Friday, October 13, 2017

A Memoir, by Jackie D'Acre

To write one's memoir is to lay open the past with all its wounds and joys. You place your life on the page. Local author, Jackie D'Arcre has done just that. Here is the first chapter.

Untitled:  Jacqueline D’Acre’s Memoir


I sit in a hospital bed, the back raised up to an almost sitting position, my MacBook Air laptop on a wadded-up blanket on my generous belly. The foot of the bed is raised slightly so the swelling in my legs and feet is diminished. My bedroom is in a small apartment on the sixth floor of Spence Court, a rent-assisted building for seniors. There is a magnificent view of Mount MacKay rising one thousand feet just outside my picture window. I live with my cat James Bond who is tall and sleek and looks like he is wearing a tuxedo. He lives up to his name. He charms all the ladies and has a license to kill: mice. I am seventy-four years old and I have just finished telling a nurse who is giving me foot care, some of my life story. For the umpteenth time I heard someone say:
            “You should write a memoir.”
            So I am.

Chapter One
I was born February 24th, 1943 in Fort William, Ontario, Canada. My father, Jack Cryderman, drove my mother, June, through a blizzard at six a.m. to McKeller Hospital. Hours later she was delivered of a nine pound two-ounce baby girl with head of bright red hair—me, Jacqueline Dace Cryderman.  My parents wanted a boy so they named me after my father: “Jacqueline” being the closest girl’s name to “Jack.”
            My back is aching so I have to stop now.
            A year or so later my father left my mother and moved to British Columbia where he was born: in a stagecoach en route to the 100-Mile Inn on the Cariboo Trail.  When I was three he returned and the family made a small room off the kitchen—originally a pantry—into a bedroom for my parents. All three upstairs bedrooms were occupied by me, my grandparents Fred and Ida May Montgomery, and my uncle, Bill Montgomery.
It was a Sunday morning and the house was nearly empty, everyone having gone to church.  My mother was in the adjoining room, the kitchen, singing “You Are My Sunshine” in her lovely soprano. Bacon smell and sizzle filled the air. Sunlight poured in through the small window to the right of the bed. Daddy took my little hand and wrapped my fingers around a hard pink pole. He moved my hand up and down for quite a while. It hurt and I was afraid and my fear stopped me from calling out to my mother. Eventually he released my hand and I jumped from the bed and ran into the kitchen where I hugged my mother’s legs. She fed me breakfast: an egg, sunny side up, bacon, and toast with strawberry jam that had been canned by my grandmother.
            After that I had trouble meeting my father’s eyes. I would not sit in his lap and I always sat as far from him as I could get.
            In these first years I was given a dog: a cocker spaniel named Sammy. I have been told that we were inseparable, but I have no memory of him. He died young. I can’t remember how. The next dog was Rusty, an English cocker spaniel. English cocker spaniels are bigger than American cocker spaniels and have longer snouts. Rusty was a beautiful liver color with a small white spot on his chest. He went everywhere with me when I played outside, mostly with a neighbour boy who lived at the end of our block of Wiley street. His house had a birch tree in front of it while ours had a Manitoba maple. (Famously planted by my great-grandmother, Jane, but called “Ga” by little June and Bill.  Apparently she thrust a stick into the ground and it grew into this great tree.)
The boy’s name was Billy Rancourt.  We adored one another. I was exactly one year older than him but it made no difference.  We played Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers. We climbed giant willow trees in a small park on Prince Arthur Boulevard, the street behind Wiley. We also loved playing in the back lane which bordered people’s gardens.  We raided them, stealing rhubarb, raspberries and peas. There were girls to play with on our street but I preferred Billy’s company. We hated to give up our play to go into our houses to pee so we peed together between the houses. We were matter of fact about it—there was nothing sexual in the act. Once mother caught us. She sent Billy home and right on the spot gave me a spanking. But that didn’t stop us, we carried on sneaking between the houses to pee.
