Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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An Interview with Andrea McKenzie, editor of War-Torn Exchanges

Andrea McKenzie brings two WW1 nurses and friends back together in War-Torn Exchanges: The Lives and Letters of Nursing Sisters Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes. Her deft editing and annotations make the book an insightful contribution to understanding the role of nurses in the war. I am so pleased that Andrea has joined me today, to share some thoughts about her work.

What first interested you in Mildred Forbes and Laura Holland?

Andrea McKenzie: I’d been working on Canadian nurses’ First World War diaries and letters for some years, but I’d never come across the letters of two best friends who’d sailed for the war on the same, stayed together throughout four long war years, then sailed home together. Separately, Laura’s and Mildred’s vivid accounts of their individual wars are compelling, but read together, they create a richly textured narrative told by two strong, mature women’s voices. What one omits, the other includes, so we gain a complete story of their time throughout the First World War. They served on almost all the war fronts, too, so their story, told in their own words, runs from the privations of Gallipoli to a casualty clearing station on the Western front during Passchendaele and the German advance of 1918. Continue reading

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An Interview with Eric McGeer, author of Canada’s Dream Will Be of Them

Eric McGeer has studied epitaphs from WW1 graves in Canada’s Dream Will Be of Them,* and from WW2 in Words of Valediction and Remembrance. Eric joins me on Great War 100 Reads today to discuss his work.

What first interested you in the epitaphs on Commonwealth war graves?

Eric McGeer: About twenty years ago I made a long desired trip to the Canadian battlefields of both world wars in France and Flanders. It was one of the most profound and moving experiences of my life, and it stirred the wish to write something about what I had seen and learned. It was about this time that I read Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble, a study of the myth and memory of the Great War that took shape in Canada during the 1920s and 1930s, which triggered my interest in the epitaphs as an overlooked source for the effect of both wars on the Canadian population. The value of an epitaphs book really hit me while I was walking through the Canadian war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer (near the D-Day landing zones). There was one in ancient Greek, a quotation from the Iliad, which I recognized from my background in classics. It made me wonder who else would understand it, not just the words but the context of the quotation and the ennobling farewell it conveyed from a father who had served in the First World War to a son who was killed in the Second. The more I examined the epitaphs, the more I came to see how they were the most powerful and authentic responses to the tragedy of the wars from the people, mothers, wives, children, who used these farewells to express so many things — sorrow, consolation, gratitude, love and loss. What occurred to me was that the cemeteries and memorials attest to the courage of the battlefield, whereas the epitaphs record a different kind of courage, the kind it takes to accept and endure such devastating loss and to leave a lasting record of the moral fortitude with which two generations of Canadians faced the ordeal of the wars. Continue reading


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An Interview with Katrina Kirkwood, author of The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads

Katrina Kirkwood’s book, The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads, is two tales in one. She tells about Isabella Stenhouse’s adventures as a doctor in WW1 as well as her own journey of discovery. Katrina joins me today at Great War 100 Reads to discuss her work.

What first interested you in finding your grandmother’s war stories?

Katrina Kirkwood: Romance. Amongst the medical instruments that I inherited from my grandmother Isabella was a strange string of beads. Rumour had it that they had been given to her by a grateful German prisoner of war, an idea that entranced me. As a teenager, I dreamt up a glorious romance in which love trounced international enmity. The fact that Isabella might have been a pioneering woman doctor, fighting fierce male opposition for the right to practise her hard-earned skills in the profession of her choice didn’t cross my mind until years later. Continue reading


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An Interview with Alan Livingstone MacLeod, author of Remembered in Bronze and Stone

Alan Livingstone MacLeod has photographed countless WW1 monuments across Canada. Now his favourites are featured in Remembered in Bronze and Stone – Canada’s Great War Memorial Statuary. Alan has kindly agreed to share some thoughts about his work. I am pleased to welcome him to Great War 100 Reads today.

What first interested you in war memorials?

