Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977–2007

Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977–2007

Sherrill Grace

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

In Jack Hodgins’s Broken Ground (1998), memories of the Great War haunt the fictional community of Portuguese Creek on Vancouver Island, but what should be remembered of the horrors of France remains uncertain. The notebook of the soldier Matthew Pearson suggests the failure of memory in the face of atrocity. Who had been forgotten in August 1918? “Boys and men whose names stretched out behind me so far by now that some of them were already beyond recall. Friends, some of them. Rivals. The wise and the foolish. The eager and the frightened. Grateful boys who were half in love with you and sneering men who watched for your mistakes” (222). The dead are nameless, yet they harry the quick in this absorbing novel, the tidal past surging into the present.

In Landscapes of War and Memory, Sherrill Grace examines the twin processes of commemoration and amnesia that have shaped cultural responses in Canada to the two global conflicts of the twentieth century. Her study, immensely rich, surveys works of theatre, visual art, and film as well as novels and stories, but above all it is concerned with fiction in a catholic sense -- with the perpetual reinvention of the past. Grace praises Broken Ground as “a stellar example of the complex narrative witnessing that I find in many of the best post-1977 Canadian novels about the war” (142). She takes that year as a watershed. In 1977 Timothy Findley published The Wars, a novel that as “a national mirror and an influential narrative” occupies a prominent role in Grace’s account (103). (Her title derives from a phrase in Findley’s autobiographical Inside Memory [1990].) The comparably influential Obasan, by Joy Kogawa, appeared not long after The Wars in 1981. Grace, whose knowledge of Canadian literature is prodigious, analyzes relatively obscure works in addition to such landmarks as The Wars. She observes for example that Obasan filled a void left by other novels that now are nearly unremembered (23): Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven (1944), Earle Birney’s Turvey (1949), Colin McDougall’s Execution (1958), and Douglas LePan’s The Deserter (1964) left unexplored in their portrayals of the Second World War “one of the most shameful aspects of the war on the home front” (301), namely the internment of Japanese Canadians. If one novel, such as Broken Ground, may afford a view of “how twentieth-century Canada was shaped by the Great War through the memories of its returned soldiers, through their ghost stories and traumas, and their postwar work, and through the impact of their witnessing on future generations” (148), then Grace’s synopses and juxtapositions reveal the pervasive influence of both wars on the Canadian century -- even if, as she contends, Canadians today are ignorant of national history (xiii, 21).

Landscapes of War and Memory is distinguished less by a bold approach than by its sweep. In her final paragraph, Grace asserts the utter importance of the world wars to contemporary Canada: “those who returned from fighting, nursing, and reporting in both wars helped to define the country Canada is today -- its industry, its cultural and social institutions, its policies and its communities -- and we have inherited this country from those who lived and worked here before us” (476). I cannot do justice in a brief review to the six hundred pages of her book, and in summary I suggest only that it is a pleasure to read despite the sobering topic: Grace is an admirably clear writer, her study perfectly accessible. It will appeal to specialist readers of this journal as well as to students of Canada at large. Although Landscapes of War and Memory is not focused on any single part of the country, Grace is attentive to the effects of both wars on the West, which for a moment during the Second World War was under attack: “On 20 June 1942, a Japanese submarine ... fired twenty-one shots at the Estevan Point lighthouse on Vancouver Island in an effort to knock out wireless communication” (503n7). As Grace shows, and as the villagers of Portuguese Creek know well, no place, no matter how remote, lies beyond the grasp of war.

REFERENCE

Hodgins,  Jack.1998. Broken Ground. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977–2007
Sherrill Grace
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2014. 610 pp. $49.95 paper

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016/17