Finally, I understood, understood it all: Mrs. Orlofsky, taking in laundry, struggling to make ends meet, paying too much for even the most basic necessities; Mrs. MacLaren, entertaining in her palatial hone, living off the deposits of war profiteers, price gougers, and speculators who wouldn’t charge a fair price or pay their employees a living wage if it killed them.
That afternoon, I saw how the economic system worked. And no, it wasn’t right, how these people had to live. (p 78)
Susan Taylor Meehan is of an age to know ‘the personal is political.’ She conveys the concept in her short novel, Maggie’s Choice, following a young nurse to the Western front in WW1 and back to Canada and the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.
Two Winnipeg sisters – public health nurses in the working-class north end of the city – sign up for war duty in 1914. Maggie and Helen O’Connor are posted to Canadian Casualty Clearing Station No 1 near Boulogne. They see all the horrors of war. Maggie watches her first patient die from the effects of gas. A doctor is shot at the operating table and she steps in to finish the operation. Helen deadens her reaction to tragedy with morphine.
Maggie’s chance meeting with an acquaintance from home changes the course of her life. She and socialist labour organizer John Hardie slowly fall in love. He continues his activism with European workers’ movement, is arrested for treason, and escapes court martial by working undercover to soften support for the war through the German unions.
Surviving the war, Maggie and John are back in Winnipeg (he after a detour to revolutionary Russia) and back together. She returns to her work as a public health nurse. He returns to union rabblerousing in the iron workers union. Worker unrest leads to the six-week Winnipeg General Strike, culminating in the strikebreaking Bloody Saturday. Maggie recounts the impact of the strike on her family and friends, not all of whom support the cause. Through it, she comes to realize how the plight of the people for whom she cares is systemic, not an individual burden.
The story unfolds as flashbacks from the 1970s, where Maggie lives in a retirement home. Both parts of the novel are interspersed with letters from her grand-niece, a nurse who has traveled to southern Africa with CUSO to establish a medical clinic. An interesting juxtaposition.
Maggie O’Connor is based on real-life nurse Martha Morkin, Meehan’s great-aunt. Morkin’s memories are woven into the history of the times (author’s note). Indeed, the highlights whiz by – the first gas attack, the crucified soldier, Edith Cavell’s execution, flamethrowers, shell shock, the Somme, rebellion among the ranks in the French army, the Russian revolution, Passchendaele, the Halifax explosion, army nurses enfranchised, John McCrae’s funeral, Vimy Ridge – all with little detail. Ditto with events leading to the general strike. If you blink you might miss them. If you don’t know the history, the significance of events may be lost.
Meehan reminds us of the individuals who fought for ideals other than Empire … during the war and in its aftermath. I like the premise. The book leaves me wanting to explore more.
See more about Martha Morkin on Canada’s Great War Album.
Thanks to Chantal at Burnstown Publishing House, who sent me a copy of Maggie’s Choice in return for an honest review.
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