CanLit Challenge Book #35: They Shall Inherit the Earth by Morley Callaghan
Filed under: CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 8:45 pm on Saturday, February 20, 2010

Book 35, They Shall Inherit the Earth (1934) – Morley Callaghan
From the back cover:
“This is the story of a father and his son, and a tragic accident that changed both of their lives. It is a story about fate and the terrible and permanent effects of a single decision made in a split second one summer day. It is a story about the lives people lived in Canada in the Thirties–lives marked by the earnest naivety, the financial desperation, and the wild gaiety of the times. Finally, it is a story about conscience–about the moment when one man discovered he could no longer escape the truth about himself. First published in 1934, They Shall Inherit the Earth led to Morley Callaghan’s reputation as a writer of international stature.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Morley Callaghan

My thoughts:
They Shall Inherit the Earth is a kind of Passion play: the protagonist, Michael Aikenhead, commits a sin, suffers, and is finally redeemed (not through God, religion, or political utopianism but through the love of a good woman). As an echo of this main plot, Michael’s father, Andrew, also has a similar experience (his redemption comes from reconciliation with his son which is set in motion by the aforementioned woman, Anna).

Much of the narration is really description of the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters (especially but not limited to those of Michael). However, Callaghan’s sparse style (Hemingway-like) and artificial dialogue creates a sense of distance between the reader and the characters.

The Shall Inherit the Earth presents us with a convincing snapshot of Depression-era northeastern North America (we’re invited to suppose this is Toronto, but it really could be any of the cities in the area). The oppressive weight of widespread un- and under-employment with its wandering, aimless men, impoverished and subjugated women, and the false hope promised by both religion and political ideologies fills the book.

I ended up liking this book in the end (probably because it ended on such an optimistic note), though I found it frustrating and slow at first. The only characters I really liked were Ross and Anna, but neither of them were developed all that much.

One scene that really blew my mind is one in which while Anna is giving birth, Michael is in the waiting room talking to a nun. Instead of asking her if she wants a priest and what religion she is, the nun asks him and when he says he doesn’t know, she gets permission from him to baptise her! Crazy! Talk about infantalization of women. When I told my mum about that part, she said, Now imagine what women had to fight through to get as far as they have. That stuff wasn’t in the law, it wasn’t like they could challenge a law and have it changed. That attitude was just accepted everywhere.