Friday, November 09, 2007

The Sojourn

A U of A education professor seems surprised, even alarmed, that Edmonton high school students are thinking about the world wars of last century during Remembrance Day ceremonies (according to an Edmonton Journal article here).
The prof implies that it would be better if kids were thinking about current conflicts, like Afghanistan. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with kids and educators thinking about war and peace in today’s world but most of us worry that kids don’t think enough beyond five minutes ago! Isn’t it good that teens are stopping to think about the truly catastrophic events of last century, events that changed the world we live in today?

As terrible as the war in Afghanistan is, and every one of the 71 Canadian deaths should and must be mourned, it is important that we Canadians remember the obscene slaughter once known as the “war to end all wars”. 66, 655 Canadians died in the First World War - Canadians from little hamlets like St. Albert (5 deaths listed on the cenotaph, just outside the Library).

And the focus of late has been to get all Canadians to remember those wars. Lest we forget! This year alone we have had the re-dedication of the Vimy Memorial in April, the opening of two new plays about Canada and the First World War this fall (The Wars in Calgary and Vimy in Edmonton), the filming in Alberta this summer of Passchendaele, a major feature film about the Great War, and events this weekend for the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, in which over 4,000 Canadians died.

Vimy and Passchendaele are Canada’s two great victories of the First World War, Vimy in April 1917, Passchendaele in November 1917. While Vimy is remembered as a sparkling victory using Canadian ingenuity that ‘forged a nation’, Passchendaele is remembered as a futile massacre, a pyrrhic victory. Indeed one recent WWI history notes:

“There is one battle … on the Western Front that is synonymous with slaughter: it is Passchendaele… even more than the Somme, Passchendaele symbolizes the futility of trench warfare.”
Saturday November 10 is the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele (or the 3rd Battle of Ypres, as it is officially known). Unlike Vimy there is not a wealth of books celebrating the Canadian victory. Daniel G. Dancocks attempted a revision in his 1986 history, Legacy of Valour: The Canadians at Passchendaele, calling the battle “controversial” but still a “breathtaking accomplishment.”

I've recommended many Canadian WWI novels before but not Alan Cumyn's 2003 novel The Sojourn. While it isn't strictly a Passchendaele novel, the main character does fight at an earlier battle at Ypres, in 1916, the year before Passchendaele. Val Ross noted in the Literary Review:
"Cumyn's achievement is significant. The Sojourn is intelligent, unsentimental, unflinching. Among Canada's best war novels, beside High MacLennan's Barometer Rising, Timothy Findlay's The Wars, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Kevin Major's underrated No Man's Land, The Sojourn can take its place."

And Robert Wiersema noted in the Toronto Star:

"With The Sojourn, Cumyn has written a timeless novel of life during wartime, a work that speaks truly, if not loudly, of the fundamental human costs of war, of death and sacrifice, of loss and pain, of fleeting joy and lingering terror. The Sojourn can be mentioned in the company of such modern classics as The Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Thin Red Line."
The Famished Lover, published in 2006, is a sequel to The Sojourn. Longlisted for the 2006 Giller Prize, The Famished Lover follows Ramsay Crome, the protagonist of The Sojourn, into his post-war life. Saying more than this would give the plot of The Sojourn away (suffice to say, there is a reason the cover has a pin-up painting on it!). Reviews of the sequel were mixed, ranging from somewhat negative in Books in Canada (... only for the most dedicated collector of Great War literature.") to positive in the Literary Review ("... a compact, well-written and highly entertaining novel").


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