Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land


I read the preface, then paused, then read it again. Such is the beauty and feeling in the picture that P. S. Duffy paints to start The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, engaging all the senses in a two-page vignette.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land captures two stories, moving back and forth between the Western Front and the fictional Nova Scotia fishing village of Snag Harbour. Angus MacGrath is the bond between the two. He leaves behind his wife Hettie Ellen, his son Simon Peter, his father Duncan – enlisting in the hope of finding his brother-in-law and friend Ebbin Hant, who is missing in action. With skills as a painter and drafter, Angus believes he will be a cartographer in London, able to search from the relative safety of a desk job. But mapmakers are plentiful and cannon fodder is in constant need of replenishment. He finds himself instead in the front lines.

Duffy deftly maps the complex relationships that reach across the ocean and the transformations wrought by the war. Hettie longs for Ebbin and Simon struggles without his father, but both eventually grow into the space left by Angus’s absence. Hettie thrives as she takes on responsibilities in the family business. Simon stands by unpopular friends and finds his métier.

In France, connections are drawn between Angus and the men in his battalion as they live through the atrocities of war and prepare for the battle for Vimy Ridge. He bonds with the family where he is billeted. His spiritual lessons bring him strength. Wounded, he returns home, able to share his knowledge of Ebbin’s true fate only with another veteran friend.

While the book explores the strength of ties that bind – be they familial or historical or situational – it is as well an exploration of the contrast of beauty and destruction. A lark nests in a dead soldier’s uniform in no man’s land. Compared to the scramble up Vimy Ridge, the Douai Plain on the other side “was too fantastical, too unreal to be true. … It may as well have been the Garden of Eden.” (p 210)

That evening during stand-to, the sky crossed itself with streaks of lavender, yellow and rosy pink over the unhinged earth, over the coiled barbed wire, unexploded shells, rusting equipment left to rot in No Man’s Land – a cratered landscape of ruin. Had his pastels survived, Angus would have been hard-pressed to put them to paper. For in that silken sky above and wounded earth below lay all one needed to know – a knowing so obvious, it hardly needed an artist to expand it into a larger truth. (p 49)

In Angus’s art shed, there’s a painting of the scene in the prologue: a father and son in a boat. Has he painted himself with his father or with his son? Duncan and Simon each sees himself with Angus in the painting. Perhaps both are right.

Reality check: Would it be possible for a WW1 soldier to switch ID tags with a dead man and seamlessly assume his identity? I have no doubt, given the number of records I see for men said to have served under another name.

Read my interview with P.S. Duffy.

Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

2 thoughts on “The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

  1. Pingback: The Deep | Great War 100 Reads

  2. Pingback: Interview with P.S. Duffy, author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land | Great War 100 Reads

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