Spanking is almost too cute a word for what transpired regularly. She hit as hard as she could, striking any part of my anatomy wherever her hand landed as I screamed and twisted trying to escape.  If she could grab a coat hanger or a hair brush handily she used that.  While this was transpiring Gramma stood to one side, arms folded across her chest, her mouth in a grim approving line.  
I was horse crazy. When I was three I began to rise at dawn, pull on a dress, panties and shoes and tiptoe from the house. I ran to the end of Wiley Street, only three blocks, and waited on the corner of Dease and Wiley. Soon, I heard the clippity-clop of a horse’s hooves and Jim the milkhorse turned the corner onto Wiley and stopped in front of me.  He pulled a covered yellow wagon, like a box on wheels, with the name “Kellogg’s” on it in brown. Jim was big with hairy fetlocks.  He was a chestnut, a reddish brown colour. When Jim stopped the milkman jumped from the wagon with a wire crate full of clinking milk bottles. He delivered while Jim walked down several houses and stopped. The milkman delivered milk to three or four houses then met Jim. Before Jim walked on, the milkman came to me and said, “Good morning, Jackie.  Would you like a ride?” I nodded yes and he swooped me up and carried me to Jim and plunked me on Jim’s broad back. I took hold of the hames, two small leather horns capped with brass balls, attached to the big leather collar around Jim’s shoulders. Jim’s hide was silky beneath my bare legs, the leather straps from the harness smooth.  They see-sawed under me as Jim walked.
As soon as Jim felt the milkman’s foot on the wagon step he started forward without any direction from the milkman.
I was above the world on Jim, high up and proud and strong. I rode Jim all the way down to my house before I was lifted off. I ran immediately into the house where no one noticed I had been gone and sneaked a crust of bread to feed Jim.  Once, as I stood by Jim’s side offering the crust to him, he took a step and accidentally caught the corner of my canvas shoe, pinning my foot to the road.  I tugged and tugged but could not free it.  Then I pushed against the top of his leg.
“Jim! Jim! Move! Please, please move!” I got a little panicky. Afraid I might get hurt. Then Jim took a step and freed my foot.  Gratefully I stroked his neck and patted his nose.  Then I snuck back into the house without a word to anyone.
The pain in my right buttock has let up or I couldn’t write. Vickie, one of my caregivers was just here and she rotated my mattress for me.  I lie more to the right and the right side of the mattress gets squashed down and doesn’t spring back, so I am lying on a slant. All of my considerable weight is on my right side. It hurts.  Mark, from Shoppers Home Health Care, is searching for a firmer mattress for me.
  My constant companion Rusty growled if any strange adult got too close to me. To quieten him all I had to do was press on his back and say “Shush.”
Around this same time I began to draw horses. My mother painted, dying roses on cream satin.  They were realistic and mournfully beautiful.  My father made elaborate frames for them and mother gave them away as gifts.  To see one I had to go to my Auntie Dell’s house where she had one hanging in her living room.  This same aunt had a black and white picture of three horse’s heads, manes and forelocks flying, hanging at the bottom of her stairs.  After I went to the bathroom I slowly walked down the stairs so as to lengthen the time I could gaze at the horses.
             When I was three years and nine months old my mother had another baby, my sister Jeffrey Jane Camille. All I can recall is standing by the dining room table while mother talked to Mrs. Rancourt, Billy’s mother.  My mother had just taken Jeffrey from Mrs. Rancourt’s arms and I got a good look at her as she was passed in front of me.  She had a tiny pink face and black hair which later turned blonde.  Mom put Jeffrey in a basket on the dining room table and here my memory fades until I became four.
             It was nighttime. Mom, baby Jeffrey and I were in her pantry bedroom, where a small blue crib had been squeezed into a corner.  Jeffrey was screaming, flailing about on mother’s lap.  I felt frantic for her. There was a hot plate on the floor with a pot of boiling water on it to make steam to help Jeffrey breathe.  Mother asked me to get the Vicks Vaporub from the dresser opposite the bed.  I stretched across to reach it, my head pounding from Jeffrey’s screams, my hand shaking and tripped over the hot plate. I fell, my bare arms shooting out to break my fall and landed in a tidal wave of boiling water. I slid across the linoleum floor in the water and I screamed louder than Jeffrey. 
