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Earth and High Heaven

by Gwethalyn Graham

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Ethel Southam (1938) by the Montreal painter Lilias Torrance Newton

PREFACE BY EMILY RHODES
280pp
ISBN 9781910263129

A love story in the Romeo and Juliet tradition, Earth and High Heaven is unusual in that a (relatively) happy ending is implicit in the beginning: the first sentence is ‘One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met, for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaronson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was a Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes.’

Just like Mariana by Monica Dickens, Persephone Book No. 2, which first came out in 1940 and therefore leaves a huge question mark over its happy ending (for the war has only just begun), the original readers of this bestselling 1944 novel would have been all too aware that although Earth and High Heaven has a ‘happy’ ending, the war was far from over. But whether the fictional Marc and Erica live ‘happily ever after’ after the war is almost irrelevant. What is important is whether the prejudice and hostility of her father, and of Montreal society in general, will put a stop to their love affair, and whether Canadians  would ever change their attitudes.

For Earth and High Heaven is a shocking book, reminding one that just as there were states in the American South where black people could not marry white (cf. the film of Loving) and buses where black people had to sit at the back (cf. Rosa Parks) and offices where black women had to use different ladies’ rooms (cf. Hidden Figures), so in Canada it was entirely taken for granted that there were many aspects of everyday life that were forbidden to Jews. But the barriers were often not clear-cut, as the second paragraph of the book makes plain: ‘Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffered from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.’

As Emily Rhodes, author of the new Persephone Preface, observes: ‘Gwethalyn Graham sets up so many divisions in order to point out the paradox of how they are at once utterly meaningless, and devastatingly meaningful.’ Gwethalyn Graham then goes on: ‘Thus it was improbable that Marc Reiser and Erica Drake should meet.’ But they do meet and they fall in love. The problem is the entrenched prejudice of Canadian society: Erica’s dawning realisation of what is going on all around her begins when Marc tells her he is looking for somewhere to live. ‘“Didn’t they have any vacancies?” “Yes, they did have them, but the janitor told me they don’t take Jews.” He said it so matter-of-factly that Erica almost missed it, and then it was as though it had caught her full in the face…’ This is the key moment. Erica, who has led a life of unthinking privilege, suddenly realises what Canadian society is like. And loathes what she sees. She tries to win over her father (‘“After all, we Canadians don’t really disagree fundamentally with the Nazis about the Jews – we just think they go a bit too far”’) and fails; and tries to get to know Marc while faced by the implacable opposition of her family.

Earth and High Heaven, came out when Gwethalyn Graham was 31. The book was a massive success: it sold one and a half million copies, was translated into fifteen languages and was the first ever Canadian book to be top of The New York Times bestseller list, staying on the list for 38 weeks. Because there are so many other wonderful books to reprint (‘are you ever going to run out?’ people ask us!) we could have had no idea that nine years later Gwethalyn Graham’s call to arms would have become so horribly and newly relevant.

Endpapers are taken from 'Bugs in Booby Traps', a 1947 textile designed in Detroit by Ruth Adler-Schnee (b. Frankfurt 1923)

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Categories: Abroad    Gender and Race    Love Story    Politics    WWII   
 

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