Up the Hill and Over

July 18, 2014

When I start reading a book and the protagonist is a doctor recovering from a nervous breakdown, and he comes to a small town and settles down to practice small town medicine incognito and becomes interested in the daughter of the previous town doctor, I’m pretty sure I know exactly what I’m getting. In the case of Up the Hill and Over, by Isabel Ecclestone Mackay, I was very wrong.

It’s hart to talk about how I was wrong without giving away a couple of twists–twists that I did see coming, but not far enough ahead that I didn’t have to change my mind about what kind of book I though I was reading a couple of times. There are three specific things that complicate the narrative I expected. One of them was insanity, and I want to talk about that. The other two are a little spoilery, and I’ll mention them without giving details.

So, one of the characters, Aunt Amy, is introduced as being a little odd, and having strange fancies about things. You learn about her mental issues slowly, so at first it just seems like she’s perfectly sensible, if a little eccentric. Then you get more specific information: she believes that the sprigged tea set doesn’t like being touched by anyone but her, and that someone she refers to as “Them” is out to get her. The cause of her problems–her fiancé dying on the eve of their wedding–is typical of insane women in novels, but the details of her beliefs and their effects are so much more specific. I mean, when you’ve got a secret insane wife or something in, say, a Mary Jane Holmes novel, madness is a permanent change in state, a fundamental attribute of the character. There was a time when the woman was not mad, but now she is, and the only change possible going forward is her death.

It’s not like that with Aunt Amy. Actually, another character ends up fitting into that trope much more closely. Amy’s madness is a permanent state, but not…I guess the word I want here is homogeneous. I mean, it’s not just that she’s better at some times and worse at others. Her madness is multifaceted, and doesn’t make her any less of an agent. The development of Amy’s illness, or the depiction of it, is such that you move through being sorry for her to being scared for her to being scared for the people around her, and it’s just…really interesting. For early 20th century popular fiction, it’s very psychologically complex. There’s a fairly modern depiction of drug addiction, too, and while the, uh, legal complication that you’re probably going to suspect pretty early on is exactly what it looks like, there’s surprisingly little moralizing wrapped up in it.

I was never, at any moment, in love with this book or with any of the characters, so there were a few places where I didn’t get the emotional punch I needed to make certain plot developments work for me. At least, that’s how I’m explaining to myself the fact that bits that I didn’t think should have felt melodramatic did. I kept a little bit of an emotional distance from the book throughout, and not by choice. But I also stayed absorbed in it the entire time, and could barely put it down, and while there were bits that felt like too much, for the most part it just kept getting more and more interesting until the end. I expected a much more cheerful book when I started, but I wasn’t disappointed by any means.



  1. *adds it to my to-read list, which is rapidly becoming horrendous again*

    • It’s really interesting, and totally worth it, but that’s coming from someone with multiple to-read lists longer than I can bring myself to think about.

      • Finally read it!

        And holy cow. This is easily one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. Going to check out some of her other stuff, because… yeah. Wow.

        I’m still not sure that the… end of the drug-addiction plot was accidental. It was, though, right? It wasn’t assisted??

        • Well, I guess it depends what you consider assisted? Mary didn’t do it on purpose, and Amy didn’t know what she was doing.

          • I honestly wasn’t sure about Amy. Chapter XXXIII is hugely spooky, especially with the repeated phrase “Aunt Amy didn’t matter” and later Mary’s observation that “Aunt Amy knew”.

            Although actually, there’s a big gap between Amy knowing about the pills, and Amy knowing about the possibility of an overdose (something most of us would be aware was a possibility)

            But still. Spooooooky.

            And awesome.

            (and I need to re-read Patty’s Fortune)

            • I think if you read back over it (and I just finished reading it today) I think you’ll see Amy was planning that end since the ruby ring. She runs through several scenarios.

              Mary gave her opportunity but that was Amy’s end goal for quite awhile.

              I also found it interesting that the author thinks Amy is so much happier and less mad after she achieves her goal.

  2. Remarkable. I read this novel in 2009, wondering at the time just how long it had been since someone had done the same. Now here we are four years later. I liked Up the Hill and Over – so much that I went out and bought copies of the author’s other novels. Those I’ve read to date, The House of Windows and The Window-Gazer, weren’t quite as enjoyable or interesting, but are recommended.

    If curious, my thoughts on Up the Hill and Over are here:


    • It really is interesting to think about whether anyone else is reading these books at all. It sounds like you really focused on the melodramatic side of this one, which, fair. Looking back at it, I’m really interested in the ways it manages to undermine its own melodrama.

      Also, I should have known you would have read this one. It’s very Canadian.

      If her other books aren’t as good, I won’t seek them out, but I might pick one up if I happen across it.

      • There is melodrama, to be sure, but you are so very right that it is always undermined.

        I wonder whether I prefer this novel to the others because it deals with drug addiction… in 1917… in small town Ontario. In this respect, Up the Hill and Over is certainly unique. The others I’ve read are every bit as complex and well-crafted, What they have in common is the presence of damaged characters – physically and mentally – invariably depicted with a certain amount of sympathy and understanding.

  3. I just reread this review and now think I will have to read the book! I started to read Brian’s review but don’t want any spoilers so I’ll wait on that.

    • It’s hard to talk about without spoiling. I mean, most of the twists are telegraphed ahead of time, but absolutely not from the beginning.

      • You’re right–it’s hard to put down. I’m not even halfway done and it’s very intriguing.

  4. I just started reading this book and it is good. I love how the author “turns a phrase”. Very clever.

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