CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 12 . . . .February 8, 2008
Mazo de la Roche: Rich and Famous Writer. (The Quest Library; 27).
Montreal, PQ: XYZ Publishing, 2006.
196 pp., pbk., $17.95.
De la Roche, Mazo, 1879-1961.
Authors, Canadian (English)-20th century-Biography.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Val Ken Lem.
Mazo's big win after many years of financial and personal struggle was wonderful, but it was not to be her only triumph. She would go on to write sixteen novels about a Canadian family called the Whiteoaks living in a house called Jalna, and these novels would sell in the millions in many languages and many countries. Her Jalna novels would be made into a Hollywood movie and a Broadway play. This same play, Whiteoaks, would be the first Canadian play to be mounted on a professional stage in London, England. And it was a hit!
Mazo de la Roche was 48 years of age when, in the spring of 1927, she won the $10,000 Atlantic Monthly Novel Prize for Jalna. De la Roche had published two other novels, a collection of short stories and play in the five previous years, but winning this award proved that writing was her calling, and she remained prolific right up to her death in 1961. Widely popular, if not always critically acclaimed, de la Roche earned a place in Canadian literary history with the creation of the romantic, fictional Whiteoak dynasty.
Mazo Louise Roche was born in Newmarket, ON, in 1879 and lived for a number of years with her maternal grandparents and her frail mother while her father worked in Toronto. Despite a fairly large extended family, Mazo had no female playmates until her cousin, Caroline Clement, joined the family when the girls were eight and nine respectively. The two bonded instantly, became as close as sisters and went on to become lifelong companions. Clement's job in the civil service provided financial stability for the women in the years prior to the publication of Jalna The success of Jalna and subsequent writings allowed Clement to quit her job and become a partner in de la Roche's creative process, acting as an editor and scribe.
Kirk, a teacher and writer living in Barrie, ON, has spent many years researching the lives of de la Roche and Clement and has corrected some major errors made by previous biographers. Kirk speculates about the people and places that inspired the characters in de la Roche's Jalna series. (See also Kirk's Who Were the Whiteoaks and Where was Jalna?, Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 2007.) Not surprisingly, the extensive familial relations of both women appear in blended form in the novels. Many of these insights are developed in the biography, but unfortunately, a couple of early chapters are burdened with genealogical data that does not make
for great storytelling. At one point, after a tiresome discussion of ancestral details with her Grandfather Lundy, Kirk even imagines a young Mazo bringing the tale to a close thus: "'Families are awfully confusing, Grandpa,' said Mazo, swinging her legs."
De la Roche shunned publicity and often told reporters false information. For example, she and Clement lied about their ages, and she told conflicting stories about the origins of two children that they adopted while living in England in the 1930s. Clement burned all of de la Roche's diaries upon her death, ensuring that many of her secrets would never be made public. However, Kirk demonstrates that de la Roche's novels and other works, including an autobiography published in 1957, can be mined for insights into the life and times of this Canadian writer. Many questions about de la Roche the woman, as distinct from the writer, remain unanswerable.
Like other volumes in the series, this book includes an extensive chronology (by Clarence Karr) in two columns, one for the biographical subject and her times, and the second for Canada and the world. By starting the chronology in 1812 with two great-great uncles fighting in the War of 1812, Karr continues the emphasis on genealogical information that can help readers untangle the confusing relations presented in the biography proper. Karr extends the chronology beyond the death of de la Roche to include the CBC mini-series, The Whiteoaks of Jalna, broadcast in 1972, and eventually the opening of two small museums in 1995 and 1996 that are partly dedicated to Mazo de la Roche. The Canada and the world chronology focuses on literary achievements in Canada and unusual international accomplishments that add little to readers' understanding of de la Roche's place in Canada and the world. Other features include lists of de la Roche's books, a bibliography, an excellent index, and more than a dozen appropriate photographs. A map of southern Ontario between Lakes Simcoe and Ontario highlighting the towns where de la Roche and her ancestors lived would have been a welcome addition.
Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and collection liaison for English, history and Caribbean studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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