The Wars by Timothy Findley
Thunder Bay Public Library (TBPL) is leading a major cultural partnership project to commemorate the centennial of World War One. TBPL is also a partner in the City of the Poppy initiative to mark Thunder Bay’s unique role as the city where the poppy was first adopted as a symbol of remembrance in Canada.
The line between fiction and non-fiction is at best thin and at worst arbitrary and a good example of this is novels written about the Great War. Each nation has its classic Great War novel – All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning, Under Fire by Henri Barbusse – and Canada is no exception.
The Wars by Timothy Findley has been described as ‘quite simply one of the best novels of the Great War’. It tells the story of Robert Ross, a sensitive nineteen year old Canadian officer, who joined the 39th Battery, Canadian Expeditionary Force, in April 1915. After nine months training he left for England in December 1915. His description of the stormy voyage across the Atlantic and its impact on both the men and horses packed into its hold is vivid and memorable.
But when he arrives in France in January 1916 the real horror begins. He finds himself in the nightmare world of trench warfare; of mud and smoke, of chlorine gas and rotting corpses. He took part in the battle of the St Eloi craters in February 1916 which raged for five days. In it 30,000 men would die and not an inch of ground would be won.
Amidst the carnage Robert tries to retain both his humanity and his sanity. In this world gone mad he performs a last desperate act to declare his commitment to life in the midst of death. This is an unforgettable story of war and courage and a man pushed to the very limits of his endurance.
This book’s origins are quite remarkable. It began when a French artist named Barroux noticed some garbage being thrown out on a Paris street and stopped because he saw some old magazines and had been looking for some to cut up for a project. Among the debris he also found a medal and an old diary. It turned out to be over 100 years old and had belonged to a French man who had been conscripted into World War 1. The name was too faded to read anymore, but the words were quite amazing and they inspired the artist to create the images which would illustrate the unknown soldier’s words.
The result was a graphic novel unlike most novels or true-life accounts of war. Because the diarist was writing for himself the story is told in a very matter-of-fact and unedited manner. The reader views the story just as it unfolds for the teller, and it is not a grand drama, but rather, the personal view of an infantry soldier recounting what he sees, hears and feels as he moves through the early days of the war.
It begins when France declares war and continues until early September in 1914. Then, it abruptly stops. By that time, the reader is captivated and wants to know what happens next, but it must remain a mystery because that is all there is to the diary. Instead, he includes the lyrics of some of the songs of the day and we are left to speculate what became of the person we have gotten to know.
In his diary, he writes about the initial enthusiasm of his fellow servicemen, of long treks and journeys, his aching feet, some of the people he befriends, life in the trenches and also in the hospital where he is taken at one point. He writes of the countryside, his inner thoughts and seeing courage in battle.
Barroux illustrates every page of the diary using acrylic paint and a thick black grease pencil that he obtained from his butcher. He had to spray the pages to keep the grease lines from smudging and the result is a yellowish patina which suits the 100 year old story well. The drawings are semi-realistic with a slight cartoonish element which preserves a bit of the mystery of the diary-writer’s identity. He is “any-man” fighting for his country and wondering what will happen next. Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse and many other fine books, wrote the introduction for Line of Fire and stated: “We need the voice of a witness to tell the unadulterated truth. We have it in this remarkable book.” I couldn’t agree more and recommend this unique book to anyone aged 12 and older.
Angela Meady is Head of Children’s & Youth Services for the Thunder Bay Public Library.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Barb was moved by the poignancy and sadness of the massive loss of life and innocence during the First World War. Another of her favourite poems is “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.
This is, undoubtedly, almost a really good book. I think the main clincher for me was that it’s set in the old country – Australia – so everything was familiar: the places I’d lived in and visited, the wildlife, culture, and, of course, the language. You really can’t beat Aussie vernacular for getting straight to the point and making things entertaining in the process. “Chuck a wobbly” is one of my favourites, and it’s nice to be able to say so-called naughty words like “bloody” and “buggered” and not be told off for swearing. These are not considered swear words Down Under.
But getting back to the book: this is Stedman’s first novel, and at its center is a child and the moral dilemma that surrounds her. Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia after serving four harrowing years in the First World War. He takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an isolated island off the coast of Western Australia, where supplies are delivered only four times a year. He takes with him his young wife, Isabel, the daughter of the school headmaster at Portageuse, the mainland town that services the lighthouse. After two miscarriages and a still born baby, Isabel grieves for a child she fears she may never have. When a rowing boat becomes stranded on the Janus shoreline with a dead man and a crying baby inside, Isabel senses an opportunity.
Despite Tom’s strong protestations, Isabel convinces him that they should bury the dead man and keep the child. She has only just lost the third baby, and as nobody knows that it was still born, they could easily pass the child off as their own. They name her Lucy, and she becomes their daughter. Tom struggles daily with the crime, wishing to tell the authorities on one hand, but in love with the child on the other. When they discover that Lucy’s birth mother, Hannah, is alive and grieving for her child and husband, the struggle becomes even more difficult.
As the reader, we see all sides of the story and want things to work out for everyone. Tom is a good, honest man. Isabel is a desperate mother. Hannah mourns for her child and husband. The child is caught in between.