Book Review: “I’m Betting On You…”

From 1949 to 1955 cabinet created two Royal Commissions on culture, one on arts and literature, the other on broadcasting. After beating Hitler and mastering hydro dams, the country for the first time was affluent enough to ask what it meant to be Canadian. Ordinary people subscribed to the Book Of The Month Club, and their children read W.O. Mitchell at school. Canadian writers – Morley Callaghan, Mordecai Richler, Farley Mowat, Al Purdy – were genuine celebrities, and dailies like the Winnipeg Free Press ran a weekly Young Authors contest.

The University of Alberta Press documents the era through the warm, nostalgic filter of private letters between one of the country’s most acclaimed novelists and her publisher. It is a sweet book, funny and angry by turn, and a delight to read.

Margaret Laurence was a writer from Neepawa, Man. whose early novels were an unvarnished depiction of life in a small town. Her publisher Jack McClelland was a chain-smoking cultural nationalist who drove himself to an ulcer. Letters follows their intimate correspondence from 1959 to Laurence’s death. It was a time of “cultural awakening”, editors note. “Moments in their letters are reminders of the humanity of these figures.”

As Laurence wrote in a “Dear Jack” letter in 1963, “If it is true (as I once heard Farley Mowat say in a radio talk) that in Canada people buy fewer books per year than in any other country except Siam, then one does not expect miracles.”

Laurence was a giant. Her novels including The Stone Angel and A Jest Of God were genuine bestsellers. One was sold as a screenplay for the 1968 Paul Newman film Rachel, Rachel. The other was famous enough to make it into Coles Notes. “If you haven’t seen it, don’t,” wrote Laurence. “It is vile. Chapter summaries, for God’s sake – no need to read the book! To see a novel mushed down into miniature, in somebody’s crass prose – it nearly made me throw up.”

Canadian publishing, then and now, is a hardscrabble business. Laurence was giddy on receiving a $5,000 grant from the Canada Council in 1966, the modern equivalent of $38,000, just enough to buy an SUV. “Domestic life has been rather distracting lately as our water pipes froze,” she wrote McClelland. Her publisher remarked, “The strain of this idiotic business never seems to ease. In fact, it gets worse.”

Editors Laura K. Davis of Red Deer College and Linda M. Morra of Bishop’s University compiled Letters from archival records deposited by the authors’ estates, including correspondence only recently opened to scholars. The result is a treasure, tender and cynical.

“I am mad as hell about the fact you didn’t receive the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction,” McClelland wrote in 1965; “It’s a goddamn disgrace.”

From Laurence: “Roses are red/violets are blue/Be heartened old buddy/I’m betting on you.” From McClelland: “My dear, we have had our best years. If we don’t have too many more, that may not be all bad.”

Laurence died in 1987 at 61. McClelland died in 2004 at 81. Their correspondence is gold.

By Holly Doan

Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland, Letters; edited by Laura K. Davis and Linda M. Morra; University of Alberta Press; 680 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-3357; $39.95

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