Monday, May 06, 2019

Up the Hill & Over

Up the Hill and Over / Isabel Ecclestone Mackay
Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1927, c1917.
363 p.

And now for some hundred year old Canadian small town drama! Isabel Ecclestone Mackay was born in Ontario, and though by the time she wrote most of her books she was married and living in Vancouver, her stories still take place in and around Toronto and small town Ontario. 

The first of her books which I read was The House of Windows, set in a town very much like Toronto and featuring a focus on labour practices and the livelihoods of young women, mixed in amongst the storytelling. 

This one takes on another issue - drug abuse - specifically of opioids by someone once prescribed them by a doctor. I don't know if we could find a more timely theme from another 100 year old book.

This is a charming book despite the melodramatic themes -- it felt reminiscent of writers of the era like Myrtle Reed and even our own LM Montgomery -- more Blue Castle than Anne though. 

It starts out with a man walking into town along a dusty road -- he stops for a drink from the schoolhouse pump and encounters Esther, the pretty young schoolteacher. It turns out he's not a tramp, but a doctor intent on settling into this town and working for his living. 

Like every good romance, this one has secrets, mysterious pasts, coincidental meetings, and thwarted love. It also has quite a bit of social commentary: the doctor is a famous Montreal doctor taking an anonymous rest cure after a nervous breakdown, Esther is stuck taking care of an elderly aunt who is mentally unstable, along with a stepmother who is the aforementioned drug addict. The local minister is terrifyingly fixated on the young Esther as well, and she must walk a fine line socially to manage all this. Of course, the arrival of the new doctor throws her ordered life into new paths.

There is lots of confusion, sacrifice and young love going on here, but even with the obvious tropes and the turn of the century writing style the story is appealing and reads very quickly. There's a funny, throwaway quality to some of Mackay's most pointed observations, particularly when she's noting personality quirks and social mores.   
The ending was not at all where I expected the story to go -- she doesn't paint these issues with a golden brush. There is an appropriately happy ending, but one with shadows holding it up.

It was, however, a very engaging read, and I recommend it. I missed out on this author while studying CanLit, so I most definitely think her mix of romance and social critique is due for a second look now.


  1. Up the Hill and Over is my favourite Isabel Ecclestone Mackay novel, despite having what may be the most improbable coincidence I've ever read. Or may it's because of the coincidence... Either way, the surprise is spoiled by the frontispiece.

    I hope you'll continue with IEM. Her last novel, Blencarrow was one of the three best novels I read last year. I'd really like to read your thoughts on it.

    1. I'll definitely be continuing on with her work -- I really like it. Thank goodness most of them are available on Open Library! Though I do notice that there are a few hard copies in the Oxford County system, which makes sense since it's her home town area. Too bad we can no longer interloan them. >:(

  2. I am surprised that this older book has such a timely theme! The book does sound engaging.I enjoyed reading your thoughtful review.


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