Monthly Archives: February 2017

Hearing the Lost Footsteps of War | Review of “Letters to Vimy” by Orland French (2017) FriesenPress

oscarfrenchcoversample1
Image linked from the author’s website

I remember clearly the look of  confusion on my public-school teacher’s face  when I asked him detailed questions about World War I. Yes, there were texts available that described the events about the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ but there were still details lacking about the causes and the effects that my mind wanted to know. And while I did gain some knowledge of the conflict it took was almost 40 years until the personal reflections and writings of another instructor of mine aided me in truly grasping the event. Hence Orland French’s Letters To Vimy deserves a decent mention here.

Page 3 Introduction: Pte. Oscar French Goes to War

By the early summer of 1915, the First World War was going badly for all sides. The whole world knew that the military struggle of European empires would be a long and bloody confrontation. The boys who had rushed to sign up the previous autumn lest the war end early, before Christmas, had become seasoned soldiers or dean men. Christmas 1914 had come and gone, Easter 1915 had come and gone, and nobody talked of getting home before Christmas 1915. It too would come and go, as would Christmas 1916, then Christmas 1917, and on and on, week by bloody week, before the war was halted just one month before Christmas 1918. The blood of thousands, and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, would stain the soil of Europe before all the exhausted armies quit fighting in November 1918.

I had Orland as a journalism teacher and as a managing editor at my college’s newspaper where he imparted his wisdom from his many years of working on such stalwart newspapers like The Globe and Mail and The Ottawa Citizen. But Orland has done something a bit more personal and much more noble with this book than just document facts in a whimsical manner. In a quiet corner of the family home, Orland knew that an official portrait of his Uncle Oscar existed. Orland knew that his uncle had volunteered – like many young men of that era – for service and was killed at the infamous battle at Vimy Ridge. But when Orland found a box of letters that his uncle had written, something stirred in him to explore the life his uncle had. So Orland began a series of correspondence back to his lost family member through time.

Hello, I’m Your Nephew Pages 11, 12, 13

January 2016

Canada

Dear Uncle Oscar:

Though you have been dead for many years – almost a century – I feel a strong desire to write to you. You have never heard of me for the very simple reason that I was born 27 years after you died. My name is Orland Clare French, and I am the third son of little Elmer, your kid brother you spoke of so fondly in your letters to your mother. I am your nephew.

*****

I am writing to you from a hundred years hence, in your time. These letters to you have been prepared, in a general sense, on the one-hundredth anniversary of what we call the First World War, World War I, or WW I. I came into possession of your letters after my older brother, Gerald Oscar French, died in 2010. He was Elmer’s first born, and you can see he was named in honour of you. Elmer repaid your fondness for him. Your mother packed your letters tightly in a flower-print cardboard box, along with some other official papers and memorabilia I will describe in due time. They were placed in an old wooden chest along with other family mementos, where they rested in the upstairs hall in the family home in Waverly for many decades.

*****

I knew nothing about you, except that you were one of Dad’s older brothers and that you enlisted with the army and were killed in the war. If there is an afterlife, I assume that is where you are, but I hope they have gotten you out of those muddy, lice-ridden uniforms and into some decent civvies. I the afterlife, do you have a memory of your previous life?

Do you remember that awful day on Vimy Ridge where you and your crew trained your machine gun on the enemy? Do you recall the choking smoke, the gritty dust, the ear-thumping noise of battle, the whine of bullets and the stuttering of machine-gun fire, the burst of shells, the cries and screams and moans of dying men? Do you recall the whistling approach of a shell with your name on it, just before oblivion?

Do you know you were one of about 65,000 Canadian soldiers who died on the battlefields of the First World War? That on the Easter Monday of April 9, 1917, you were on of the 37 machine-gunners killed in the battle to secure a spine of shell-scarred farmland called Vimy Ridge?

Orland has done something with this book that many of us have a inkling to do but never act on. We hear that events from history are being commemorated to which we know that our forgotten ancestors participated in. In Orland’s case, he polished off the old family mementos of his Uncle Oscar, then researched the dusty archives into who Pte Oscar French – regimental number 408445 –  was and then considered who his Uncle was and what the aftermath of his fatal actions at Vimy  were. Orland turned that inkling into a an actual collection of ink worthy of reading and pondering over as the centennial of the battle of Vimy Ridge comes about.

