Gwethalyn Graham

Octoher 11th, 2013

Gwethalyn Graham was born and raised in Toronto. She attended private school there and finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and in 1931 moved to Northampton, Massachusetts to attend Smith College. While there, she met John McNaught and left her studies the following year to marry. They had a son, but divorced before he was a year old. Graham and her son left Massachusetts for Montréal in 1934, the year she began writing her first novel, Swiss Sonata. It was published in 1938 to wide critical acclaim, winning the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (1938). Graham followed this in 1944 with Earth and High Heaven. Like Swiss Sonata, Earth and High Heaven was critically lauded, also winning the Governor General's Award for Fiction (1944) and the Anisfield-Wolf Award (1945), which honours written works that contribute to the understanding of racism and the diversity of human culture.

Graham quickly found fame in Canada and abroad. Earth and High Heaven was the first Canadian novel to reach number one on the New York Times Best Seller List, and it stayed on the list for 37 weeks, selling over 1 million copies. The movie rights to the novel were purchased by Samuel Goldwyn, but the film was never made as difficulties over the screen adaptation persisted. Despite all these achievements, Graham was concerned that any future work would not live up to the success of her first two works; though she continued to write, she published no other novels.

As a journalist, she was a frequent contributor to MacLean’s and Saturday Night, particularly on topics related to immigration, refugee policy, and human rights. She also worked as a script writer for the CBC. In 1963 she published Dear Enemies, which explores French-English relations in Canada through a series of letter exchanges with Solange Chaput-Rolland.

Swiss Sonata explores the interwoven stories of twenty-seven residents at a Swiss boarding school on the eve of the Second World War. Although somewhat awkward because of its many characters and implausible time frame (all events take place in a single day), it represents a timely appeal for international empathy and understanding.

Earth and High Heaven is set in Montréal during the Second World War. It is the story of Erica Drake, a journalist from an affluent Westmount family, who falls in love with a Jewish lawyer. The novel focuses on the blatant anti-Semitism of her socially prominent family, especially her father, and is an unsparing portrait of upper-class anti-Semitism in Canada during the war. The novel, which draws upon Graham’s own experience in wishing to marry a Jewish-Canadian lawyer to whom her father was unalterably opposed, was a deeply felt and prescient attack on both overt and covert racism in Canada. A bold work, even for its time.

About the book, Graham wrote: “When people have asked me what this book (Earth and High Heaven) is about, I have usually ended by saying that it is a plea for the individual, that he or she may be regarded and respected as such, and not judged arbitrarily according to a category.” [“Earth and High Heaven,” Wings]

Gwethalyn Graham died of an undiagnosed brain tumour at the age of 52. At the time of her death she was working on her first novel in over twenty years.
_____________________________________________________________ (Sources: Benson, Eugene & Toye William, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Second Edition. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Meadowcroft, Barabara, Gwethalyn Graham (1913-65): A Liberated Woman in a Conventional Age. Toronto, Women’s Press, 2008.

Moran, Rodger J., The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica-Dominion, 2011.)
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