Manitoba History: Book Review: Sherrill Grace, Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts 1977–2007.
by C.J. Taylor
I am of that boomer generation that has no direct experience of war, and yet, in common with many Canadians, war has had a profound effect on the geography of my imagination—that amalgam of history, family memory, inherited attitudes, and place. My grandfather was a soldier in the First World War, both my parents participated in the Second World War, as did those of my wife. I grew up playing war, dressing up in war surplus helmets and webbing. I was nurtured on war movies, both British and American, as well as on action novels like The Cruel Sea, The Naked and the Dead, and countless others set against the background of war. The mature self encountered writing much more critical of war, such as All Quiet on the Western Front or the memoirs of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. In company with many Canadians, I am aware of the many war memorials across this country, as well as those in France. This experience links these geographically and historically distant events with contemporary Canadian culture.
I begin in such a personal way in order to underscore the importance of Sherrill Grace’s topic, “The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts 1977–2007.” The importance rests on two truths: the significance of the two wars in Canadian collective memory, and the mediating function of art and literature both in responding to the past and looking to the future, enriching the geography of our imagination in the process what Grace describes as a “shared landscape of memory” (p. 67).
While focussing on literature and the arts in Canada in a 30-year span, the book examines an enormous range of novels, plays, histories, memoirs, painting, and film, although most of the examples are taken from fiction. This selection is enlarged by references to many works of art and literature outside both the core period and Canada. As well, the author applies literary critical theory to further bring meaning to her subject. Behind this, there is a post-modern bias towards letting the texts speak for themselves without imposing too much order or critical interjection from above. Thus, at the end of her very long introduction, she writes, “I strive to practise, as a literary scholar and humanist, that complex ethical act of listening called for by Lamberti and Fortunati and evoked by the artists I discuss” (p. 93, author’s emphasis).
Apart from the long introduction and a short intermezzo discussing interwar writing, the book falls into two main halves: the first treating responses to the First World War, and the second covering responses to the Second. Principal works discussed in the first section are the novels The Wars, Broken Ground, Three Day Road; the plays Billy Bishop Goes to War, The Lost Boys, Mary’s Wedding, and Vimy; the films Going Home, The Great War, and Passchendaele; and the non-fiction works Tapestry of War by Sandra Gwyn, and Danger Tree by David Macfarlane. The second half of the book examines the novels Obasan, The Ash Garden, Burning Vision, and The Wreckage; the plays Fugitive Pieces, Hana’s Suitcase, None is Too Many, and Waiting For the Parade; a memoir Artist At War by Charles Comfort; a history Ortona by Mark Zuehlke; the film The War by McKenna;and a television miniseries The Valour and the Horror. This list does not include the dozens of other literary and artistic works referred to by the author throughout the book, so that its bibliography covers 37 pages. Despite this range, the readings are by no means a comprehensive list, nor are they always representative of the period.
The author’s strength, befitting a distinguished professor of Canadian literature at the University of British Columbia, is her ability to explain techniques of voice, flashbacks, and other means to fuse disparate periods of time and places into a single imaginary piece. This is especially true of the texts in the second half, where she notes, “each of the texts I examine takes its readers to a Europe of the past but returns us firmly to Canadian home ground in the present” (p. 365).
The author’s approach to the topic is that of a literary postmodernist rather than that of an historian. The texts are taken from an arbitrarily determined time period, interspersed with other examples from other periods and places. The choices seem subjective rather than representative of objective themes. The whole is thrown together and examined on a single plane. There is little interest in examining the origins of memory or the development of national myths, no interest in distinguishing between fiction and reality, and a reluctance to engage in analytical or empirical historical thought. A revealing insight into her mode of thought is in her discussion of a passage in Findlay’s The Wars, where she makes the following remarks: “That said, and while I agree entirely with those who characterize The Wars as a postmodern text that challenges, even undermines the dominant view of history as truth—the story of what really happened—the art of a sequence like this lies in its realism” (p. 132).
Grace seems to belong to that school of thought that believes there are no truths, only interpretations. This postmodern approach may be responsible for a rambling and discursive writing style, where text after text is cited with little structure or argument. There are so many digressions and so much piling on of detail that any point the argument becomes lost to the reader. The overly-long introduction does not serve the subject well, serving to delay and obfuscate rather than open up the texts. It is not until page 61 that the reader is introduced to Findlay’s The Wars, which, we are told, is a key text of the book. But the same paragraph that introduces the novel wanders off to discuss truth in history, ending with the sentence, “To call official history to account one must know what the history claims and, thus, if and where it fails” (p. 62). Chapter Three opens with a promise to discuss The Wars, and the reader is again reminded of its importance, along with two other novels — Broken Ground and Three Day Road. But following this tease there is a long digression in which several other works, including Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, are discussed at length. It is sixteen pages later, on page 121, that we finally arrive at an actual discussion of Findlay’s masterpiece. At this point we get a competent reading of the novel. Given the importance placed on the realism of the background, it would have been useful to know where Findlay found his inspiration: was it Charles Yale Harrison? Will Bird? Robert Graves? No clues are offered.
The second half of the book proceeds in a similar conversational way, with a selection of readings leaning to the exposition of the horror of war rather than any heroic or noble qualities. The concluding chapter was an opportunity to offer some clarifying notions. But instead of looking for themes and ideas in the preceding pages, the author introduces a completely new cast of authors and titles, beating the reader into unthinking submission. Some conclusions that are offered, such as the following sentence, bear no relation to the evidence presented in the previous chapters: “The Great War has often been remembered and imagined by Canadians, including those writing since 1977, as a unifying myth of the nation and one about which we can and should feel proud” (p. 455).
A literary postmodern approach aims to give the reader a direct experience of a place or time, without filters of analysis or externally-applied structures. This book illustrates the limitations of this approach. It is unable to provide meaningful insights into either the works themselves or the culture that produced them, while the writing is plagued by a stuttering style that makes too many digressions to arcane references. The poverty of postmodern thinking contributes to a multitude of sins, paramount, perhaps, being its absolution of the author from having to answer, or even ask, fundamental questions of both literary and cultural history. One question is what the documentary sources are for the historical fiction. Another question confronting any writer about Canadian culture is whether it is valid to confine one’s area of study exclusively to Canadian writing, when Canadian culture is informed by an international body of writing, art, and cinema.
Landscapes of War and Memory is based on a personal selection of writing, art, and cinema from an arbitrarily derived span of time. One question that is asked — about the validity of official history — is dealt with in a superficial and naive way that would offend anyone educated in history. There is no attempt to be comprehensive or balanced. Any reader interested in the topic would be disappointed to see the omission of some Canadian classics: Billy Bishop’s Winged Warfare, Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang, and Manitoban Murray Peden’s A Thousand Shall Fall. Throughout Landscapes of War and Memory the reader is given the impression of war as a terrible and gloomy experience, which, indeed for many it was. And, yet, as any Canadian youth brought up on war stories and films can attest, it could also be terribly exciting. So, too, there are other points of view concerning women’s experience of war. My mother-in-law, for example, described the experience of many Canadian airwomen in her memoir, where she explained, “Enlistment meant taking part in the war effort, the chance to travel across Canada, make new friends, and not be dependent on one’s own family.”
Jonathan F. Vance’s elegant history, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, published in 1997 provides an excellent introduction to how the memory of that war was formed and shaped in the interwar years. It is available in many public libraries across the country and no doubt will remain a classic on the topic for years to come. The same cannot be said for Landscapes of War and Memory.
1. Joan L. Wright, By the By: Memoirs of Joan Wright, Ottawa: privately printed, 2009, p. 59.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 12 November 2020