High Bright Buggy Wheels by Luella Creighton ~ 1951. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, New Canadian Library No. 147, paperback, 1978. Introduction by Rae McCarthy Macdonald. ISBN: 0-7710-9260-1. 352 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10
Tough call on the rating.
The book is undeniably well written, by an intelligent writer comfortably secure in her ability to portray scenes and moods more than competently in print.
But – and you knew there’d be a “but”, didn’t you? – there were a number of jarring moments, some editorial and some plot-related, and all made more obvious by the relative excellence of the workmanship displayed in the technical aspects of what is ultimately nothing more than a standard bildungsroman, albeit one embellished with abundant period detail and “exotic” (though slightly questionable regarding theological accuracy) Mennonite trappings.
Did you make it through that last bit all right?
Let me take a step back and give the details of the story.
It is the first decade of the 20th century, and in Ontario, Canada, in the southern region of prosperous farms, a Mennonite religious revival tent meeting is taking place. Here we meet our young heroine, 17-year-old Tillie Shantz, standing out from her lesser peers through her stately height, her exceptional beauty, and her remote air.
Tillie is the indulged oldest child of her family, and her doting father has seen that she has had plenty of leisure time to pursue such frivolous interests as piano playing, flower gardening, and wandering through the fields and woods daydreaming, all occupations which are acceptable enough in moderation but not in strong favour with the practical and hard-working Mennonite farmers to which “tribe” (Creighton’s term, used a number of times) our Tillie belongs.
Needless to say the lovely Tillie has attracted her fair share of the male gaze, and is being zeroed in on by one Simon Goudie. Simon is a few years older than Tillie, and, fervently pious, has already gained a reputation as a accomplished lay preacher. He’s heading off to theological college in the fall, but first he wants to secure the promise of Tillie’s hand in marriage. The local Mennonite community unanimously approves – this appears to be a suitable uniting of two prosperous and godly families.
Tillie is tempted by the thought of being mistress of her own home, and Simon’s avid gaze stirs her own latent sexual desires. The promise is made, though Tillie buys herself some time by asking her father to allow her to spend the winter in the nearest large town, taking a dressmaking course and more advanced piano lessons than she is able to come by out in the country. Luckily two spinster aunts are able to give Tillie a room, and for a while all goes well, with Tillie turning out to be a naturally accomplished seamstress and a a talented amateur artist as well as a potentially concert-level pianist. (Right about here is where I started to get annoyed at the author, for her heroine was becoming just a bit too wonderful to be true.)
Enter another man.
Tillie has already made the acquaintance of the town’s ambitious and dashing young drugstore owner, George Bingham, and their first mutual liking for each other predictably blossoms into something much more flammable. Poor Simon, we find ourselves thinking. You’re going to be in for a rude shock…
The tale follows its utterly predictable course. Tillie, after 200-some pages of soul-searching, at last gives Simon his walking papers – the thought of accompanying him to darkest Africa, to where he has decided that God has called him as a missionary, is the final straw stacked on Tillie’s should-I/shouldn’t-I load – and, to do things quite thoroughly, renounces her Mennonite faith in front of a massed congregation gathered for a special meeting in honour of Simon’s call. Simon reacts badly. One rather feels for him throughout this whole saga – he ends up being the sacrificial lamb on the altar of Tillie’s self-determination – almost literally so as a tragic accident leaves him physically and mentally broken within hours of his humiliating public rejection by the woman he thought was firmly his.
Estranged from her family, Tillie marries George, and immediately embraces the worldly things so gently set aside by the Mennonite community. She immerses herself in music, lovely clothes, novel-reading, dining (and drinking!) in posh city restaurants, driving one of George’s racehorses (another surprise talent that pops up is Tillie’s apparent superb horsemanship – who knew!) and, very shortly, her own automobile, which she also immediately masters with style and skill. There is plenty of money, for George is a dab hand at clever investments, and Tillie steps into her velvet-lined new life with utter aplomb.
But storm clouds are brewing, and Tillie’s sun is about to be obscured by sudden darkness, as her pregnancy ends in a tragic stillbirth.
