26 August 2009

Ontario, Opium and Cocaine

Up the Hill and Over
Isabel Ecclestone Mackay
Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1917

The plot of Up the Hill and Over features perhaps the most remarkable and improbable coincidence in all of Canadian literature. I put this out there as a warning: a spoiler will follow.

Isabel Ecclestone Mackay wrote this, her second novel, while living in Vancouver, but its setting is the small town Ontario she left behind. Coombe is the sort of place where Sunday travel is frowned upon, unmarrieds daren't picnic together and ladies are advised to take care lest their belt pins become unclasped. Into this darkly Presbyterian community strolls handsome Henry Callandar. A celebrated doctor, his cheerful, yet reasoned persona hides heartache, heartbreak and anguish. Years earlier, upon learning of his beloved wife Molly's death, Callandar suffered a breakdown, collapsing on his mother-in-law's poorly-scrubbed doorstep. The doctor's retreat from his home in the messy metropolis of Montreal to the seemingly simple and sleepy town of Coombe is to be the final step in his rehabilitation.

The first person he meets is Esther Coombe, granddaughter of the man for whom Callandar's adopted home was named. An angelic schoolteacher, she supports a household that includes a sister, a kooky aunt and a widowed, thieving, opium-addicted step-mother. That's right, opium... and cocaine, too.

Callandar and Esther's few trivial adventures and minor meetings lead to love. Within weeks, the doctor can no longer suppress his desire to reveal his true feelings and propose marriage. Told that Esther is gathering flowers in a local meadow, Callandar sprints towards a figure he believes to be her. But that's not Esther's blue dress, only one that looks much like hers. Nor is that her white hat, the circumference is off by an inch or two. And, of course, the figure is not Esther, but her step-mother... who, Callandar is shocked to discover, is the wife he'd been mourning all these years.

The reader will not fall off his or her chair; preceding pages provide foreshadowing, preparing the reader for what is to come. There's the discovery of a mysterious letter, some talk of inescapable fate and this paragraph:
What are they, anyway, these curious combinations of unforeseen incidents which under a name of 'coincidence' startle us out of our dull acceptance of things? Can it be that, after all, space and circumstance are but pieces in a puzzle to which the key is lost, so that, playing blindly, we are startled by the click which announces the falling of some corner into place? Or is it merely that we are all more closely linked than we know, and is 'coincidence' but the flashing of one of numberless invisible links into the light of common day? Some day we shall know all about it; in the meantime a little wonder will do us good.
Yes, a little wonder will do us good... so, don't you go criticizing my clever plot twist.

This pivotal scene is captured in a plate that proceeds the title page – the ultimate spoiler, I suppose.

It seems Callandar's scheming mother-in-law had convinced Molly that she'd been abandoned. The good doctor had changed his name, so his wife had never suspected that he might be her first husband. Adding to this unfortunate set of circumstances, Molly, too, had changed her name, becoming Mary – Mary Coombs. And, conveniently, she'd never been home when Callandar had come to call on Esther

Any threat of scandale is prevented by the doctor's decision to do the honourable thing and quickly remarry Mary (née Molly). But what of Esther? Does Mary's resurrection destroy his love with her? No, it does not. In fact, such are Callandar's feelings for the schoolteacher that he tortures the poor girl by expressing his love, adding with deep regret, that he must marry her step-mother. Chin up, Esther copes with the situation as best she can, but before long the town gossips are remarking on her weight loss. It seems love's labour is lost until – happy day! – Mary dies of an opium overdose.

I'm being a bit flippant here. In fact, most are sad, some blaming themselves for Mary's dramatic demise. Poor Dr Callandar is hit hardest of all, experiences a relapse and is 'taken away to Toronto for special treatment'. Not to worry, he's soon cured, and returns to Coombe eight pages later, very much in love with Esther.


Q: From where exactly does a lady living in early 20th century small town Ontario procure opium and cocaine?

A: Detroit. According to the author, both are available through the post from druggists, who are 'not called druggists exactly'.

Object and Access:
A smart, if unremarkable hardcover. Public library users in Vancouver and Toronto are in luck, though the copies found in their respective institutions are for reference only. It's held by 22 of our academic libraries, including Wilfrid Laurier University, in the author's hometown of Waterloo. There are no copies at Library and Archives Canada, yet the Library of Congress has a volume. The first (and only) edition can be purchased for as little as US$12. The same Vermont bookseller attempting to flog Mackay's copy of The Chivalry of Keith Lancaster for US$298 will part with Up the Hill and Over for US$36. Condition is not a factor. As might be expected, there's not a dust jacket in sight.

Those who know no better, or have an aversion to old books, may be interested to learn that various 'editions' are sold by the print on demand public domain farms. Sadly, Tutis Digital does not 'publish' Up the Hill and Over – though it does offer Mackay's The Window-Gazer, a novel set, apparently, amongst the Gothic ruins of downtown Vancouver.

Those who are still trying to crack the nut that is Tutis are directed to 'Fish, Barrel, Gun: Tutis' and 'Tutis 3: The Tutising', the most recent posts by J.R.S. Morrison at his always excellent Caustic Cover Critic blog.

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