Dr Hunter’s 75th birthday in April 1948 falls forty years to the day after he started practice in the little prairie town of Upward. He is retiring, moving away to the big city of Saskatoon, and the citizens have gathered to say fare-well. They celebrate in the patient lounge of the new hospital soon to open bearing the name of this long-time servant of all Upward’s needs--physical, mental, social. The doctor has donated his late wife’s piano and the board is already planning to sell it for much-needed cash. It tinkles softly, unwelcome songs are awkwardly sung, coffee and sandwiches served, while the crowd of locals chatters away sotto (and not so sottovoce, with each other and the doc. 

Over the course of the evening, forty years of memories unfold: births, couplings, deaths, desires, hostilities, random acts of kindness and of spite. Folks sidle up to the doc to express thanks for his support and wisdom. The pharmacist wishes he had prescribed more pills. The journalists want him to spill secrets for a feature article in the local rag. The minister engages him in a debate over the existence of God and the meaning of life—both of which the medic denies. Gossips watch, whispering to each other about the doctor’s imagined survival and his dead wife whose alleged frigidity justified his supposed numerous infidelities. 

Shopkeeper Sarah’s revisits her embarrassed memories of adolescent attraction, that ripened into adult affection and pleasure that the doctor has long treated her son Dunc with almost fatherly care, taking him and the big but isolated Ukrainian boy, Nick, on house calls. Home from overseas with an English war-bride and now running the store, Dunc presides over the evening, trying to smooth conflicting undercurrents. The gossips speak sweetly to the newcomer bride and behind her back predict the marriage will fail.

It emerges that the incoming young medic will be Nick, once mercilessly bullied as a “hunky kid” by a few shiftless bigots still languishing in Upward. They are convinced that he is returning to extract his revenge. The old doctor defends Nick in his final words and urges his patients to help the young successor. He knows that they can briefly come together in a crisis, but he scolds them for their chronic lack of charity to strangers and to each other.


Originally published in 1974, this narrative masterpiece of late 1940s Saskatchewan, is remarkable its form. The entire work is dialogue or monologue, in which the speaker is recognized only by allusions within the prose and sometimes with difficulty. In that way it is reminiscent of radio plays, like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954); unlike that play, there is not a single word of narrative commentary or authorial voice. Nevertheless, it packs a wealth of nuances and foibles packed into a single evening event. 

For readers of this database, it contains a succinct but vivid portrayal of the life and work of a country doctor in the early twentieth century—through war, influenza, the Dust Bowl depression, and small-town nastiness. It invites comparisons with the trappings of rural practice today.

We learn that Upward’s “scarlet woman,” Maisie, ran a makeshift infirmary for the doctor in her home parlor and is therefore assumed to be his mistress. Now that the new hospital puts her out of a job, the voices are divided on whether she deserves recognition for her many years of nursing the community. 

We learn, through scattered glimpses, about the upbringing of musically talented Benny, always decked out for school (and ripe for mocking) in bow tie and clean white shirt by his angry mother--angry that she was once led astray by his downtrodden father. For being fellow outcasts Benny had tried to befriend the much-bullied Nick who brushed him off, preferring solitude. Without explicit declarations we realize that Benny is gay and tormented by misplaced guilt over his mother’s possible suicide. Understanding his predicament, Doctor Hunter has tried to assuage Benny’s guilt and nudge him out of the intolerant town.  

We learn that the townsfolk suspect the doctor of “helping” many a family by forgiving debts, just as he was sometimes ruthless about claiming a calf or a chicken when he knew that having no cash did not mean poverty. They suspect and are baffled why he might have “helped” Nick to his medical education. What they seem not to suspect (but in the end we do) is that Nick is his son.  

Although Sinclair Ross became an icon of Canadian prairie writing and his stories are now classics, he worked as a banker for more than two decades and believed himself a literary failure. Shortly before his death, while severely disabled with Parkinson’s disease, he revealed his homosexuality. Benny is a veiled self-portrait.


An excellent introduction by professor and author Ken Mitchell (p. v-xii).


University of Alberta Press

Place Published

Edmonton, Alberta



Page Count


Secondary Source