"As For Me and My House remains one of the major texts of Canada's literary culture," David Staines, editor of the New Canadian Library and professor of English at the University of Ottawa, said yesterday. "It was one of the seminal liberating works for writers like Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman, who found their country speaking through the pages of Ross's fiction."
Born in 1908 on a homestead near Prince Albert, Sask., Ross was the youngest of three children. His parents separated when he was eight and he spent his childhood on Saskatchewan farms where his mother found work as a housekeeper. He left school after completing Grade 11 to support himself and his mother - a responsibility he met until her death in 1957. With the exception of four years' service overseas with the Canadian Army during the Second World War, Ross spent his working life in banks.
Throughout his life, Jimmy Ross (as he was known to his friends) avoided public speeches and appearances because he felt his education to have been inadequate. Although he had shown early promise both as a musician and artist, he could not afford to pursue those studies and turned to writing to express himself.
His first story, written when he was 16, was rejected by Maclean's magazine, as were subsequent efforts by high-paying U.S. magazines. However, in 1934, the English magazine Nash's-Pall Mall published his short story No Other Way. The story placed third among 8,000 competitors in a literary contest judged by Rebecca West, Desmond MacCarthy and Somerset Maugham.
His novel As For Me and My House, written while Ross was living in Winnipeg, was published in 1941 by the New York firm of Reynal and Hitchcock. The bleak story of a minister, Philip Bentley, trapped in a small Prairie town during the Depression, is told by his unnamed wife through her diary. It initially failed to sell more than a few hundred copies.
But novelist Robert Kroetsch, writing in the afterword to the New Canadian Library edition, comments, "In (Mrs. Bentley's) shaping of the web of language, in her responding to the web of language, she names herself quite possibly the most compelling and disquieting character in Canadian fiction. In refusing to 'name' Mrs. Bentley, Sinclair Ross teaches us to read the greatness of his novel, As For Me and My House, in the splendid dance of evasions."
After the war, Ross moved to Montreal where he started several novels. Most remained incomplete. Two books that were published, The Well (1958) and Whir of Gold (1970), were substantially altered to please editors, and earned mainly negative reviews. However, Ross's short novel, Sawbones Memorial, published in 1974, was critically acclaimed by writers such as Margaret Atwood, who considered it to be superior to As For Me and My House.
Ross never married and lived alone in Greece and Spain from 1968 until 1980. The year Ross moved to Europe, Margaret Laurence edited The Lamp at Noon, the New Canadian Library's collection of Ross's short fiction. Laurence wrote in her afterword: "When I first read his extraordinary and moving novel As For Me and My House, at about the age of eighteen, it had an enormous impact on me, for it seemed the only completely genuine one I had ever read about my own people, my own place, my own time."
Some of Ross's novels were optioned for feature-length films. While none of these projects…