Catching the Torch
Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I
Catching the Torch examines contemporary novels and plays written about Canada's participation in World War I. Exploring such works as Jane Urquhart's The Underpainter and The Stone Carvers, Jack Hodgins's Broken Ground, Kevin Kerr's Unity (1918), Stephen Massicotte's Mary's Wedding, and Frances Itani's Deafening, the book considers how writers have dealt with the compelling myth that the Canadian nation was born in the trenches of the Great War.
In contrast to British and European remembrances of WWI, which tend to regard it as a cataclysmic destroyer of innocence, or Australian myths that promote an ideal of outsize masculinity, physical bravery, and white superiority, contemporary Canadian texts conjure up notions of distinctively Canadian values: tolerance of ethnic difference, the ability to do one's duty without complaint or arrogance, and the inclination to show moral as well as physical courage. Paradoxically, Canadians are shown to decry the horrors of war while making use of its productive cultural effects.
Through a close analysis of the way sacrifice, service, and the commemoration of war are represented in these literary works, Catching the Torch argues that iterations of a secure mythic notion of national identity, one that is articulated via the representation of straightforward civic and military participation, work to counter current anxieties about the stability of the nation-state, in particular anxieties about the failure of the ideal of a national "character."
"Using McCrae as a point of entry, Gordon proceeds to argue that the works of literature she examines, including Jack Hodgin's Broken Ground, Frances Itani's Deafening, Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, and Vern Thiessen's Vimy, among others, paradoxically disparage the mass destruction and loss of the First World War while simultaneously insisting on its cultural significance. As a result, instead of questioning the historical record, contemporary literary responses to the First World War, according to Gordon, endorse a national myth that 'promotes the collective by simply enlarging the category of the homogenous,' a tendency that is propelled by an anxiety about the instability of Canadian national identity. As a whole, Gordon's analysis is insightful and compelling."- Alicia Fahey, Canadian Literature
"The work is ... highly convincing in its analysis of how depictions of the war function to shape concepts of the nation and authorial resistance to essentialist understandings of national characters.... The book' opening literature review will be helpful for many scholars, and, in its narrative development of critical understandings of the way in which the First World War figures in contemporary Canadian literature, Catching the Torch is unlikely to be superseded any time soon."- James Gifford, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Vancouver, BC Studies
"Catching the Torch, which examines numerous recently published novels and plays about Canadians' contributions to the First World War, underscores that war does not always take place during specific time periods or on specifically militarized fronts, but may require redefinition of temporal limits and settings to take into account the tales of traumatized veterans or, as was the case after the Great War, victims of influenza. It further insists that the stories of those previously excised from the canon, such as aboriginals, French Canadians, nurses, women volunteers serving on home fronts and battlefronts, and artists, are valid and valuable. Offering numerous insights into the ways contemporary Canadian writers commemorate their nation's participation in the Great War, this thoroughly researched and cogently argued book promises to be an invaluable resource for students and scholars of literature and history."- Donna Coates, University of Calgary, co-editor of Canada and the Theatre of War, vols. I and II