            I remember my family holding me aloft in the kitchen—my grandparents and my father and mother.  They were struggling to avoid touching the burned parts of me while they stripped off the soggy clothes.  I kicked and waved my arms and wept loudly.
My pediatrician Dr. Brown was summoned and, after a while, he arrived.  He sat in a chair in the living room and mother placed me in his lap.  All the adults were gathered in chairs in a semi-circle around me, watching intently.  I adored Dr. Brown.  My crying diminished to sobs as I watched him hold a needle in the flame of a match.  After a wait, he injected me with a pain killer.
            I woke up later in a hospital bed.  My arms and legs were bandaged.  I no longer felt much pain. I suppose they were keeping me filled with pain killers.  The only time the pain became unbearable was when they changed the bandages.  Slowly a nurse unwrapped the bandage and the closer it got to my skin the more pain I felt.  I howled from the hurt.  Afterward, they gave me chocolate pudding.
            I don’t remember many visitors.  I guess it was hard for mother to get away since she had little Jeffrey to care for. The one thing I asked was that Jeffrey not be allowed to play with my doll.  Something that really cheered me up was a set of small ceramic animals—planters.  Each animal had something growing in it. In particular I remember the brown squirrel.  This wonderful gift was from my paternal grandmother—Florence Dace Cryderman. 
            This grandmother had had eight children, my father being the second youngest.  She was an American, born in Washington state.  She had had a university degree but she lived in the bush—in tents and log cabins with her husband, a prospector, John Thomas.  This family was my grandfather’s second one.  With his first wife he sired many children.  The total of both families was twenty-four offspring.  He was in his fifties when he met young Florence. They were at a rodeo somewhere in Alberta.  He was a competitor and she was a spectator.  Despite his age he won a bucking bronc contest; she was impressed and they ran off together.  She managed all of his mining claims while caring for her immense brood. 
            Now she lived in Fort William on Norah Street where she had a lawn and a pretty garden.  I remember helping her plant pansies.  She also hosted great roast beef, mashed potato dinners.  Once she took me to Chapples department store, the poshest store in town.  She sailed in in her hat and long coat, using a walking stick, me trotting to keep up. At the entrance way she was greeted by the manager of the store, who bowed and said, “Good day, Mrs. Cryderman.”  She nodded regally in response.  Mother told me that once she had been invited by Grandmother Cryderman to a luncheon at a restaurant with several other ladies.  At each place setting there was a white box containing an orchid corsage.
            After six weeks or so I was let out of the hospital. At home I discovered Jeffrey had destroyed my doll. After that I never played with dolls. Instead, I played with the family cat.
            He was a grey tabby named Gary. I named him after my cousin who I got to play with almost every week when my parents visited my father’s oldest brother, George and his wife Essie.
            I dressed Gary in doll’s clothes: little dresses and hats and put him in a doll carriage.  I had to hold him down with one hand, the other on the handle of the carriage.  He kept yowling and thrashing around, rocking the whole carriage from side to side trying to escape but I was grimly determined to take him for a walk. I pushed this thrashing rocking doll carriage down past three or four houses before he escaped and dashed down the sidewalk, ribbons from the hat flying, his tail sticking out from under the dress. I chased after him.  He always holed up under the front steps.  I crawled in after him as he sat there yowling in his hat and dress.  Usually my Gram would hear him and come outside.
“Stop torturing Gary, Jackie! Leave him alone.”
“Okay, Gramma. Can I take the dress off him?”
            Sputter.  “Of course take the dress off him!  Go find Billy and play with him.”
            “Okay, Gramma,” and I crept under the steps and grabbed Gary.  I wrestled with him, struggling to get the dress off over his head, him yowling the whole time.  Eventually I got it off and it stayed off until the next time I felt a maternal urge.
