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Earth and High Heaven

by Gwethalyn Graham
Persephone book no:

121 122 123


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A Well Full of Leaves
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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. the film 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.

Endpaper

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

Picture Caption

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


Read What Readers Say

Heaven Ali (blogger)

‘Earth and High Heaven' is a book I couldn’t stop reading but didn’t want to finish. It’s hard to convey in a review just how lovely this book is, you may just need to read it. There is something about Gwethalyn Graham’s story-telling, the way in which she creates relationships, the emotional and upsetting nature of the divisions that she portrays which makes this novel so compelling. Erica, the heroine, is an innocent in the ways of the society in which she lives, she herself is incapable of disliking someone simply because they happen to be Jewish – and so discovering this attitude exists within the very walls of her home, she is devastated. This is a surprisingly emotional read, and I defy anyone not to rush through it – desperate to see if the happy ending implied in that first sentence comes true. Erica is the driving force of the novel, a wonderfully sympathetic character through whose eyes we see the divisions within a society.

J-Mo Writes via Instagram

‘Earth and High Heaven’ is a claustrophobic and tense novel that neatly sums up the agonies of a love that is dampened by bigoted families. To a contemporary reader, the bigotry and prejudice that Erica’s parents irrationally hold towards Marc is stupefying… But in Canada in 1944 this was doubtless a common view: one that Gwethalyn Graham hoped to expose with her brutal novel showing up these ignorant attitudes…. it is easy to see why this novel has become such an important book.

Rebecca Wallersteiner, ‘The Lady’

A sparkling, harrowing and emotionally intense read about the unfathomable mysteries of the human heart, with insight into the challenges faced by Jews in the period.

Categories: Love Story Overseas Politics Race WWII

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