‘Earth and High Heaven’ is the love story of Marc Reiser and Erica Drake, set against the social and political backdrop of a segregated Montreal, in the midst of the turmoil of the Second World War.
The social milieu of Montreal is very important in the context of the story. Montreal, at the time, consisted of a majority of English Canadians and a minority of French Canadians and Canadian Jews.
The English and French Canadians were collectively referred to as the ‘Gentiles’ – forming the upper crust of Quebec society, although intermarrying within these communities was still frowned upon. The Canadian Jews formed a more isolated corner of society- exempt from holding select jobs of privilege, disallowed from occupying certain hostelries, eating at various restaurants- generally treated abjectly.
It is in this social context that Erica Drake- an English Canadian from one of the best Montreal families meets Marc Reiser- a Canadian Jewish lawyer, at a house party held at the Drake residence. Erica and Marc fall helplessly in love at first sight. Outwardly he is perfect in every regard for Erica- except for the racial tag that he is associated with.
Erica’s father, Charles Drake, president of the once flourishing Drake Importing Company refuses to acknowledge Marc at his own house party due to his Jewish background, much to the ire and embarrassment of his daughter.
Many weeks later Erica and Marc, meet by chance on a railway platform and both of them realize that they have much more in common than the sum of their differences.
Their love affair grows in intensity, and when Erica announces her relationship to her father she is met with a wall of prejudice. Determined to change Erica’s mind, her parents treat her with indifference in the hope that her ‘infatuation’ will disappear. For the first time in their lives father and daughter reach an impasse. Charles refuses to acknowledge Marc, refuses him entry to their house, and Erica resorts to meeting him in restaurants and street corners – all the while hoping that her father’s prejudice will dissolve in time.
With Marc having enlisted for the war, Erica knows her days are numbered with him. She realizes that Marc may or may not return from the War, and that even if he does, there is no guarantee that they will stay together for the rest of their lives. For Marc is reluctant to indoctrinate Erica in the Jewish way of life and to have social prejudice be heaped on her shoulders as well. And even though Erica is willing to sacrifice everything, her family, her religion, her social status for Marc, it may not be enough to convince Marc that she is making a decision that they she will not regret later in life.
‘Earth and High Heaven’ is a very elaborate social commentary on racial prejudice. It shows how people born into a fixed social pattern can overcome centuries of difference, in an overwhelming desire to embrace the most unifying emotion of all- love.
There were many moments that made me well up with emotion while reading the book. The issues that the book explores are relevant today and have been relevant during every stage of human history. ‘Earth and High Heaven’ is also a book about soul-searching decisions. The decisions one makes for oneself- in opposition to societal demands and familial expectations.