Progress Books, publishing arm of the Communist Party of Canada, announced April 15, 1945 as the publication date of Dorothy Dumbrille’s All This Difference. I’ve found no evidence that the novel hit the shelves on that day, that month, or in the three months that followed. The earliest reviews — and there were many — are from early August of that year. I can’t help but wonder whether its delay had something to do with the publication of Two Solitudes, which occurred a few weeks before All This Difference was to have been released.
MacLennan’s novel was received not as a book of the season, but a book for all time. Globe and Mail literary editor William Arthur Deacon’s April 7 review begins:
Spectacular as was Canadian achievement in the novel in 1944, Hugh MacLennan of Montreal has opened 1945 with greater power. In light of Two Solitudes, the excellence of Barometer Rising diminishes to the level of an apprentice piece. The promise of the first book is justified abundantly in the second. Considering style, theme, characters, craftsmanship, significance and integrity, Two Solitudes may well be considered the most important Canadian novel ever published.
The English press praised the book, as did the French, and sales were strong. By that October, MacLennan’s novel had sold 45,000 copies and was in its sixth printing. I can’t say I’ve ever visited a used bookstore in this country that didn’t stock a copy. And yet, though I kept an eye out, it was years before I first saw a copy of All This Difference. The first was at the home of my Montreal friend Adrian King-Edwards, owner of The Word bookshop. A couple of years later, I spotted another on a dollar cart outside Attic Books in London, Ontario. I haven’t come across another since.
The many reviews of Dumbrille’s novel mentioned above — all positive — invariably draw comparisons with Two Solitudes. Deacon’s Globe and Mail, review of All This Difference judges the novel to be a more human and intimate expression of concern over Canada’s “tragic racial situation;” those races being the French and the English. The novel’s dust jacket pessimistically refers to that same situation as “a problem that more than five generations of Canadians have failed to solve.”
All This Difference is an ambitious work, remarkable for cramming centuries of historical background and a myriad of associated ideas, viewpoints, and debates concerning Canada’s French-English tensions into a mere 208 pages. For such a short book, it has an unusually large cast of characters, beginning with Raoul Faubert and Ewan MacMillan, who live on neighbouring properties in Ontario’s Glengarry County. Raoul is a father substitute to young Ewan, whose actual father, Donald, is off in Europe doing battle with the Nazis. Donald’s absence is proving a hardship to Cameron, the patriarch of the MacMillan clan, whose modest farm and weaving operation are in danger of collapse. Raoul does his best to help, much to the displeasure of his own father, Gabriel, who isn’t in the least bit sympathetic:
“De Bon Dieu ’elp dose who ’elp demsel’s; ’e don’ expec’ hones’ farmer to leave ’ome an’ fight. Look at Cameron the Weaver: ol’ man lef’ alone. Dam fool! All dem dam fool! Good lan’ goin’ to was’e!”
It’s not true that Cameron the Weaver has been left alone. Wife Mary and daughter Wencie help with his struggling weaving operation. Son Robin, a “cripple,” also remains at home, though he spends his hours painting landscapes in the loft of his father’s mill. Grace, Donald’s wife, is a city girl who cares little for country life, and not much more for her son. After her husband shipped out, she returned to Montreal, leaving young Ewan behind.
Robin once saw Grace and Donald take a tumble in the hay (literally and figuratively) and has been lusting after his sister-in-law ever since. Raoul and Wencie enjoy their own hay-tumble— this is very much a rural novel — after which the good neighbour does the right thing: “Listen, Wencie, I’ve always look’ ahead to de tam I could tell you. Donal’ ask me to look after you an’ Ewan, an’ all of you. Now I wan’ dat you marry wit’ me.”
Wencie loves Raoul, but cannot accept that he won’t join Donald, who happens to be his best friend, in the fight against Hitler:
“It’s the duty of every able-bodied man to defend his country.”
“Canada is my country!”
“But you say you love me and yet you won’t go fight for me — for Ewenie, for your mother, and for everyone you love!”
“I’d fight for you, Wencie,” he said, almost like a little boy, sincerely, innocently.
She shook her head. “We have such different ideas of what we are fighting for. We’re different, that’s all.”
Smarting at the rejection, Raoul turns to local good-time gal Rose Stewart, who sneaks him into her parents’ home and offers stolen hooch and moments of pleasure on a sofa beneath a crucifix and a picture of The Sacred Heart.
I thought for sure that Raoul would be punished for his sins, but there is no unfortunate pregnancy and Wencie never learns of his tryst beneath the image of his Lord and Saviour on the cross. This speaks to the novel’s central flaw. Its climactic scene aside, there isn’t much drama or action in All This Difference, and what little it does have is of no real consequence Gabriel gets drunk and tries to set the mill alight, but is easily overpowered by Raoul, leaving the MacMillans none the wiser. What looks to be a well-organized effort by the francophone community to replace the school principal, Cameron’s cousin Katie, amounts to nothing. Raoul encounters a member of a militant separatist cell holed up in the Laurentians and is told to keep quiet. He does. They disappear. Robin visits a wanton Grace in her Montreal apartment, is plied with Scotch, and leaves without giving her so much as a kiss on the lips. Cameron’s arthritis flares up, but the mill runs along and contracts are fulfilled.
All This Difference was Progress Books’ first novel. Dumbrille wasn’t a member of Canada’s Communist Party; she went with Progress because it was the only publisher not to reject the manuscript. Thomas Allen, which had accepted her third book of verse, Stairway to the Stars (1945), took a pass. Dumbrille was first and foremost a poet; nature, farming, the changing of the seasons and Christmas were her primary themes. Lest anyone think All This Difference is in any way subversive, it’s worth noting that the only other edition came from Harlequin. In fact, Dumbrille’s novel holds the distinction of being the very last book published before the company made the commitment to romance and nothing else.
All This Difference isn’t a call to revolution or even reflection; rather it is a plea for understanding and compromise. Wilfrid Laurier would have approved. The author lays things out on its penultimate page:
Somehow Wencie and Raoul were symbolic of a greater tragedy than their own; disagreement, heartbreak on a larger scale, more serious than that of two people torn apart through no fault of their own, victims of the present social, economic and political system, sacrifices on the altar of intolerance and prejudice. There must be unity of thought between French and English Canadians. There must be!
Preachy, yes, but then Dorothy Dumbrille’s father was an Anglican clergyman.
—A CNQ Web Exclusive, April 2018