Friday, November 9, 2007

Lest we forget. . .

As we take a moment to remember all the men and women who have fought and continue to fight in conflicts around the world, the Deweys offer up a selection of books - both fiction and non-fiction - that either touched us deeply or made us think more clearly and intelligently about wars both current and historical.

First Casualty by Ben Elton
Set during World War I, this is a mystery that captures the absurdity of war in the manner of Catch-22: a former policeman turned conscientous objector is sent to France to discover whether a young soldier accused of murdering a officer and noted poet is indeed guilty, and discovers that in war the first casualty is always truth.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
The quintessential Civil War novel (even more than The Red Badge of Courage), this follows the men and actions of Gettysburg in almost real time, capturing their motives, thoughts and fears. Thoroughly researched, The Killer Angels brings the soldiers to life – Lee, Hancock, Longstreet, Chamberlain – and conveys why men fight as much as how.
B For Buster by Iain Lawrence
Written for young adults but suitable for any age, this is the story of Kak, who runs away from an abusive home seeking the glamour and glory of war, only to find the reality of flying in a Halifax squadron utterly unlike his comic-book expectations. Lawrence does a wonderful job of painting the emotional isolation of terrified young men unwilling and unable to show their fear, and redefines the meaning of courage and honour in the person of Bert, the keeper of the pigeons who carry messages from downed planes back to the base.

I've been fascinated by the literature of the First World War since high school and in particular how women writers (and there were many - I've been collecting them for years) depicted the war and its effects on the homefront. The book that started it all for me is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth which not only recounts the pain of losing the man she loved, her brother, and two other close friends, but is a powerful overview of the extraordinary changes in women's lives from the Edwardian era into the post-WWI 1920s. It's also a very eye-opening look at the nursing profession during the war and the experiences of the VADs at the front. Just checking a few publishers' sites and amazon, this book looks to be inexplicably out of print or at least unavailable in Canada. I can't believe it - how shocking - so if someone out there knows something to the contrary, please let us know.
One of my favourite novels dealing with WWI is Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier which just grows in intensity and beauty everytime I reread it. It's the story of Chris, a man suffering from shellshock who returns home but doesn't remember the last ten years, including the war and his current wife Kitty. Instead, he lives in the past still believing he is in love with Margaret who has since married someone else. The core of the novel is the relationships between Kitty, Margaret and Jenny, the narrator and Chris's cousin who is also in love with him. It touches on issues of class, memory, gender relations and England, and its ending still devastes me every time.
One of the best books ever written on WWI, The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden, is alas out of print. She was an American who worked in a field hospital in France. The Forbidden Zone is a collection of short stories and narrative pieces that are incredibly powerful, ironic and filled with unforgettable images. Some of her work appears in anthologies and if you can get a hold of her short story "The Beach", I highly recommend it. You can also find excerpts from The Forbidden Zone in Nurses at the Front: Writing the Wounds of the Great War edited by Margaret R. Higonnet, which also includes writing by Ellen N. La Motte - another nurse who worked alongside Borden.

Eleanor: One of my favorites is War, Women and The News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover WWII This is a wonderful exploration of news stories written by female journalists during WW11. Filled with great photographs and news clippings the conflicts and challenges these women faced are explored – they opened the door for aspiring female journalists today! On the fictional front Cynthia Kadohata wrote a wonderful book called Cracker. This is told in part through the point of view of a German Shepherd and his handler who experienced the Vietnam War. A wonderful and unique perspective!

Memory in a House, by LM Boston: For those of you familiar with the Green Knowe books, this book will delight you. The house of Green Knowe actually exists, and this book is Boston’s love letter to every brick and blade of grass. Remember Peter Boston’s illustrations? This is the house he grew up in. How does this relate to War and Remembrance Day? Boston extols the recuperative powers of the house as she opens her doors to homesick soldiers during World War Two. Well worth hunting down on library shelves and used bookstores, this book will help you fall in love with your living space and believe in the power of place.
Resistance by Anita Shreve
Shreve revisits her familiar themes of love and loss within the landscape of World War Two. Claire Daussois and her husband Henri help hide and protect a young airman, Ted Brice, after his aircraft crashes in occupied France. The love story stands in stark contrast to the atrocities in the village, humanity balancing horror, kindness standing tall against fear. A perfect read for a rainy afternoon.
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
Fussell approaches the war from a literary vantage point, with the lives and work of Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Owen and others providing the context. Read Pat Barker’s brilliant trilogy, Regeneration, Eye in the Door and Ghost Road, as you read Fussell. The combination is powerful.
There are two books that make me think of war from entirely different angles. One is The Sojourn by Alan Cumyn. This is the story of Ramsay Crome – a private with the 7th Canadian Pioneers. He joined up against his father’s wishes and was posted to the front lines at Ypres. The mud, bugs, noise and fear of battle came so alive with Cumyn’s wonderful writing. I felt that I could be in the trenches beside Ramsay. After one particularly bad assault, Ramsay is granted a ten day leave where he heads to London. There he visits family that he does not actually know and gets drawn into the other side of war far from the front. The emotions that Ramsay feels as he struggles against the strangeness of life in London and his desire to back to the familiar battle field are something I shall never forget. This book was partly based on the experiences of Cumyn’s own uncles who were soldiers in the Great War. The ending of this book is also pretty powerful. I had the opportunity to visit the War Museum in Ottawa after reading this book. Walking through the area constructed as trenches just made my blood run cold. Alan Cumyn is a beautiful writer.
The second book is The Wreckage by Michael Crummey. This is about the people who are left at home. Sadie and Wish meet in Little Fogo Island in Newfoundland at the beginning of WWII. Sadie is a Protestant and Wish is a Catholic. Something not accepted in this outport community, especially by Sadie’s mother. They do have a rather beautifully described, intense affair, and Wish is driven from the Cove by the disapproval of the locals. He enlists with the British army after the fall of Saigon and ends up suffering through the brutality and deprivation of a Japanese POW camp. Sadie does not know this and she heads to St. John’s to wait for him. After she hears he has died, she marries an American officer who she meets in St. John’s. Fifty years later Sadie returns to St. John’s, with her daughter, to scatter her husband’s ashes. It is there that she discovers that her past is not quite over yet. I really liked both of the main characters in this book. Michael Crummey can make even the most ordinary of people quite extraordinary to the reader.

Women Overseas: Memoirs of The Canadian Red Cross Corps , edited by Frances Martin Day, Phyllis Spence, and Barbara Ladouceur. Thirty-one women offer accounts of their lives overseas serving as Red Cross volunteers during WWII and the Korean War.
Blackouts to Bright Lights: Canadian War Bride Stories, edited by Barbara Ladouceur and Phyllis Spence. Thirty-six Canadian war brides recount their involvement in wartime duties and their journeys from Britain to Canada.
Brave Soldier, Proud Regiments: Canada’s Military Heritage by Allen Andrews. A wide-ranging account of Canada’s military leaders – from James Wolfe in 1759 to Lewis MacKenzie in Sector Sarajevo – offers a much-needed overview of Canada’s military heritage.

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