Your cart is empty.
Catching the Torch - Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I

Catching the Torch

Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I

By Neta Gordon
Subjects Literary Criticism, Canadian Literature
Hide Details
Hardcover : 9781554589807, 222 pages, February 2014
Paperback : 9781771122382, 222 pages, June 2018
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554589869, 222 pages, March 2014


Excerpt from Catching the Torch: Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I by Neta Gordon

From the Introduction

DavidWilliams asserts that the continued interest of Canadian writers in the FirstWorld War has nothing to do with the myth that our nation was born in thetrenches. Daniel Francis states that “if a nation is a group of people whoshare the same illusions about themselves, then Canadians need some newillusions,†87 which mayvery well be the case. That said, there is simply too much discourse—in historybooks, in the press, in literature, and in literary criticism—promotingprecisely that myth about national origin for us to dismiss out of hand itscurrent hold on Canadian imaginations. The question then becomes: What kind ofCanada was born in the war, at least according to the new literary reimaginingsof that series of events? In his conclusion to DeathSo Noble, Vance argues that for postwar Canadians,the

legacy. . . [was] not of despair, aimlessness, and futility, but of promise, certainty,and goodness. It assured Canadians that the war had been a just one, fought todefend Christianity and Western civilization, and that Canada’s sons anddaughters had done well by their country and would not be forgotten for their sacrifices. To these great gifts, the myth added the nation-building thesis. By encouragingpeople to focus their thoughts on a time when the nation appeared to be unitedin a common cause, the memory of war could prove that the twentieth century didindeed belong to Canada. 88

Unsurprisingly,this legacy has not been entirely sustained. Though most of the authors writingabout the war to a much greater extent than Findley consider the specificallyCanadian experience in the war, that focus has not resulted in a wholesaleabandoning of the idea that many lives were destroyed due to the incompetenceof military officers, the greed of war profiteers, and the stupidity ofgovernment officials. For example, Hodgins’s BrokenGround critiques the failures of the SoldierSettlement Act, while Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers and Cumyn’s The Famished Lover both disparage the work of the Department of Soldiers’ CivilRe-establishment in dealing with issues of veteran employment and pensions. Furthermore, the idea of “Western civilization† and a unified nation isinterrogated, as works like Thiessen’s Vimy and Boyden’s Three Day Road consider the previously marginalized stories of francophoneand First Nations participation, while Broken Ground, The Stone Carvers, and Unity (1918) explore the motley of immigrant communities on the homefront who try to make meaning out of war. The idea that the war “had been ajust one† is, in a certain way, countered with depictions of war activity—whetheron the battlefield or in field hospitals—that almost uniformly portray horror,chaos, and the agonizing loss of life. Finally, many works—most explicitly Swan’sThe Deep and Poliquin’s ASecret Between Us—confront the possibility that those whoparticipated in the war may indeed be either forgotten or, at least, rememberedin ways that have more to do with the needs of the living than the acts of thedead.

Yetdespite the ways contemporary Canadian First World War fictions affirm thegeneral Western narrative associated with the fighting of the war—that it was afutile, costly, dreadful military exercise—Vance’s seemingly hyperbolicdeclaration about “promise, certainty, and goodness,† also finds purchase. Tobe sure, the reconciling of competing narratives is often a delicate activityand sometimes a heartbreaking one, for authors and readers are faced with theimpossible question: Was it—the horror, the chaos, the loss—worth it? Not oneof the works I explore here culminates in pessimism or condemnation of Canada’sparticipation in the First World War, including works like BrokenGround, The Deep, and A Secret BetweenUs, all of which suggest that narrativesthat depend on collective remembrance are doomed to recede in culturalimportance, given enough time, because the collective will eventually choose toremember something else. Most of the works in this corpus might even be calledoptimistic in their intimations that the Canada that is born in the First WorldWar is populated by those given to seeking love, healing, and a sense of hopeand obligation toward community. Many of the narratives this volume examines rehabilitatethe figure of the father and/or a conception of productive masculinity; manyfollow in the tradition of early-twentieth-century home front novels by womento consider the value of female work, in wartime and beyond; many exploreproductive ways to think about communicating across cultural and experientialdivides; and most conclude with a look to the future (which is now the present)and a sense of promise that is decidedly free from irony. Thus, the remembranceof the First World War that has emerged in the past decade or so reflects adesire not to destroy the illusions Canadians have or have had aboutthemselves, but rather to re-examine how those illusions about the war, withall its attendant horror and misery and loss, might offer a space forconceptions of the best Canadian self to emerge.

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Catching the Torch: Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I by Neta Gordon


Introduction: Contemporary Canadian First World War Narratives: Remembering Canada's Best Self

Chapter One: The Dead Speak: Considering the Use of Prosopopoeia in Dancock's Dance, Mary's Wedding, and The Deep

Chapter Two: The War and Concepts of Nation in Jack Hodgins's Broken Ground and Frances Itani's Deafening

Chapter Three: Abandoning the Archivist: Commemorating the War Insider and Outsider in the World War One Novels of Alan Cumyn and Jane Urquhart

Chapter Four: Other Canadians: The Representation of Alternate Versions of the War in Vimy, Unity (1918), Three Day Road, and A Secret Between Us

Conclusion: Representations of the First World War and Wishing





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

"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

"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