             Really hard to write today.  The pain is bad.  I just took a morphine and a percocet and am waiting for them to act.  But it will only do a couple of hours good: I am on the lowest dose possible which I have been on it for eight years and I think I have developed a tolerance. My doctor is out of town.  I can’t see her until next Thursday. Meanwhile I hurt.  And I can’t write.
             When I was three mother started me in dance.  She had always wanted to be a dancer so she thought she was doing me an enormous favour by signing me up for lessons.
            I started in tumbling.  I remember turning somersaults on a gym mat and doing fairly well.  I also mastered the teddy bear headstand. (Put your head flat down.  Raise your knees up and rest them on your elbows.  Voila, the teddy bear headstand.)  Then there was the back bend.  It took some trying because it was scary leaning so far backwards: I had a fear of falling on my head.  But after a while I just let go and allowed myself to fall backwards onto my hands. I felt triumphant. (Twenty years later I used the backbend to get an A in mime in an acting class.)  But I never, to my regret, conquered the cartwheel or the splits.  I could only get so far down, my crotch inches from the floor.
            Tumbling was followed by highland dancing.  It seems that every child in Fort William learned the highland fling, but I found it boring.  What excited me was the sword dance.  Cross two swords on the floor creating four squares.  Leap from square to square, toes pointed, arms arched above your head.  Avoid stepping on a sword.  Although for us children they didn’t allow real swords, instead two yardsticks were used, but I pretended they were real swords.
Another part of the room had the really exciting dancing:  tap! They clattered away while we silently twirled.  I kept sneaking looks at the tap dancers:  the lucky ones.  On the way home I begged mother to let me take tap.  Her hands tightened on the wheel and she stared hard, straight ahead.
            “Absolutely not. Tap is déclassé.”
            I subsided, mournfully slumping.  I hated Highland dancing.
            I was terrible at dance.  I never improved.  Week after week I was right where I had been the previous week.  Of course it never occurred to me that I should practice at home between dance lessons and Mother never suggested it. I was just supposed to magically improve with no effort.  Frequently she sternly lectured me about trying harder and how much she would have given to have had an opportunity like this when she was young.  I was lucky.  No, I was miserable.  Week after week I got up in front of all the mothers ranged in chairs along the wall and all the other dance children and stumbled through the routines.  The dance teacher yelled at me, embarrassing me and my mother.  I dreaded Saturdays.
            Of course Saturday was followed by Sunday and that wasn’t much better.  Sunday meant church and church meant Sunday school.  I went with my grandmother and Jeffrey to Knox United, a protestant church. (Grampa went also but to St. Patrick’s Catholic church.)   Mother stayed home to take care of the latest baby.  (John Tracy had arrived and Mother was so thrilled she all but forgot about myself and Jeffrey.  John Tracy was not only a boy but he was a redhead, mother’s favourite—by now Jeffrey’s hair was quite blonde and she was a really pretty little girl.  I had to guard her against father.)
Children went to the church service for a while then left to go down to the church basement for Sunday school.  Bible stories which were quite riveting, filled with vengeance, pestilence, baby killings, adultery, murder and floods—not to mention crucifixion—were read out in a pious monotone.  After all, these things were holy.  They must be since they were in the Bible.  No one seemed shocked at the subject matter being presented to small children.
Church wasn’t over on Sunday. There was Mission Band on Monday and Explorers on Wednesday. I hated Mission Band—can’t remember a thing about it—loved Explorers.  It lived up to its name.  We studied the cultures of foreign parts. To this day I know how to tie a sari.
 My morning nurse just left. He is a big black man with a deep voice. I had to let go of any modesty because he needs to apply ointments beneath my breasts and between my legs.  I have to spread-eagle my legs and offer a full view of my pubic area and not feel embarrassed. Or turned on. I managed both.  But I can’t help but wonder how he feels. Even though I am old and fat still, I am a woman.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Margie Taylor Reviews Nobel Winner Kazuo ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills.

