________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 11 . . . .January 19, 2007



Mazo de la Roche.
Montreal, PQ: XYZ Publishing, 1927/2006.
356 pp., pbk., $24.95.
ISBN 978-1-894852-23-4.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Karen Rankin.

*** /4



It was a day of days. As golden, as mature, as voluptuous as a Roman matron fresh from the bath, the October morning swept with indolent dignity across the land. Alayne said something like this to the boy [Finch] as they followed a path over the meadows, and, though he made no reply, he smiled in a way that lighted up his plain face with such sudden sweetness that Alayne's heart warmed to him. She talked without waiting for him to reply, till by degrees his shyness melted, and she found herself listening to him. He was telling her how this path that led through the birch wood was an old Indian trail, and how it led to the river six miles away where the traders and Indians had long ago been wont to meet to barter skins of fox and mink for ammunition and blankets. He was telling her of the old fiddler, "Fiddler Jock," who had had his hut in this wood before the Whiteoaks had bought Jalna.

My granddad let him stay on. He used to play his fiddle at weddings and parties of all sorts. But one night some people gave him such a lot of drink before he started for his hut that he got dazed, and it was a bitterly cold night, and he could not find his way home through the snow. When he got as far as Grandad's barnyard he gave up and he crawled into a straw stack and was frozen to death. Gran found him two days after when she was out for a walk. He was absolutely rigid, his frozen eyes staring out of his frozen face. Gran was a young woman then, but she's never forgotten it. I've often heard her tell of finding him. She had Uncle Nick with her. He was only a little chap, but he's never forgotten the way the old fellow had his fiddle gripped, just as though he'd been playing when he died.

Alayne looked curiously at the boy. His eyes had a hallucinated expression. He was evidently seeing in all its strangeness the scene he had just described.


Jalna, located in southern Ontario, is the impressive rural home of the Whiteoak family. Jalna, the first of a 16-novel saga, follows the lives of the members of this family over a period of a year. At 99 years of age, Grandmother, a widow, still presides over the family: two doting and elderly sons, a granddaughter – Meg, unmarried and pushing 40 – and five grandsons, ranging in age from 37-year-old Renny to nine-year-old Wakefield. Over the course of the year, two of the brothers – poet, Eden and farmer, Piers – marry. Eden's marriage delights the family, who mistakenly assume that his American bride, Alayne, is an independently wealthy heiress. Piers's match, however, is the source of great consternation, since the young bride, Pheasant, is the illegitimate child of Meg's former fiancé. During the course of the novel, Alayne discovers that her love for Eden is not as true as her love for his older brother, Renny. And the formerly detached bachelor, Renny, is likewise smitten by Alayne. Meanwhile, Eden develops a physical attraction to Piers' new wife. Matters come to a head when 16-year-old Finch discovers Eden and Pheasant making love in the "birch wood" and then informs Piers.

     Mazo de la Roche wrote Jalna back in 1928, but today's soap-opera loving audience would still find this 356-page yarn a quick and easy read. In each chapter, the omniscient narrator views life at Jalna through the eyes of a different character. Behaviour that was probably considered shocking in 1928 is now far more commonplace yet still makes for a compelling read. The novel begins with a day in the life of sickly young Wakefield, the thoroughly charming and benignly manipulative "idler, liar, thief, [and] wastrel." After Wakefield convinces Mrs. Brawn, a local shop-keeper to whom he already owes 13 cents, to give him a bottle of lemon soda on credit, Mrs. Brawn notes:

"You've a wonderful gift of the gab." [She] beamed at him admiringly.

"Yes, I have," he agreed, modestly. "If I hadn't, I'd have no show at all, being the youngest of such a large family. Grandmother and I do a good deal of the talking, she at her end of the line and I at mine. You see, we both feel that we may not have many more years to live, so we make the most of everything that comes our way."

"Oh, my goodness, don't talk that way. You'll be all right." She was round-eyed with sympathy. "Don't worry, my dear."

"I'm not worrying, Mrs.Brawn. It's my sister does the worrying. She's had a terrible time raising me, and of course I'm not raised yet." He smiled sadly, and then bent his small dark head over the bottle, sucking ecstatically.

     All of Mazo de la Roche's characters are similarly well-rounded and credible given the historical context. Though not particularly thought-provoking, it's not difficult to see how Jalna, out of print for 30 years until now, became a bestseller in its day. As noted previously, readers who want more of the Whiteoak family can make their way through another 15 books. Morning at Jalna, the last in the series, was published in 1960, a year before Mazo de le Roche's death.


Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, writer and editor of children's stories.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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