Two Books that Slipped Through the Cracks: Elizabeth Hay and Ernest Buckler

The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler (1952)

It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve finally read this book. Everyone else around me has read it, being a Canadian classic set in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. The author lived in the valley himself, and so I imagine this novel is partly autobiographical, although, Ernest Buckler calls Ox Bells and Firefliesย his “fictional memoir”.

This is a coming-of-age story about David Canaan. He lives in rural Nova Scotia on a farm where life is practical, a cycle of planting, harvesting, and preserving as ruled by the seasons. It’s not long before David realizes he is different from most of the others – he is interested in words. He wants to go to university at a time when his brother and his friends are finished with school and helping their fathers out on the farm.

Suddenly he knew how to surmount everything. That loneliness he’d always had… it got forgotten, maybe, weeded over… but none of it had ever been conquered. (And all that time the key to freedom had been lying in these lines, this book.) There was only one way to possess anything: to say it exactly. Then it would be outside you, captured and conquered.

Ernest Buckler’s writing is poetic and descriptive. I got a wonderful sense of David’s growing up years – school, chores, his relationship with his parents and grandmother (who lives with them), and time spent with friends, horsing around in the swimming hole or teasing each other about their stature or their experience (or lack of) with girls.

I was, however, appalled by the boys’ casual way of talking about (and treating) girls from a very young age. (“He wished he could do it with Effie as if somehow she wasn’t there.”) I felt upset by a couple of scenes in particular, although I’m also aware that the author is portraying life as it was then. And that’s the way it was.

Despite that one gripe, I enjoyed the novel, loved the writing, and look forward to readingย Ox Bells and Fireflies.

Favourite line: “When the day’s work was done and supper over, the kitchen seemed to smile.”


Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007)

I read this book with Rebecca and Penny way back in August. I loved it so much (so much!), but just didn’t ever get to writing about it. It probably felt like a big undertaking, because of all the things I would like to have said. But now that some time has passed, maybe I can get a grip.

(It helps that I have since discovered that my notes are lost. Should I ever find them, I will be back to add in my favourite passages!)

I’ll just list the things I loved: the writing; the setting of Yellowknife NWT; the tight-knit cast of characters (who all work at the local radio station) circling round each other, pulling away, getting closer, falling in and out of love and admiration. Most of all, the canoe trip taken by four of the characters into the Arctic wilderness, following in the path of John Hornby who, along with his two companions, starved to death in 1927. The caribou, the bear, the frigid waters. Reading about the Arctic mosquitoes from the comfort of my own home.

The next day they paddled on. The air was calm. The mosquitoes ferocious, almost as plentiful as the caribou hair in the bushes and at the water’s edge, white, brittle, hollow hairs and some finer fluff, a floating mattress of hair. The shore, formerly flat and hard, was churned up by hooves.

My copy of Late Nights on Air is 364 pages, but I wished it was longer.

You stand next to the sea and you’re in touch with all your longings and all your losses.


I’ll leave you with this passage from The Mountain and the Valley

The smell of the tree grew suddenly and the memory of the smell of the oranges and the feel of the nuts. In that instant suddenly, ecstatically, burstingly, buoyantly, enclosingly, sharply, safely, stingingly, watchfully, batedly, mountingly, softly, ever so softly, it was Christmas Eve.

Happy Holidays, Everyone!ย 

33 thoughts on “Two Books that Slipped Through the Cracks: Elizabeth Hay and Ernest Buckler

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I’m so glad you loved Late Nights on Air, Naomi. Gorgeous writing – so wistful at times. It’s the kind of book that once you’ve read it you want all your friends to read it, too.

    • Naomi says:

      Absolutely! And it just about killed me that I couldn’t find my notes. I scoured all the usual spots several times – I fear they might have gone out with the recycling. On the other hand, maybe they will just appear one of these days…

  2. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis says:

    And wonderful books they are!