Alan Livingstone MacLeod: From my earliest years – spurred by soldier portraits on old relatives’ living-room walls, from memories of young men loved and lost, from relics of the trenches – I was aware of a shadow cast over my extended Nova Scotia family by the Great War. I had seven Cape Breton relatives killed between 1916 and 1918 in Flanders and France. One of the most influential people of my life was a great-uncle who survived the war but could never free himself from its emotional consequences. The accounts of the war experiences he shared with me were mesmerizing and unforgettable. I was exposed to war memorials from early childhood and have had a life-long interest in them. That interest took a leap forward in 2010 when I chanced upon the community war memorial at Westville, Nova Scotia, featuring the bronze figure of a soldier. I considered it far and away the finest, most evocative war memorial I had ever seen. This figure provoked a desire to see more of the artist’s work and a decision to travel the country to find that work and to see as many as possible of the whole: Canada’s two hundred soldier-figure monuments. Continue reading


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An Interview with Jasmine Donahaye, Biographer of Lily Tobias

A downside of my recent focus on books by WW1 eyewitnesses is that the authors aren’t available for interviews. An upside is that their lives and works often now have the benefit of reflection and scholarship. In that light, I am pleased to welcome Jasmine Donahaye to Great War 100 Reads. Dr. Donahaye, an Associate Professor at Swansea University, is the author of The Greatest Need: The creative life and troubled times of Lily Tobias, a Welsh Jew in Palestine, and editor of new editions of Tobias’s novels Eunice Fleet and My Mother’s House. All are published by Honno Press.

What first interested you in Lily Tobias?

Jasmine Donahaye: Some sixteen years ago I had just begun my PhD research on Welsh attitudes to Jews, and I came across a reference to Lily Tobias as an author of novels that intertwined Welsh and Jewish questions – it was a reference by Leo Abse, the Welsh Labour MP. I didn’t realise at the time that Lily Tobias was his aunt. I ordered her 1921 book, The Nationalists and Other Goluth Studies, during my first visit to the National Library, and was intrigued and excited by the intertwined Welsh and Jewish symbol on the cover: a red dragon and a Star of David. Her work and its themes became a central part of my doctoral research. But there was so much more to her fiction and non-fiction than the national and ethnic identity questions I was exploring there.

After publishing my first article about Tobias, a relative of hers got in touch. I began to learn a lot more about her personal history and background – and about her experiences and the experiences of her brothers which informed the pacifist novel, Eunice Fleet. I found Tobias as complex and fascinating as her work: like her novels, she didn’t lend herself to any simple or tidy interpretations. Continue reading


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An Interview with “Maggie’s Choice” author, Susan Taylor Meehan

Maggie’s Choice explores aspects of the socialist and labour movements during and after WW1, through the eyes of a nurse who serves in the Canadian army. I am pleased to welcome author Susan Taylor Meehan to Great War 100 Reads today, to share some thoughts about her work.

Why did you write Maggie’s Choice?

Susan Taylor Meehan: Originally, I wanted to write a non-fiction book about the women who served as nurses at the front during World War I, in part because my great-aunt was one of them. However, I discovered that someone else had beaten me to it! Her book was excellent, and the world didn’t need another one. But there was still a story to tell, so I decided that since we can often convey more truth through fiction than non-fiction, I would write my great-aunt’s personal story as a fictional memoir. Every one of her reminiscences is in Maggie’s Choice, along with material both adapted and imagined from numerous other sources. For more info, check out my website.  Continue reading


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An Interview with Helen Simonson, Author of The Summer Before the War

Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, was a New York Times and international bestseller. Her second novel, The Summer Before the War, is hot off the press and destined for comparable accolades. I am pleased to welcome Helen to Great War 100 Reads today, and honoured that she fit this interview into a busy book launch season.

Why did you write The Summer Before the War?

