Bestselling Canadian author Mazo de la Roche (1879-1961) was a great favourite of the Book Society. Whiteoaks, the second of her 16-volume family saga (1927-60), was popular with Book Society readers and her later Whiteoak Heritage (1940) was also a Book Society Choice.
De la Roche was on close terms with Book Society Chairman Hugh Walpole, dedicating The Master of Jalna (1933) to him. She wrote in August 1936, ‘I am so glad you like Whiteoak Harvest. My books do not seem to be properly launched till they have made their bow to you’.
Whiteoaks is a dramatic and romantic novel that provides insight into pro-British, late colonial Canadian high society. The story centres upon the claustrophobic, patriarchal family-lives of the Whiteoaks, now settled in Canada for 2 generations. Jalna, the family’s country manor, with its ‘lofty rooms […] and old English furniture’ (80) is named after the Indian military station where the younger generation’s grandfather was once positioned with the British Army. Old Mrs Whiteoak, the dying grandmother and nominal head of the family has ‘lived through India and I’ve lived through Canada. Roasting and freezing. All one to me’ (165).
It is one of the book’s questions for readers just how much the colonial/colonialist mentality characteristic to the older generations goes unchallenged in the story? Finch, the fifth child in the family’s third generation and in some ways the reader’s representative as outsider, consistently questions the Whiteoaks’ values, as does his sister-in-law, Alayne, an American who, when we first meet her, is back living in New York, working as a book reviewer and publisher’s reader. Much of the book’s dramatic tension stems from the illicit passion between Alayne and the central, charismatic Whiteoak brother Renny: a brooding Mr Rochester if ever there was one and a hyper-masculine figurehead for an independent, postcolonial Canada.
Mazo de la Roche’s first Whiteoaks story, Jalna (1927), received the prestigious $10,000 American Atlantic Monthly prize for fiction and she was a bestselling celebrity author in Canada, receiving huge amounts of fan mail. Her critical reputation declined in direct proportion to the volume of Whiteoaks stories published, and her complex attitude to Britain meant that she didn’t fare well in the 1950s as interest in promoting Canadian content grew.
But it is not difficult to see why she remained so popular with readers after reading the passionate Whiteoaks.