SOURCE: An introduction to The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories by Sinclair Ross, McClelland and Stewart, 1968, pp. 7-12.
[Laurence was a Canadian novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, editor, and translator. She is considered a prominent figure in contemporary Canadian literature. In the essay, she acknowledges Ross as an early influence upon her work and describes his style as "spare, lean, and honest. "]
Although Sinclair Ross's stories and two novels have appeared over a period of some twenty-five years, most of his writing has been done out of the background of the prairie drought and depression of the Thirties, and as a chronicler of that era, he stands in a class by himself. When I first read his extraordinary and moving novel, As For Me And My House, at about the age of eighteen, it had an enormous impact on me, for it seemed the only completely genuine one I had ever read about my own people, my own place, my own time. It pulled no punches about life in the stultifying atmosphere of small and ingrown towns, and yet it was illuminated with compassion.
In Ross's short stories, the same society is portrayed, the same themes explored, with the difference that these stories all have completely rural settings. The farms stand far apart, only distantly related to whatever town is the focal point for buying and selling. The human community is, for most of the time, reduced to its smallest unit, one family. The isolation is virtually complete. It is within this extreme condition of human separateness and in the extremes of summer drought and winter blizzard that Ross's characters grapple with their lives and their fate, a fate partly imposed upon them by an uncaring and fickle natural order and partly compelled by their own spiritual inheritance, the pride and the determination which enable them to refuse defeat, but which also cut them off from nearly all real contact with others.
Appearing almost as chief protagonist is the land itself. In spite of its deceptive moments of calm promise, it is an essentially violent and unpredictable land, quixotic, seeming to bestow grace and favour, then suddenly attacking with arrows of snow, shrieking armies of wind, bludgeons of hail, or the quiet lethal assault of the sun. Indeed, the land sometimes assumes a character as harsh as that of the vengeful God who sorely tried Job, and the farmers who stay on, year after year, seeing their crops spoiled and themselves becoming old in youth, yet still maintaining their obsessive faith in the land, are reminiscent of Job himself—Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.
Characteristically, and in keeping with his themes, Ross describes the land in strong, broad strokes, and I do not believe that anyone has ever given a better impressionistic view of the prairies. I think, for example, of his description of drought in "Not by Rain Alone":
The days were still, brassy, pitiless. Swift little whirlwinds scoured across the field; in their wake there closed a hushed, oppressive immobility. On wheat and fallow land and ripening rye alike lay a dusty-yellow monochrome of haze. . . .
Or the hard, sharp description of winter as seen by Ann in "The Painted Door":
The sun was risen above the frost mists now, so keen and hard a glitter on the snow that instead of warmth its rays seemed shedding cold. One of the two-yearold colts that had cantered away when John turned the horses out for water stood covered with rime at the stable door again, head down and body hunched, each breath a little plume of steam against the frosty air. She shivered, but did not turn. In the clear, bitter light the long white miles of prairie landscape seemed a region alien to life. Even the distant farmsteads she could see served only to intensify a sense of isolation. Scattered across the face of so vast and bleak a wilderness it was difficult to conceive them as a testimony of human hardihood and endurance. Rather they seemed futile. Rather they seemed to cower before the implacability of snow-swept earth and clear pale sun-chilled sky.
Ross's style is always beautifully matched to his material—spare, lean, honest, no gimmicks, and yet in its very simplicity setting up continuing echoes in the mind.
The women in these stories have their own personal dilemmas, but they also have many qualities in common. They are farmers' wives, most of them still fairly young, trying to resign themselves to lives of unrelieved drabness. They are without exception terrifyingly lonely, shut into themselves, shut out of their husbands' inner lives. Ann, in "The Painted Door," is trapped both by John's blunt devotion and by his total lack of perception of her real needs. Ellen, in "The Lamp At Noon," feels caged and cannot communicate her feelings to Paul. Their separate pain remains separate, until she, in a final madness of concern about their baby, tries to escape and walks into the windstorm in which the child, ironically and tragically, is smothered both by dust and by his...
A very private man, Sinclair Ross was reticent about his personal life and preferred to let his art speak for him. It is possible, however, to piece together at least the outward facts of his life. Born January 22, 1908, in northern Saskatchewan, James Sinclair Ross was the third child of Peter and Catherine Ross, who met and married in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, in 1897. Peter had been born on an Ontario farm to Scottish parents, and Catherine had been born in Scotland. When he was three, Ross’s parents separated, his mother taking custody of him, and his father taking the two older children. After the separation, Mrs. Ross found employment as a housekeeper on several farms. Ross assisted with farm chores and learned the vagaries of horses and men as well as the daunting effects of landscape and climate on the prairie dwellers. He retained strong memories of his isolation in those years.
After he graduated from high school in 1924, Ross went to work for the Royal Bank of Canada, his sole employer until his retirement in 1968. In 1933, the bank rewarded Ross’s stints in several small Saskatchewan towns by sending him to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he remained until 1946, except for World War II military service, and finally to Montreal. Upon retirement from the bank, he lived in Greece for three years and then moved to Spain in 1971. Culture and climate (he suffered from arthritis) influenced Ross’s decision to live by the Mediterranean Sea. Competent in Spanish and French, somewhat less so in Greek, Ross read the original versions of the literatures of these languages. Living abroad, he noted, gave him a stronger sense of his Canadian identity. Although the pattern of Ross’s life was one of gradual withdrawal eastward from the pioneer prairies toward older, more cosmopolitan cultures, his true subject and setting remained the...
(The entire section is 757 words.)