CanLit Canon Review #8: Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

As For Me and My House, published in 1941, is a beautifully moody novel about weather and a terrible marriage. The book is written as a series of diary entries over 13 months during the Depression. Mrs. Bentley (her first name never appears in the book) is the writer of the diary entries, and her primary subject is her husband, Philip Bentley.

The book starts with the Bentleys arriving in Horizon, the fourth such prairie town in 12 years for the couple. Philip is a failed painter and a protestant minister, even though he doesn’t believe in god, and Mrs. Bentley is learning to live as a devoted minister’s wife after letting go of her dream of playing piano in the capitals of Europe.

Philip and Mrs. Bentley hate the church and the small towns they’re forced to endure, and this leads to the two of them hating each other.

“I ask myself how many more years like this it’s going to be, the little house so still and dead, the door between us closed. All for the sake of a few hundred dollars a year. Four ugly little rooms, a hat that cost a dollar forty-five. I didn’t used to be that way.”

On top of that, Mrs. Bentley feels like an unworthy wife because the one time she got pregnant the baby was stillborn.

The couple’s inability to have a child leads them to adopt a troubled Catholic boy, but when the Catholic priests find out the boy is being raised by Protestants, the boy is taken away. This episode is told flatly, as all are in As For Me and My House; when their dog is eaten by coyotes, when Mrs. Bentley realizes Philip is cheating on her with a choir girl, when Philip accuses Mrs. Bentley of cheating on him with a schoolteacher, it’s all told in the same wonderful monotone of quiet desperation.

Add to that the weather and you have a tense little book; sometimes there’s snow, sometimes sun and heat, and nearly never rain. It’s the wind—the “liplessly mournful” wind, that blows seed off the farmers’ fields, that traps Mrs. Bentley in her hated house—that sets the tone.

“A while ago the wind and the crunch of sand on the floor used to put an itch in my fingers. I wanted to tear and shake and crush something. But it’s different now. I sit quiet, listening, looking at the fuchsia till it’s disappeared. In the last week I seem to have realized that wind is master.”

As For Me and My House is not going to cheer you up, but it will absorb you into a world of prairie wind and resentment, and, though you will be glad to get out of it, you won’t leave until you run out of pages to read.