Although referred to by Canadian critics as a “classic”, this book does not seem to receive the same love from the average reader on Good Reads and other reader-review sites. Some of the comments about it are just plain funny:
“After careful consideration and a night’s sleep, I’m fairly certain that this is the worst book I have ever read in my life…”
Or how about this one:
“I would rather poke my eyes out with a rusty needle than read this again…”
Or even this one, a reviewer who holds nothing back, it seems:
“I know this is supposed to be classic Canadian literature and all, and it wasn’t bad, but good Christ, suicide really should’ve been considered as an option, what with all that tension and misery.”
So, perhaps not everyone will appreciate this quiet but desperate epistolary novel from the perspective of a reluctant preacher’s wife stuck in a small town on the Canadian prairie. Although married for twelve years, Mr. Philip Bentley and Mrs. Bentley (no first name given) are unhappy – not unhappy enough to do anything drastic to change the situation, but unhappy enough to isolate themselves from each other.
It was written in 1941 and is set during the Depression, so life is hard enough in the prairie but really hard if you’re a preacher and his family who are dependent on others for your income, your house, and everything you need. It is this sense of powerlessness that surfaces the most, I think. The husband feels powerless in that he doesn’t really want to be a preacher and is not happy in his relationship with his wife, but sees no other way to support himself (although he’s dying to be an artist). His wife, unhappy in the marriage as well, sees no other options to escape her life: she is doomed to be the supportive “preacher’s wife” out in the middle of nowhere in a community of narrow-minded people with whom she has little in common. And everyone has secrets that they’re not telling.
And it’s this contrast between the vast openness of the prairie and the winds that sweep down from the north, and the insular life of secrecy and hidden ideas that the husband and wife maintain, both from each other and the community around them. They live in a run-down house next to the church, and both seem to be mired in the social quagmire and tangles of small-town life with its petty squabbles and lack of privacy. They have few friends and nowhere to go, so it’s a life of being trapped in many ways. Perhaps the house mirrors their marriage and lives in some ways: run-down, uncared-for…
Compounding this is the fact that the couple has no children (although they would have liked to): they had a son early in the marriage, but he died, and since then, the two have sealed themselves from each other, both unhappy but refusing to really talk about it.
It’s very reminiscent (to me) of Evan Connell’s duo of Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge although both written about a decade later. Set in a different community and with options available that were not there for the unhappy Bentley couple in Canada, there is still this same sense of suffocating life, of being trapped like a fly in a jar with no hope of being released. (It also reminded me of the short story The Yellow Wallpaper and the novel The Wind by Dorothy Scarborough.)
The Bentley’s impulsively adopt a 12-year old orphan from the rougher side of town, both secretly hoping that this new arrival will be the solution for their unhappiness. However, it’s not to be. The child is Catholic, the town (and the preacher Protestant), and so this causes a rift in the community. Alongside all this is the drama of both the husband and the wife having affairs of different degrees with people in town, and as this is written from the PoV of the wife, you only read her perspective of the situation. It’s like hearing one side of a phone conversation, but there is enough info to piece the story together without frustration.
This book has been criticized for being slow-moving and boring. It’s true that there is not a lot of action actually happening, but it’s not that sort of book at all. It’s a contemplative story about domestic unhappiness and unfulfilled ambitions. It sounds terribly depressing, and it’s not a happy read, but it is a good read. Perhaps the unhappy reviewers mentioned earlier are younger and do not yet understand or empathize with goals unreached. I do think this book would be wasted on the teenager set, not because they are uneducated and idiots, but because their life experience has not allowed them to actually have these events occur to them, generally speaking. How can you understand being trapped in a relationship or a job when you still have the optimism of youth on your side?
So – good read. It did get better as I read it more and I was sucked into the narrative. I think it helps to live in a similar prairie environment and to know what the wind sounds like as it whistles across the level land in a rural world. But I don’t think that should stop anyone from reading this. The writing is excellent at describing the seasons in such a wide open space. I enjoyed this, and the high skill level of the writing. (See below.)
It was clear and glittering today, and when the sun went down the frost-mist made the sky up nearly to the zenith red and savage like a fire. I watched it with [the dog], huddled cold against the grain elevator. A team and sleigh went past while we were there, the horses snorting at the cold and blowing little clouds of steam. The bells and creaking runners left a white cold silence for a minute, like a field of snow that no one has left a footprint on; then a coyote somewhere loped across it with its fluty howl, and [the dog] bristled up his back, and pressing close against me bayed off after it in floundering pursuit.