Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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In Falling Snow

We’re women. We do things. (p 78)

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were founded during WW1 to help the war effort by offering medical assistance. The founders were committed to promoting women’s rights and believed that contributing to the war effort would help women win those rights.

The British Army refused their help. The women were not daunted, offering hospitals instead to other allied countries. The French were the first to accept. The second Scottish Women’s Hospital was established in the Abbaye de Royaumont, a 13C Cistercian abbey north of Paris, with Dr Frances Ivens as the chief medical officer. The hospital team cared for more than 10,000 wounded soldiers from 1915 to 1919.

Jump forward 70 years. Mary-Rose MacColl found herself in the wrong aisle at the library, having transposed two digits in a call number. She noticed a title, Women of Royaumont: A Scottish Women’s Hospital on the Western Front. Eileen Crofton’s book was the spark of inspiration for MacColl’s novel, In Falling Snow, which pays tribute to the women who served at Royaumont throughout the war. It also explores how the challenges for women in medical service have evolved (or not) from WW1 to the 1970s. Continue reading

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A Long, Long Trail

Really? Really. Four years into the WW1 centenary and four years since the start of this reading odyssey. In 317 posts, Great War 100 Years has documented 90 books read, over 200 monuments and memorials each Monday, and more interviews and musings.

Year three ended and year four started with my exploring the growing scholarship on medical women in the war. (Bravo to those bringing these fascinating stories back to life!) Now I’ve turned back to fiction for the most part. Some by authors who lived through the war. Most written from a longer view perspective in the last 30 years. A few with most exquisite prose. A range of voices showing the experiences of war for women, men and beasts. Continue reading


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Despised and Rejected and The Absolutist

Tragic gay love story meets WW1 conscientious objectors.

This will not end well.

A number of novels on the Great War 100 Reads list have touched on issues of homosexuality in WW1.* Now it comes front and centre.

Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (published as AT Fitzroy) and The Absolutist by John Boyne – two books published 93 years apart – both sensitively present the joy of realizing and the anguish of hiding what was considered a “perversion” at the time. Continue reading


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Alfred and Emily

Even though I was born several decades after WW1, veterans and others who had lived through the war were all around as I was growing up. The influences of the war were woven into the fabric of my life.

Doris Lessing was born in 1919, much closer to the war’s direct impacts. As she says in the introduction to her 2008 book, Alfred and Emily, “The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.” (p viii)

Lessing’s parents had come together because of the war – her father an injured soldier, her mother one of his nurses in a London hospital. Lessing came to realize the extent to which their lives had been damaged by it. Her father dreamt of being a country farmer, but lost his leg in the war. Her mother worked at the Royal Free Hospital after her love of her life was killed, showing promise for a career in hospital administration. Continue reading


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An Interview with Mary Swan, author of The Deep

The tragedy of twins Esther and Ruth unfolds against the backdrop of WW1 in The Deep, a novella by Canadian writer Mary Swan. She has graciously agreed to discuss her work today with Great War 100 Reads.

Why did you write The Deep?

Mary Swan: Some years ago I heard an interview with the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, who was asked a similar question about his books. He talked about ‘the collected tinder in your own heart, waiting for a spark to be thrown onto it’ and I think that’s the perfect way to describe how books come about, certainly how they do for me. I’ve always been fascinated by twins, although — or maybe because — there aren’t any in my family. And I’d been interested in World War I for a very long time too, and read a lot about it over the years, wrote a few short stories that involved the war in some way. Then one day a friend told me about a footnote she’d come across in an essay on a completely unrelated subject. This footnote referred to an historical incident and that was my ‘spark’. I began working almost immediately, with no real idea of what I was going to end up with, and very gradually the fragments of incident and character I was writing shaped themselves into The Deep. Continue reading


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Let Darkness Bury the Dead

Murdoch Mysteries (Les enquêtes de Murdoch in France and The Artful Detective in the US) is a popular TV series featuring William Murdoch as a Toronto police detective in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The series is based on seven novels by Maureen Jennings. The novels went on hiatus when the TV series took off, and after 11 seasons the TV storylines have gone beyond the books.  

A decade later, Jennings has published an eighth Murdoch novel, Let Darkness Bury the Dead. To avoid TV-vs-novel plot confusions, the latest book jumps ahead to November 1917. Murdoch is now a senior detective, widowed for many years. (His wife died giving birth to their daughter, leaving him alone with their young son.) Jack, now 21, is returning from France as a wounded soldier. His father longs to reconnect. But Jack is troubled and distant, more concerned about his friend and fellow veteran, Percy. Murdoch Sr is not his confidante of choice. Continue reading


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An Interview with P.S. Duffy, author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

In The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, P.S. Duffy’s first novel, WW1 is a map to explore ruin, redemption, and the strength of human connections. I am pleased to welcome her to Great War 100 Reads today, to share some thoughts about her work.    

Why did you write The Cartographer of No Man’s Land?

P.S. Duffy: For me, the creative process isn’t really a calculus. It’s an act of faith. What happens is that scenes, bits of dialogue, a shape of a character begin to form, unannounced. The origin of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land was an image of a boy standing on a rocky beach. I could see the grains of wet sand on his high black fishing boots, the dried seaweed above the tide line, the blond lashes on his squinting eyes. In the shallows, drifting like a log, he sees what appears to be his father. He’s torn apart, fears the worst, but before racing from rock to rock to save him, he hesitates. Why? I had a sense that the father had changed, had perhaps experienced a great loss. Maybe at sea, with downstream ripple effects on all his relationships. I didn’t use that scene, and nothing of the kind happens in the novel. But it propelled the idea of how a deep and tender relationship can be broken by the response to external forces and had me ask the question that forms the basis of the novel—can we come back from such wounds, and if so, how?     Continue reading


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Wake and The Backwash of War

Two books for the price of one in this review, looking at the effects of war from different vantage points.

Wake

“Wake” takes on many meanings in Anna Hope’s novel of the same name: emerge or cause to emerge from sleep, a ritual for the dead, consequence or aftermath. The lives of three London women play out in the wake of the five days leading to the burial of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey. Hettie (19), Evelyn (29) and Ava (mid 40s) still live with lingering effects of the war in November 1920. In juxtaposing the everyday with the momentous, remembrance and moving on are tied up together in the same event. The three women and the men around them convey the range of fallout from the war and the path to healing. Continue reading


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The Deep

It began to seem, after a time, that everyone had something. Had one thing that they’d seen or heard, that they couldn’t shake off, that they carried, would carry forever, like a hard, dull stone in the heart. … We thought if we could gather those things together we would call it ‘The War Book’. And that would be the only way to communicate it, to give someone an idea of how it was. (The Deep, p 40*)

From time to time, I have described my small efforts to put some order into my reading, grouping a few books together by place (the Western front or home front, for example), by person (nurses, perhaps, or civilians in the war zone), by author (a trilogy by one author, or a series of Irish authors let’s say), or by time (eyewitness accounts or modern ones).

Occasionally I come upon a common thread unawares. Like now, I find myself having read a series of the most exquisitely written books, all by authors new to me. In each work, the authors evoke time, place and mood in lovely turns of phrase. The horror of war is conveyed by the beauty of words.   Continue reading


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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. Continue reading