    I love just about everything by Elizabeth Hay. She’s one of those Canadian writers (unfortunately the list is rather long) who are often overlooked by readers outside Canada. (I might add Marina Endicott, Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey . . .)

    I also enjoyed Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley. It seemed like such a beautifully preserved time-capsule of Nova Scotia life.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s a good way to describe it, Debbie – “a beautifully preserved time capsule”. I could picture it all so well.

      I have only read two books by Elizabeth Hay now, but hope to eventually read them all!

  3. wadholloway says:

    That’s what I love – books about place by people who actually lived there. I looked on my ‘boyhood’ shelves and I have Jet, Sled Dog of the North, With Wolfe in Canada, and The Young Fur Traders. Less than authentic I now suspect. But very close to the sum total of my knowledge about Canada. Sorry!

    • Naomi says:

      I am so glad you commented! I just had some fun looking up all those books and authors you mention. I haven’t read any of them, but now am particularly intrigued by Ballantyne and Henty. They both sound like great story tellers! It doesn’t sound like Henty had been to Canada, but Ballantyne was here for 6 years with the Hudson Bay company, so his accounts are likely pretty authentic.
      These books make me think of Farley Mowat. Have you ever read one of his books?

      • wadholloway says:

        I haven’t read Farley Mowat, though I like that he wept in battle and was transferred to office work. We should all weep when politicians send young men to kill each other.
        I recall that I also read Leonard Cohen. Love his songs, but not his book!

      • Naomi says:

        I read his book, Lost in the Barrens (also known as Two Against the North) when I was young and I loved it. That’s the book I was thinking of when I read about the ones you mentioned. Maybe you’d like it!

      • wadholloway says:

        The cover of Lost in the Barrens looks very Boys Own. I’ll let you know if I stumble over a copy – I’m still resisting downloading e-books except from Project Gutenberg.

  4. annelogan17 says:

    I LOVED Late Nights on Air, and after meeting Hay a few months ago, I can confirm she is just as lovely as her writing. It was one of the first books i’ve ever recorded a passage from, and I’ve kept it with me since. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially it was something like “a word balanced atop a mountain of feeling”. Beautiful!

  5. FictionFan says:

    Late Nights on Air sounds wonderful, especially that Arctic trip – though I do wonder at people deciding to follow in the footsteps of people who died!! The first one surprises me – I wouldn’t have expected such a frank comment about sex in a book as early as that. I thought sex was only invented in the ’60s… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Lisa Hill says:

    Oh dear #DuckingForCover I didn’t get on with Late Nights on Air at all. Kevin from Canada visited my review and suggested that it was perhaps a book that did not travel well outside Canada, like some of our Australian books outside their homeland.
    Gosh, I still miss him and his insights…

    • Naomi says:

      That could be… Although, having loved it so much, I can’t imagine anyone else *not* liking it. But that could be said for anything I love, including peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t know what it was about it, but I loved every word. I didn’t ever find it slow or hard to get into. However, I can see that it would seem long to someone who has trouble getting into it. Thanks for the link to your review!

  7. buriedinprint says:

    You already know how much I love both of these! And that quote at the end: so very timely indeed. How funny that your post – given its title – somehow slipped through the cracks of my reader as well. I noticed it when I was scrolling through the back end of the WordPress reader (normally I never venture there) and was excited to be able to catch up with your thoughts on these two faves. Which of Hay’s do you think you might try next?

    • Naomi says:

      That’s a hard question. I own Alone in the Classroom and his Whole Life, but lately I’ve been tempted by Consoled (probably because it’s shiny and new). Are there any that you haven’t read?

      • buriedinprint says:

        Those are the exact three that I haven’t read. I used to just keep a single book of hers in reserve but, can you tell, after Late Nights, I panicked a little and decided I needed to keep more than one in reserve. Isn’t it funny how it’s the book that one does not own which is always the most alluring!

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