Monday, 29 January 2018

'Earth & High Heaven'

Gwethalyn Graham, photo via Persephone website

Earth & High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

Originally published in 1944, Earth & High Heaven (reprinted care of Persephone Books) by Canadian author Gwethalyn Graham is a fascinating and compelling look at the fledgling relationship between Jewish lawyer Marc Reiser and newspaper reporter Erica Drake, whose archaic parents are strongly opposed to her relationship with a Jewish man.

Set in Canada during the three months in summer 1942 between Erica and Marc’s first meeting, and Marc’s subsequent conscription overseas to fight in WW2, Earth & High Heaven is a claustrophobic and tense novel that neatly sums up the agonies of a love that is dampened by bigoted families.

There are chapters filled with intense dialogue and debate between Erica and Marc, and Erica and her stubborn mule of a father, Charles. These concentrated conversations feel tight and close and staccato, yet sadly just as relevant now in a post-Brexit, post-Trump age. But they are beautifully peppered with scenes of Erica at work with her newspaper colleagues on the local paper, where her quick fire wit and sharp talk with her colleagues brings to mind the obvious comparison of reporter Hildy Johnson (played by Rosalind Russell) in the brilliant 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday.

To a contemporary reader, the bigotry and prejudice that Erica’s parents irrationally hold towards Marc is stupefying. They won’t allow him in the house and therefore they have never spoken to him, yet they remain steadfast that their daughter would be ruining her life and become dead to them if she were to marry Marc, for no other reason than that he is a Jew. In 2018, this is startling to read. But in 1944, when Earth & High Heaven was published, this was doubtless a common view: one that Gwethalyn hoped to expose with her brutal novel showing up these ignorant attitudes.

Earth & High Heaven has sold 1.5 million copies since 1944 and been translated into 15 languages, as well as spending 38 weeks in The New York Times bestseller list. And having read it, it is easy to see why this novel has become such an important book.

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