published. The first book, simply entitled Jalna, was a charming slice of Canadian life that introduced the reader to some interesting characters. Whiteoaks, unfortunately, ventures more into soap opera histrionics and makes for a far less satisfying read.

Whiteoaks picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first novel. Life goes on as usual at the Jalna farm, where horses, apples, and big family dinners are the main concerns, except that some members of the family are still licking their wounds from the romantic turmoil that took place in the previous book. The whereabouts of brother Eden, who took off when his marriage fell apart, are still unknown. His wife Alayne has returned to her former life in New York, though she still feels a sort of psychic connection drawing her to Jalna. Some marital bonds survived the last book, bringing about the arrival of new babies to the Whiteoak clan. The primary focus of Whiteoaks, however, is the prospects of 19-year-old Finch. Music is the one love of his life, but his older half-brother and guardian Renny, who wishes Finch would pursue more practical pursuits, has forbidden him to practice music until he gets his grades up. Meanwhile, Finch strikes up a friendship with Arthur Leigh, a wealthy boy from his school. For the first time in his life, Finch feels the pull of a life outside the confines of Jalna, but the more he struggles to be his own man the more he only inspires disappointment and disdain in his family members.

One problem with this book is that the Whiteoak clan consists mostly of males, and de la Roche just isn’t that great at writing male characters. Renny is a red-headed Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Piers is a macho redneck, Eden is a womanizing egotist, and Finch is so sensitive and effeminate it seems as if de la Roche couldn’t make up her mind whether he’s gay or straight. Though the book was published in 1929, Finch’s friendship with Arthur Leigh is either a throwback to antiquated depictions of male friendships from 19th century romanticism or de la Roche has a definite problem writing from a masculine perspective. (Of course, there are also plenty of male authors who can’t write realistic women.) Even Finch’s two elder brothers question his sexual preference, proving that this homosexual subtext isn’t merely a figment of the reader’s imagination. The point is not whether Finch is or isn’t gay, but rather that he is unrealistically written. What’s worse, he mopes and whines his way through much of the book. Perhaps in the next novel de la Roche will find a better direction for the character, but in this novel his relentless insecurities, failures, and emotional outbursts add up to one depressing protagonist.

There’s still a fun family dynamic among the Whiteoaks at times, particularly when the 101-year-old grandmother is involved. It seems odd, however, that although the men in the distinguished Whiteoak clan would be considered “catches” in their town, their prospects for romance are so limited that they have to resort to chasing after their siblings’ spouses and servants. This volume of the Jalna series veers a little too far from realism into melodrama. I hope the next book recaptures some of the charm that made Jalna so enjoyable in the first place.
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