Memory can be an unreliable thing.
So says the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel, A Pale View of Hills. Published in 1982, the novel was praised for its “uncanny mix of surface calm with menace and deep tension”, a mix that would be repeated seven years later in his best known work, The Remains of the Day.
In announcing that Ishiguro had won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2017, the secretary of the Swedish Academy described him as a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” It is that false sense of connection that confronts not only the characters in his novels but the reader as well, when we realize that the story as written is not necessarily in alignment with the facts.
A Pale View of Hills is set in England and in postwar Japan at the time of the rebuilding of Nagasaki. Etsuko is a middle-aged Japanese woman now living alone in the English countryside. Six years ago her oldest daughter, Keiko, hanged herself. During a visit from her younger daughter, Etsuko begins dreaming about a young girl, Mariko, the child of a woman she knew one summer in Japan.
The way it’s told, Etsuko is pregnant that summer and the woman, Sachiko, intrigues her, partly because she’s further down the road of motherhood. But Sachiko is an indifferent mother at best. Although given to lecturing Etsuko on the things she’ll find out when she, too, is a mother, she raises Mariko with a carelessness that verges on abuse. Even when it becomes apparent there’s a child murderer in the area, Sachiko remains indifferent, letting her daughter wander at will.
Mariko is not a happy child. She and her mother have a troubled relationship, and she professes to hate her mother’s boyfriend. In spite of announcing several times that her daughter’s welfare is of utmost importance, Sachiko continues to make plans for her own happiness, at the expense of that of her child.
Etsuko, who is pregnant, has her own unhappiness to contend with. She spends her days alone in her apartment, from where she can look out past the trees on the opposite side of the river. Beyond the trees she can see “a pale outline of hills visible against the clouds. It was not an unpleasant view and on occasions it brought me a rare sense of relief from the emptiness of those long afternoons I spent in that apartment.”
There are numerous similarities between Etsuko and her friend. Sachiko schemes to marry an American and leave Japan; Etsuko will eventually marry a foreigner and move to England. Like Sachiko, she will have a difficult relationship with the child she is carrying – so much so that she will bear some guilt for her daughter’s eventual suicide.
At the risk of giving away the plot, for those who haven’t read it, the twist comes near the end of the book. Etsuko, who has gone looking for Mariko, finds the child crouching on the bank of the river. The girl says once more that she doesn’t want to go away – she doesn’t like her mother’s boyfriend, she thinks he’s a pig. Etsuko replies angrily that she’s not to talk like this, adding, “In any case, if you don’t like it there, we can always come back.”
It’s this sudden change in voice – the use of the word “we” – that startles the reader. Are Etsuko and Sachiko one and the same person? Is Mariko actually Keiko, the daughter who hanged herself? A paragraph a few lines on leads us to wonder: did Etsuko kill the child that night on the river-bank? Is it possible her daughter’s death was not a suicide at all?
Ishiguro has said he was trying something a little “odd” when he wrote this book. He wanted to show how people use language to deceive and protect themselves. “So the whole narrative strategy of the book,” he said, “was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people’s stories.”
What can be said for sure is that nothing can be said for sure about this story. The author is intentionally ambivalent; the ending is purposefully ambiguous. And the narrator, Etsuko, is unreliable. Is the story she relates really that of her friend, Sachiko? Or is she remembering a painful event in her own life – one connected with leaving Japan and the subsequent death of her daughter?
Kazuo Ishiguro has been compared to Jane Austen both for his “carefully restrained mode of expression” and for the important things he leaves unsaid. Because we so frequently equate that restraint with something inherently English, it came as a bit of a shock for many readers to learn that the author of Remains of the Day was born in Japan, moving to England when he was five.
But Ishiguro, of course, is a hybrid – which so many of the very best English writers are and have always been. Joseph Conrad was born in Ukraine – Henry James was from New York – Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth were born in India. In my own mind what foreign-born writers bring to the scene is a certain detachment – an ability to stand apart from one’s fellow citizens and regard them with a more objective, even jaundiced eye. Ishiguro alluded to this several years ago in an interview with The Telegraph:
“There is that slightly chilly aspect to writing fiction,” he said. “You do have to be slightly detached to say: how would human beings respond in this situation?”
I love that word – “chilly”. Not cold, but cool … deceptively muted. Take, for instance, Etsuko’s description of how she is haunted by her daughter’s suicide and the fact that it was several days before her body was discovered hanging in her room:
“The horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one’s own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.”
That, I would say, pretty neatly sums up Ishiguro’s oeuvre to this point: intimate, restrained, and disturbing.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel Price for Literature

