Rain Before Morning
November 4, 2013
Review By Jocelyn Smith
In the spring of 1913, sisters Leah and Elspeth Jamieson, seventeen and eighteen years old, respectively, travel on the Union Steamship Comox from Vancouver past Halfmoon Bay and Pender Harbour to their parents’ home at Silva Landing. Elspeth hardly figures in the novel that follows, but Leah becomes one of two central figures. The other is Nathan Lockhart, an eighteenyear-old at Silva Landing who falls in love at the first sight of Leah and her thick braid of hair, which swings “in an arc of purest amber. No, not amber, he thought, something darker, like fireweed honey” (17).
Nathan takes Leah out for a spin in his kicker, a fourteen-footer, and Leah shows herself to be unrestrained by social niceties of conversation. When Nathan asks why her parents sent her to a convent school, she answers: “It’s not just about education. We have to be good little Catholics as well. And I really believe Mom feels more comfortable having us locked up. I suspect Dad got her in the family way when she was only sixteen, and she’s afraid of a repeat performance.” “Family way?” “Where have you been, Nathan? Pregnant, knocked up” (32). Later in the conversation, when Nathan admits that he was homesick during the few months that he spent in Vancouver, Leah runs the backs of her fingers down his cheek and exclaims, “Balls, Nathan” (33).
Is this how a teenaged girl with a conservative education would speak in 1913 to a young man whom she has just met? Probably nobody can say for sure, and so we suspend our disbelief and read on. A few months later, in the last full summer before war, Nathan and Leah run away in the kicker and spend several weeks sailing along the coast before the provincial police seize Leah and return her to her parents.
The remaining two-thirds of the novel move quickly. War comes. Leah serves as a nurse in France. She is drummed out of the Canadian Army Medical Corps for giving succour to a deserter – “To hell with the army and its rules” (141) – and returns to Silva Landing. Nathan, in the meantime, works in a logging camp until he is injured. His injuries and his pacifism are not enough to exempt him from compulsory military service. Rather than appeal the rejection of his claim to conscientious objection, he and several other men on the run from army service hide in the hills above Silva Landing. Ironically, their life in hiding forces them to live as they would have done in the army: they lug eighty-pound packs; they live in squalid, uncomfortable conditions amidst fear, boredom, and irritation with each other; and they must hunt the police or be hunted by them. (Nathan even shows that he has the makings of an excellent sniper.) Nathan’s desire to leave the deserters’ camp and see Leah, by now pregnant, trips off the chain of events that bring the novel to a quick and conclusive end.
Rain before Morning deals with issues that do not often figure in novels by British Columbia writers: the First World War, wartime nursing, conscription, shell shock, desertion, working conditions in logging camps, the postwar influenza outbreak. Unfortunately, the treatment of these issues is uneven. While Poole explores the reasons why some men avoided conscription, he ignores the complex and varied reasons why many more men joined up voluntarily. He touches on the reasons why some men deserted (he shows, rightly, that shell shock was not the only motive) but ignores the fact that, in retrospect, many others regarded their military service as a necessity (horrific for many, exhilarating for some, and for most, just something that they had to get through) and felt angered and cheated by members of the public who spoke of soldiers’ service and sacrifice as a waste.
Poole is weak and unconvincing on dialogue but excellent on detail. In a passage on the treatment of shrapnel wounds, he writes: “The radiology units were too much in demand to be used for the routine location of foreign objects. In their place, a powerful electromagnet was passed over the area where a bullet or piece of shrapnel had entered. If the object was electro-sensitive and close to the surface, it would vibrate so violently that one could easily feel it with a hand laid on the skin. Buried deeper, metal produced a bizarre sound, described by some as resembling the distant whistle of a steamboat” (110).
Poole also writes evocatively about landscapes. On Leah’s journey by train from Portland to Vancouver in late 1917, many of her fellow passengers are wounded soldiers returning home. Just west of Kenora, where the temperature is minus thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, the train stops. “Leah looked out for the station. There was none, not even a shelter beside the track. Across a moonlit field of stumps capped like mushrooms with snow, three log cabins huddled together, the orange light of oil lamps in their windows. She stepped down into the hard snow, and it squeaked under her boots. Waiting by the train was a sleigh, a mere box on runners, drawn by a woolly horse that stamped its feet and jetted steam from its nostrils. A woman and two men came forward to receive the stretcher, bundled against the cold so that their faces were all but hidden” (152-3).
This small scene, of no great importance in the larger sweep of the novel, is nevertheless one of the most memorable, even haunting, and shows the novel’s underused potential. It is a pity, then, that in an earlier passage Poole allows himself to write that Leah’s nipples “stood up like raspberries in the cold” (75). It is cheap, sensational prose. His themes and characters deserve better.