Ethel Wilson and Leo McKay: Do Their Roads Meet or Cross Anywhere?

Published 14 Jun 2017

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The fire of a period prepares the person by planting perennial pangs in him/her, which, could be the potential tool of a writer. It brings out the best of the reflections of whatever essence s/he has gathered. That essence is sometimes called as the authorial voice, or sometimes as vision. Vision, coupled with execution, could make time overlapping itself or creating a new time for its observers. It is in this enigma, lies the beauty of fiction or novel, where the writers weave their way towards a resolution or mellow in the horizon after leaving a question or two in the readers’ minds; all the while evoking the curiosity among the readers to draw references from another writer’s work, or to ponder over the similarity or contrast between the works of two writers.

That kind of literary curiosity is the genesis of this essay, where two Canadian novelists of two different period have been chosen to track down any similarity or discord between them, after listening to their authorial voices.
Ethel Wilson (1888-1980)

She published her first novel (Hetty Dorval, 1947) while she was at the doorstep of her sixties, after having what can be called as ‘self-imposed internship’ in writing, with occasional spurts of publication. Her childhood contained melancholy, and thus the germs of a writer, which might took a longer time to flourish, but, once it bloomed, it settled nothing less than featuring in the mirrors of the readers’ mind; much like her own described mountain in her first novel. Swamp of Angel was published in 1954, almost seven years later, and is marked by the explicitness of her quest more than ever.

Swamp of Angel, in comparison to Wilson’s earlier works, hints on a philosophical shift from one of classical reference-frame to Christian mythology, which the readers come across in patches, or for that matter when the details of Maggie’s journey after oppression brings in the scope to remember Christ’s painful ordeal, or when the name Three Loon Lake suggests about Trinity. However, this bend could also be described as a personalized approach to a ‘coming of age’ novel with its mythical frame.

The young McKay arrived at the scene in 1995 with his collection of short stories, which made is way up to the Giller Prize shortlist, but thereafter it took a seven-year silence before his debut novel The Twenty-six hit the stands.

McKay’s life is also marred by constant struggle and uncertainty and contains somewhat a shadow of his predecessor in the preference of working in isolation or gestating away from public eye. These ideas are drawn from the observation of the biographers of Wilson, or from the open confession of McKay himself.

Apart from this similarity of seven-year silence between the making of Swamp of Angel and The Twenty-six, there are some other common traits in them, however long-drawn they seem to be; such thought is natural, because there is a lot of difference in their periods or in their genesis, plot, structure, theme and presentation. Wilson harped on a totemic account of her quest by making a small revolver as the central image, thereby earmarking her philosophical shift towards salvation.

On the other side McKay dealt practicality with a tragic mine disaster that took away the lives of 26 miners, which pointed towards how the human-made crisis can juxtapose the cherished goal of civilization, alongside the story of its survival.

More so, The Twenty-six was driven by a stray event, when McKay was shaken to his roots after hearing the tragedy at Stellarton, a small town in Neva Scotia over the radio while in his sojourn in Japan (Taylor, 2003). That event primarily brought Westray mine under the notice of the world, and secondarily under the disguise of Eastyard in Twenty-six.

On the other hand, his predecessor, Wilson was driven by the locomotion of the society, as she observed through the kaleidoscope of her belief, desire and quest. However, in the process, both the Canadians tried to embalm their hearts by giving vent to their pent-up feelings; like when Maggie thinks “He is he and I am I” (Wilson), or when Ziv pants out, “I hope the bastard’s dead”(Mackay, 2003).

One can argue that the visions aimed at truth are supposed to meet one another on their way. But even if one doesn’t delve that deep in this limited discussion, one would agree on the resemblance in these two writers’ penchant for details and knack to foreshadow either the event or the theme by using natural allegories. Like in the opening of Twenty-six, where the dry, leafless trees resemble the state of affairs that McKay would portray later, or in Swamps, when Maggie says after meeting the Gunnarsens at Three Loon Lake: “Meeting partakes in its very essence not only of the persons but of the place of meeting. And that essence of place remains, and colours, faintly, the association, perhaps for ever [sic]” (p. 75).

On the other side, it can also be said that however skillful both may seem to be in portraying the nature, both in fact look more at ease when talking about humans, where their touches of nuances speak of a natural flow and show the capability to leave a mark in the readers’ memory. Like when Arvel shakes salt in beer, of which Ziv follows suit later in Twenty-six , or when Edward Vardoe finds himself a perfect husband material or Halder Gunnarsen counts on his strength after his terrible accident in Swamp Angel.

Similarly, on the flip side, both could have done well if they were not wholly bent down to dig their own works through years of editing; that fastidious trait in them perhaps deprived the readers from savoring spontaneity at places. However, these are merely readers’ point of view; the writer knows the best about her/his baby.


The works of Ethel Wilson starts with the immorality of Hetty Dorval and comes to full circle with Ellen’s compassion (Love and Salt Water, 1956), via Swamp Angel. The whole pack could be seen as if a personal journey bearing a ‘coming of age’ tag. On the other hand, readers would have to wait to draw any such conclusion about McKay, as he is young and is poised for a long, enchanting literary journey. Thus, so far the resemblance between them could be drawn from their perseverance to endure the lengthy process that requires to write a good novel on a difficult subject. Indeed, McKay holds the promise to be called someday as a successful inheritor of Canada’s tradition of storytelling and successor of one of its revered storyteller, Ethel Wilson. Rest will be determined by the history.



  • Stouck, D. Ethel Wilson’s Novels, Canadian Literature, #74 (Autumn, 1977)
  • Wilson, E. Swamp Angel. Toronto: Macmillan, 1954; rpt. New Canadian Library.
  • Taylor, C. Twenty-Six. May, 2003. retrieved on March 24, 2007.
  • McKay, L. The Twenty-six : McClelland & Stewart, April 15, 2003
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