Ishiguro is one of my favourite authors. A few years back, I read An Artist of the Floating World. A few years later, Remains of the Day. Then Never Let Me Go. Last year, The Buried Giant. He is a writer of great complexity and depth. As you read for character and plot, you realize there is a story behind the story, a story with deep historical significance. The Buried Giant, set in early Britain,  is a journey tale but its theme is memory and forgetting, especially about forgetting the brutalities of the past, a significant theme for today.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

And now the GGs.

Kathleen Winter
Non fiction
YA Text
Young People, Illustrated Books

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Giller Short List 2017

Michelle Winters for her novel I Am a Truck, published by Invisible Publishing

Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square, published by Doubleday Canada

Rachel Cusk for her novel Transit, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

Eden Robinson for her novel Son of a Trickster, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada

Ed O’Loughlin for his novel Minds of Winter, published by House of Anansi Press

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Autumn Literary Events

Joe Fiorito

Enough literary events to keep readers and writers hopping all fall. A great line-up.

First off, a note: Twenty Years on Snowshoes is now available in Chapters. Cost 20$.

Tuesday, October 3. The Crime Writers' Toolkit with Jayne Barnard. Mary J.L.Black Library Community Room, 7-9 pm. Award winning mystery writer Jayne Barnard reveals the secrets to crafting compelling short and long crime fiction at this interactive evening seminar. Free and no registration necessary.

Wednesday, October 4 to November 8th. Playwriting Workshop (Magnus Theatre). with Eleanor Albanese 7 pm - 8:30. Ages 16+ Participants will explore the process of writing their own play including scene structure, action, characters and dialogue. To register, call 345 5552 or visit Magnus

Monday, October 16 10X10 Playwriting Workshop: How to Write a Ten Minute Play. Urban Abbey 308 Red River Road, across from Magnus Theatre. 6pm - 8:30 Free. Valuable advice and encouragemnet.

Thursday  October 19. Ghoulies and Ghosties and long-legged beasties. Readings at Mary J. Black Library Community Room.  7 pm. Join us for an evening of spooky tales from local authors Joan M. Baril, Holly Haggarty and Roy Blomstrom. Open mic as well. Twenty Years on Snowshoes and past issues of NOWW magazine will be on sale.

Saturday, October 28. John Pringle will launch his third collection of short stories, Dandelions, at Waverley Resource Library in the downstairs auditorium at 2 pm. All three volumes of short stories will be available.

Monday, October 30. International Festival of Authors Thunder Bay Art Gallery 7 pm. Gary Baldwin, Terry Fallis, Grace O'Connor, Jean E. Pendziwol. Readings and discussion. Tickets at Waverley and Brodie Library and at the door. Cost 15$.

Saturday, November 4,  A workshop, Writing Memoir with Joe Fiorito at Mary J.L.Black Library. 10am - 3 pm. Joe Fiorito, originally from Thunder Bay, is the author of the international best seller The Closer We are to Dying. He has won awards for his Tango on the Main columns and The Song Beneath the Ice. Please bring a bag lunch. Cost 10$ for NOWW members and 40$ for non-members (which includes a one year membership). Registration is open on the NOWW website under events tab. Number of participants is limited. Sorry, no walk-ins

Saturday, November 4. Jean E. Pendziwol will be at Chapters from 1 - 4 for the local launch of her latest picture book Me and You and the Red Canoe.  

Tuesday, November 7 Bill Heath will launch his book Tree at My Window: A Book of Days Mary J.L. Black Library  Community Room at 7 pm. 

Thursday, November 16. Firewords! Or Smouldering Coals? Readings at Mary J. Black Library Community Room. 7 pm. Let three local writers light up your evening with their sizzling works. Bring your poetry for an open mic.

Author Roy Blomdstrom reading October 19.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Wars by Timothy Findley. A Margie Taylor Review

I have never met anyone who could expose the heart of a book like Margie Taylor. Here is her powerful review of a Canadian classic.
Only the dead have seen the end to war.”
George Santayana wrote this in 1922. He was responding to the idea, popular at the time, that the First World War was the war to end all wars. It was the Great War for Civilization. The war that would be over by Christmas.

It wasn’t any of those things, of course. In the end it dragged on for 4 years, 3 months, 11 days. It took the lives of 9 million soldiers, 7 million civilians, 8 million horses and countless mules and donkeys. And 21 years later we did it all over again.