Could God be punishing her for turning her back on the religion of her youth? Is this payback for the wrong she did to Simon? Should she renounce the world and turn back to the Church?
Well, it’s not quite that easy, as she finds out, when an emotional return to the church of her youth finds her met with patronizing forbearance and, even more disappointing, no sudden re-acquaintance with God.
And then George starts glancing about for comfort elsewhere, tired of his sady depressed and once-again dully religious wife.
Not to worry, a “surprise” happy ending is coming down the pike.
Points to the author for keeping it engaging for so long, because honestly this thing is a mass of stock scenarios and random bits of melodrama. One rather wonders at its inclusion in the serious-minded New Canadian Library series, but it appears that the period details and the Mennonite plot elements make it a desirable novel for earnest study, with its nuances soberly studied by the scholarly set.
What I liked about this book: the very relatable ponderings of Tillie regarding her place in the world, and her desire to be her own person, not just an invisible cog in the works of a farm and/or mission settlement.
Tillie’s “is that all?”angst rang true, and made her an ultimately sympathetic character, despite the off-putting (to this cynical reader) perfections of her face and figure, and her annoyingly instant easy mastery of every task she put her hand to.
What I didn’t like about this book: the author’s passive-aggressive tone towards the Mennonite community.
Methinks perhaps Creighton has a tiny smidgeon of baggage being unpacked here? I did read mention of the fact that Creighton had a Mennonite stepmother and that they did not always share the same philosophy of life.
While showing a lavish appreciation for the bucolic wonders of the well-run farms and the abundance of food set out at the communal Mennonite tables, Creighton adds little digs here and there, “the fat, round faces”and the “placid, unquestioning gazes” of the women being referenced over and over. Perhaps this was merely a writerly way of framing the characters in order for Tillie’s wondrous physical and mental superiority to stand out in sharper contrast, but if so it went too far. Did no other Mennonite female in Tillie’s very wide circle share any of her self-agonizing regarding one’s place in the world? Apparently not, for the only other Mennonite girl or woman who is given any significant amount of page-time is the Shantz family servant, Bertha, unmarriageable, unsightly and outspoken, who appears to be Tillie’s only friend until her breakout into the world, where she immediately finds a strong ally in her happy-single-lady employer, the proto-feminist town seamstress.
The activities of the people in Creighton’s Mennonite church settings are strongly caricatured. They frequently shout out to the Lord, and loudly pray long extempore prayers, and all but roll about on the floor in the ecstasies of their faith. Having a Mennonite background myself, with some experience of the stern moral tone of the stricter orders – and the Shantz household appears to belong to one of the more rigorous “old” branches of this sect – the scenes depicted both in the camp meeting scenes and at regular Sunday services seem more akin to the more dramatic of the Baptist sects, rather than accurate manifestations of the self-governed and deeply self-conscious Mennonites I have personally encountered throughout my life.
Though the “oddnesses” of the Mennonite religion are referenced again and again, the actual theology behind the more restrictive of the behaviours is never once discussed, and it is this lack which seems to me to leave the novel in the second rank.
That and the horribly contrived happy ending, in which all religious and family conflicts are suddenly and inexplicably resolved, a neat bit of authorial deus ex machine which left me grinding my teeth. I have nothing against a happy ending – on the contrary, I quite like things to end on a positive note whenever it makes artistic sense – but this one was too darned good to be believable, considering all that had gone on before.
In looking over this review, I see that I have concentrated mainly on the negatives, with not much to say about the novel’s many strengths.
I suspect this is because there was so much that I actually liked that the off-key aspects disappointed me more strongly than if I had found it lightweight from beginning to end. It was the breaking of the tone which made me so disappointed – it was so close to being something truly special, but some of the most thought-provoking bits were ruined for me by the author’s opinionating showing through.
For another opinion, here is a wonderful review from The Indextrious Reader, who was much more scholarly and ultimately more kind in her examination of the book.
I think we both agree that High Bright Buggy Wheels is well worth reading, for those interested in Canadiana, or even merely looking for a literary type of romance novel.
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