Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force Memorial, Deseronto ON

Flying aces are romantic heroes of the war that first used air battle and reconnaissance to advantage. Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop quickly realized “it’s clean up there! I’ll bet you don’t get any mud or horse shit on you up there. If you die, at least it would be a clean death.”* 

In the week marking the centenary of Bishop’s first hit, it seems fitting to remember how dangerous the job was.

Two Royal Flying Corps training camps – Camp Mohawk and Camp Rathbun – were established near Deseronto, Ontario in 1917. British, Canadian and American aviators trained there. Continue reading


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Tell

I suppose that’s the stuff we are made of, stories and journeys great or small, complete or incomplete, whatever gets passed to us down the line. (pp 286-287)

Frances Itani’s Tell picks up where Deafening ends, at the end of WW1. It is not so much a sequel as a continuation of life in Deseronto with the voices of different people coming to the forefront. This is the story of Grania O’Neill’s sister Tress and childhood friend Kenan (now married) and of her aunt and uncle, Maggie and Am. Two marriages struggling to deal with loss.

Kenan has returned from the war with serious injuries … a dead arm, a blind eye, a disfigured face and unseen wounds to his spirit. He keeps to himself, going out only at night. He can share his experiences only with a friend from the war. He also starts to question his origins and the circumstances of his adoption … surely someone knows. He takes out his frustrations on the rink and the snow wall that bounds it.

Tress struggles to understand how Kenan has changed, but can’t share the horrors he lived without her. She shares her frustrations with her Aunt Maggie. Maggie silently hopes that Tress does not suffer her own fate.

Maggie rediscovers her joy of music in a choral society and finds friends in fellow music lovers Zel and Lukas.

Am bears his own losses and fears he has lost Maggie forever. He also takes out his frustrations on the snow wall that bounds the rink.

Deseronto is a community practised in keeping its secrets close. Much is unseen below the surface. The few who know each secret are adept at not letting on. There is an engrained culture of not asking. Itani matter-of-factly captures the isolation this engenders and the resulting harm. No epiphany changes the behaviour in the end. And yet the loneliness is braced with hope. In the end, one family seems on the brink of new happiness. The other moves to bury more sorrow.

Perhaps the verdict lies in the title of the book.

Tell stands on its own, but reading Deafening first makes some details more understandable. Where Deafening shows the isolation of living in a silent world, Tell shows the cost of choosing not to speak. I am glad I read them together.

Is a picture worth 1000 words?

Compare Itani’s prose (in this case, just over 100 words) to Gassed, a monumental painting by John Singer Sargent in the Imperial War Museum. Both eloquently describe a moment in the horror of war.

He’d rushed to help, just before the men were led away to a dressing station for evacuation―those who could walk. Others were lying on the ground. The walking soldiers, a dozen or more, had been formed up in a line. Each had a hand on the shoulder of the man in front; each had a field dressing covering his eyes, blistered skin showing on his hands and around the edges of his bandages. … And then, just before they began to move, they tilted their heads down, all at the same time, as if each blind man had chosen that moment to stare into the same angle of darkness. (p 11)


Read my interview with author Frances Itani.


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Deafening

Frances Itani’s Deafening traces the intersections of language, communication and understanding through the disparate experiences of a young deaf girl growing up in small-town Ontario and a stretcher bearer on the Western front.

In the first part of the book, we travel with Grania O’Neill through her silent world. Left deaf by scarlet fever at age 5, Grania’s family shelters her from the hearing world. Her grandmother teaches her to speak and to read lips. She and her sister make up their own language with their hands. Her mother reluctantly agrees to send her at age 9 to the Ontario Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. (The school was renamed the Ontario School for the Deaf in 1913.) There she learns to sign and to speak, as well as receiving vocational training.

Grania works in the school infirmary when she graduates. There she meets and falls in love with Jim Lloyd, a hearing man who assists the town doctor. Weeks after they marry, he enlists as a stretcher bearer. The novel then moves back and forth for the duration of the war, from Jim’s living hell on the Western front to Grania’s vigil on the home front.

Itani’s lean and graceful prose evokes the blessings and curses of sound and silence. She delves into the early 20C politics of communications by and with those who cannot hear. We see how touch and sight are as much a part of communication and understanding. How understanding can precede or follow information. How a man who is constantly singing and a woman who can never hear can connect and learn from each other.

Grania must pay attention every second, every minute. If she doesn’t, people will think she’s stupid. She has to be ready all the time.

Ready? For what?

To break through the silence.

But the silence also protects. Grania knows. Being inside the the silence is like being under water. Only when she wants to surface, only then does she come to the top. (p xiv)

 

“You’re canny, Jimmy boy. Canny will get you through.”

“Canny? I don’t think so. But I do things. I take measures―to hold things at bay. … You know. A chant under the breath, a line from a song. … Sometimes I say―fast―to myself: Infirtaris, Inoaknonis, Inmudeelsis, Inclaynonis.”

Irish laughed so hard he could scarely speak. “Tell me again.”

Jim repeated the verse, faster this time. “It’s supposed to sound like Latin. My grandmother taught me. She said it came from the time of Henry VI. It’s nonsense. But it helps if I say it in the noise of the guns, when we’re trying to get a carry out of a tight spot.” (p 327)

Speaking at the Canadian Literature of World War One conference in Ottawa in Aug 2014, Itani described the writer as a witness who bears an obligation to honour the subject matter. In writing Deafening and its sequel, Tell, she became a witness to the war. She studied diaries, albums, photos, catalogs, battlefield guides. The sheer numbers are difficult to take in. But for the novelist, war is about one person. Her story offers new understanding.

 

Note to Vicki … there are drive sheds in Grania’s home of Deseronto.

Note to other readers … is drive shed a term unique to Ontario, or do they exist elsewhere?


Read my interview with author Frances Itani.