There’ve been many books dealing with this, the first great European war. A Farewell to Arms comes to mind…All Quiet on the Western FrontGoodbye to All That…the four novels by Ford Madox Ford collectively known as Parade’s End. More recently, we have Birdsong … War Horse … Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy.

And The Wars by Timothy Findley. When it was published in 1977 it was immediately hailed as one of the best stories about that ghastly war. It won the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction and quickly became a literary classic. It’s been called the finest historical novel ever written by a Canadian and has been required reading for high school students for years. This is in spite of the efforts of an Ontario mother to get it removed from the curriculum. Fortunately, she was unsuccessful.

The hero of the story is Robert Ross, a sensitive 19-year-old Canadian officer who joins up to fight out of guilt. His beloved older sister has died and Robert, who believes he should have been there to save her, blames himself for her death. Like so many of his countrymen, he has an idealized vision of war. It will be the fire that will purify his soul … the crucible that will forge his manhood. What he is not expecting is that it will destroy him – that his experiences on the Western Front will drive him to the verge of madness and beyond.

The “wars” within the novel are internal as well as external: guilt, shame, sexual tension, the struggle to adapt to a way of life that increasingly makes no sense. And the conflict between the way things should be, in a rational world, and the way they happen in war. In the maelstrom of war there is no right or wrong. There is only the imperative to follow orders. One’s moral code means nothing.

Findley has chosen to tell Ross’s story from the viewpoint of a historian or biographer who has access to photographs, letters, and documents from the soldier’s past. He – or she – is also able to interview some of the people who knew him. And so we have a narrative told from various perspectives – the anonymous researcher, the nurse who cared for Ross in his final days, the woman who fell in love with him when she was twelve.
But it is this fragmented approach that prevents us, I think, from seeing Ross himself. Or rather, seeing into him, as opposed to observing his reactions to the chaos of his surroundings. Before leaving England for France, Ross is taken to a brothel where he ejaculates prematurely. The woman is kind … she assures him that “there’s lots of fellows do what you done. Specially the first time.” We are told Robert is ashamed, staring at the floor, but the narrative voice is distant. It simply doesn’t feel personal.

Later, in a bath house in northern France, he’s locked in a dark, airless room and raped by his fellow officers. He thinks there are three of them but has no idea who they are. It’s a horrific scene but the reader is detached, watching from the sidelines.

It’s in the descriptions – and there are many – of the war itself that we come to experience real, raw, even violent sensations. Findley thrusts us into the trenches along with the soldiers – drowns us in mud and blood and dead horses, cracks our eardrums with the blasts of exploding shells, blinds us with clouds of chlorine gas. In unforgettable prose, he describes the effects of the flammenwerfer, or flamethrowers, introduced by the Germans at the Battle of Verdun – a battle in which the French army suffered 380,000 casualties:

“Fire storms raged along the front. Men were exploded where they stood – blown apart by the combustion. Winds with the velocity of cyclones tore the guns from their emplacements and flung them about like toys. Horses fell with their bones on fire. Men went blind in the heat. Blood ran out of noses, ears, and mouths.”

The greatest terror, for some, is that the officers in charge, the men who are sending thousands of soldiers to slaughter, may not actually know what they’re doing: “What if they were mad – or stupid? What if their fear was greater than yours? Or what if they were brave and crazy – wanting and demanding bravery from you?”

Their fears are well grounded. Commanding officers are far removed from the front lines. They make “strategic” decisions guaranteed to put their men in harm’s way … mistakes that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

On the 16 of June, 1916, Ross commits a final desperate act. Under siege from the Germans, with shells bursting all around him, he breaks rank and releases a barn full of horses and mules who are in danger of being burned alive. His captain, calling him a traitor, closes the gates and tries to kill him. Ross, in turn, shoots the captain between the eyes. For this act of treason – a violent gesture declaring “his commitment to life in the midst of death” – Ross is eventually captured and tried in absentia. By this time he’s burned beyond recovery; his nose is disfigured and bent, his face is a mass of scar tissue. He will never walk or see or be capable of judgment again. He dies in 1922, at the age of 25.

I cannot think of a better introduction to the horror, brutality, and near insanity of trench warfare than this particular story. If I never read another tale of that terrible war, I will consider myself educated.
Timothy Findley