Who Were the Whiteoaks and Where Was Jalna? An Investigation into the Sources of the Jalna Novels of Mazo de la Roche

Who Were the Whiteoaks and Where Was Jalna? An Investigation into the Sources of the Jalna Novels of Mazo de la Roche by Heather Kirk was published in 2007 and is the second book that I have read by the same author. The first was Mazo de la Roche: Rich and Famous Writer, published in 2006. From the start of this book, the abundance of parenthetical citations and endnotes gave the impression that it was an academic work, yet by page seven I was thrown by Kirk’s histrionic dismissiveness in rejecting the points made by other authors, in particular de la Roche’s first biographer Ronald Hambleton:

“And Hambleton’s assertions that de la Roche’s short stay on the Bronte farm ‘was the most important single influence on her work’ and that the farm gave her a ‘central spiritual home, a point of rest for her imagination’ (Mazo 189) are nonsense.”

The statement above was followed in the very next paragraph, by this:

“But Hambleton’s claim that, ‘Plainly, Whiteoak country was the country she knew as a child, particularly the region around Oakville, Clarkson, and Bronte, which she first knew at the age of thirty-two’ (Mazo 207) is worse than nonsense.”

I admit that I reread that citation over and over and it still makes no sense to me what Hambleton meant, but to phrase it for a second time in as many paragraphs as nonsense strips any claim the author may have to this as an academic work.

Not only Hambleton but Joan Givner was treated with the same dismissiveness for any inaccuracies, yet Kirk’s perverse pleasure was in refuting Hambleton. Thus I was left shaking my head by the end of the book when I read, on page one of an essay in the appendix, her choice of superlatives to describe him:

“Even the best biographer of de la Roche, Ronald Hambleton, made mistakes…”

Thus the whole premise of the book–establishing connections between de la Roche’s life and what she may have integrated into her fiction–was overshadowed from the very beginning by her lowly opinion of other biographers. Kirk conducted exhaustive research into de la Roche’s family history, going back multiple generations, and she did find out information that eluded Hambleton and Givner, yet the Internet was not around as a treasure trove of historical data waiting to be mined when either of those authors wrote their works (at least Kirk acknowledged this). So she had an advantage and ran with it. Kirk supplemented her work with an abundance of photos (colour when possible yet the historical ones were of course in black-and-white) and maps. Her secondary sources impressed me by their thoroughness and I took notes from her cited works.

Several houses may lay claim to be the inspiration for Jalna, such as Benares in Mississauga, yet Kirk believed the primary influence to be the home of de la Roche’s great-great-grandfather Enos Lundy in Aurora, as depicted on the front cover. I believe de la Roche, like most fiction authors, probably relied on several sources, as well as her own imagination, in the creation of her work, and Jalna is likely a composite, which would have included Benares.

This is the fourth book about Mazo de la Roche that I have read in a month yet it was the least reader-friendly. Granted, it may not have been Kirk’s intention to write it as such, as the 120 endnotes (for the main story and the appendix essay combined) and parenthetical citations did not make for a smooth read over a mere 210 pages. In spite of that, I finished it in two days (although it was spread over five). Now I have to get my hands on both Hambleton biographies.

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