Helen Simonson: I love the Edwardian era which I think of in terms of advances in technology – the telephone, motor car, invention of electricity and flying machines – and of a loosening of Victorian strictures producing a blossoming of culture and progress. It’s a society rich in writers, poets and women’s movements for social justice and for suffrage. It’s a historical era in which I always thought I could live well. However, that assumes I would be wealthy. Life was hard for folks without money. There were still workhouses for the poor and diseases like rickets and TB were rife. So being not quite the garden party idyll of our imaginations but truly a time of so much potential makes the Edwardian era satisfyingly complicated. And this particular summer, 1914, is all about unfolding the deck chairs while a devastating war looms beyond the horizon. Continue reading


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An Interview with “Those Splendid Girls” author, Katherine Dewar

I am pleased to welcome a special guest to Great War 100 Reads today. Katherine Dewar, author of Those Splendid Girls: The Heroic Service of Prince Edward Island Nurses in the Great War, has kindly agreed to share some thoughts about her work.

What was the biggest challenge in researching Those Splendid Girls?

Katherine Dewar: Researching is so much fun. Like a good mystery, the challenges are there to be solved. I spent about three years researching. Most mornings I could hardly wait to get started to see what piece of the puzzle I might unearth that day. I was blessed in several ways. Living on a small island where many family roots go back to the first settlement, and having done genealogy, I was aware that certain surnames were associated with particular communities. I would check the phone book in the community where a nurse might be from and call someone with the same surname. If I had a wrong person they usually knew who the right one might be. In one case I was looking for a picture; the lady on the phone was hesitant to give me information until she established my genealogical roots. After a brief conversation she realized that my father grew up a few miles from her; as a nurse, she knew my uncle who was a doctor; and her husband had worked with my cousin. The information was then forthcoming. She gave me the phone number of a lady in Boston who had a picture. The lady in Boston was delighted that someone on Prince Edward Island (PEI) was doing research on her relative. She emailed me information and a picture within the hour. Thus are the benefits of doing research on PEI. Continue reading


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An Interview with “White Feathers” Author, Susan Lanigan

Susan Lanigan’s debut novel, White Feathers, tackles tough issues through the lens of the early 20th century that we still struggle with today … issues like bullying, mental illness, the fallout of war and the impact of stigma. I am pleased to welcome Susan to Great War 100 Reads today to share some reflections about her work.

Why did you write this book?

Susan Lanigan: At first it was simply because I was interested in World War One. Recently I unearthed the essay I’d written for my final history exam in secondary school. It was about the Battle of Verdun and “bleeding the French white”. I’d read about it in a book called Our Own Worst Enemy by Norman Dixon written back in the Eighties and it had fascinated me. Continue reading


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An Interview with Frances Itani, Author of Deafening and Tell

I am pleased to welcome a special guest to Great War 100 Reads today. Frances Itani has published 16 books including, most notably for those interested in WW1, the bestsellers Deafening and Tell. Deafening won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2004, amongst many other accolades. Tell, her most recent novel, was shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. A member of the Order of Canada, she lives in Ottawa.

Frances has kindly agreed to share some reflections about her work.

What drew you to write Deafening and Tell, two books set around the time the First World War?

Frances Itani: I decided to include the war years in Deafening while doing research. I had been reading newspapers of the period from about 1900 and onward. My original plan had been to write a novel about the life of a young Deaf woman from about 1900 to 1914. However, when I began to read the issues of the day after Britain and then, Canada, went to war in August 1914, I decided to extend my story to include the years up to 1919. In particular, I was interested in details of how the war affected the family of almost every student and staff member at the very real Ontario School for the Deaf. All of this research added up to become a long journey for me, one that still hasn’t ended. I studied American Sign Language, worked with members of the Deaf Community in Ottawa, learned about the war, interviewed extensively, read the histories, visited battlefields of the Western Front, and spent weeks and months in the reading rooms of the Archives of the Canadian War Museum. This is a journey I’ve never regretted taking, and I now feel a responsibility to share, through my art and my stories, my knowledge of the Great War and the sacrifices that were made. Continue reading