Sunday, April 8, 2007

Canadian Literature on the First World War

Reading and watching all the television coverage of the 90th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, I'm reminded of how entrenched the First World War has always been, not only in Canada's historical psyche, but also in its literary culture. My abiding interest in this period after all came from books - reading All Quiet on the Western Front and Timothy Findley's The Wars in high school made a big impact on me. Later in university, discovering Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth has led to an almost obsessive fascination with women's chronicles of this war.
Some of Canada's best writers have poignantly and imaginatively explored WWI. Here's a list of some of my recommendations: The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart, Broken Ground by Jack Hodgins, The Sojourn by Alan Cumyn and its sequel The Famished Lover, Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, Deafening by Frances Itani, Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison, Maclean by Allan Donaldson and for a particularly female point of view, pick up L.M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside, The Deep by Mary Swan, a beautifully written novella about two sisters who travel to France to nurse the wounded and Aleta Dey by Francis Marion Beynon (a wonderful novel about a pacifist/suffragette, orginally published in 1919 but brought back into print by Broadview Press). Wendy Lill took some of the elements of Beynon's life and her novel and weaved them into her play The Fighting Days. Other Canadian playwrights who have tackled the theatre of WWI include Guy Vanderhaeghe with Dancock's Dance, R.H. Thomson with The Lost Boys and Stephen Massicotte with Mary's Wedding.
A few years ago, McGill-Queen's University Press published the War Diary of Clare Gass, a nurse who spent four years in France. I looked up her entries for April, 1917 and she did nurse many of the wounded after the battle at Vimy and reported of heartbreaking cases of gas and gangrene.
I have no doubt left many books out (including children's books). Please add any you may have read and liked.

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