Drawing Lines in the Desert Pages 78, 79

Napier Barracks, Shorncliffe, Feb 21, 1916

I suppose you have been reading of the great Russian victories over the Turks. It will help a lot to relieve the British forces in Mesopotamia. If the war ends this year, as a lot of people here think it will, the new battalions they are recruiting now will hardly see active service.

Dear Uncle Oscar:

Ah, Mesopotamia. If you knew what a mess the Brits made of Mesopotamia after the war, you might not cheer so hard for the Russians. The seeds of conflict in the Middle East were planted after the First World War, and we are still reaping their harvest a century later. History doesn’t just happen and stay dormant. It is an ongoing living creature. It is the cause of “cause and effect.”

*****

Canada went to war again. Just as you fellows found out, it wasn’t over by Christmas. (And don’t worry about those new battalions being disappointed by an early end to the war. They will be dying to get home in one piece.) I doubt if our new war will be over in my lifetime, even if I live to a great old age. And it’s not even a war, in any sense that you might recognize. We don’t declare war any more, we just off and fight evil (as we perceive it) and hope we do the world some good.

You see, it’s not against a recognized state. The enemy is not in uniform. We’re battling a movement, and idea, with rockets and jet aircraft and shells. We’re fighting something called the “Islamic State” in the Middle East. This is a self-defined terrorist gang that has taken control of swatches of Arab countries and is threatening Turkey. The group is called ISIS, standing for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Their intent is to establish a caliphate (an Islamic state headed by a religious and political leader) by sheer force of intimidation and violence.

Orland French has created a noble and endearing book with Letters To Vimy. His letters to his Uncle Oscar have made history more personable and more understanding for many of us to comprehend. And the book is a great addition of literature which combine personal reflection and historical facts which is being crafted these days for us discerning readers. 

*****

Link to FriesenPress website for Letters To Vimy

Link to Orland French’s publishing company “Wallbridge House”

Gritty and Enlightening Read | Review of “The Break” by Katherena Vermette (2016) House of Anansi

thebreak

For many of us, literature is a means of understanding a way of life of people different from us. In reading a book, we learn the hardships and difficulties of others whom we may or may not have contact in our day-to-day lives. There has been an interest with a lot of people in my circles  trying to gain a better understanding of Indigenous people in our society.Katherena Vermette’s novel The Break gives us readers insights and something to start conversations to improve life for all peoples.

Page 4

In the sixties, Indians started moving in, once Status Indians could leave reserves and many moved to the city. That was when the Europeans slowly started creeping out of the neighbourhood like a man sneaking away from a sleeping woman in the dark. Now there are so many Indians here, big families, good people, but also gangs, hookers, drug houses, and all these big, beautiful houses somehow sagging and tired like the old people who still live in them.

The area around the Break is slightly less poor than the rest, more working class, just enough to make the hard-working people who live there think that they are out of the core and free of that drama. There are more cars in driveways than on the other side of McPhillips. It’s a good neighbourhood but you can still see it, if you know what to look for. If you can see the houses with never-opened bed sheet covered windows. If you can see the cars that come late at night. park right in the middle of the Break, far away from any house, and stay only ten minutes or so before driving away again. My Stella can see it. I thought her how to look and be aware all the time. I don’t know if that was right or wrong, but she’s still alive so there has to be some good in it.

Vermette has given a detailed book here using a complex set of characters trying to deal with a violent and desperate situation. One evening, Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window and sees a violent attack on the Break (a field on an isolated strip of land  outside her house.)  She calls the police and a chain of events – which include thoughts, emotions, actions and frustrations – are documented through the book.

Page 24-25

Phoenix falls up the snow-packed front stoop and jerks open the screen door. She knew it would be unlocked, but thought, in her last steps that it might not be, just this once. That would just be her luck, wouldn’t it? But nah, it’s open, so she can stumble into the warmth. Thank fuck.

Her uncle’s house smells like smokes, dope, and old food, but it’s great to her. And warm. Phoenix takes he hands out of her jacket sleeves, and rubs them together, blowing on them to help get the feeling back. They’re raw and red, but she keeps rubbing at them anyway.

Some skinny girl is passed out on the couch, and another is on the armchair. They look like they fell over in the middle of talking and no one bothered to move them or cover them up. One of them snores lightly, her face against her bare arm, drool dripping over an awful rose tattoo and track marks. Fuck. Phoenix can smell the booze from her, that ugly day-after stench. They look pretty rough, even passed out. Most people look so peaceful when they’re sleeping, but these girls just look a little less used up.

No one else is in sight. The house feels asleep. Phoenix hears music coming quietly from her uncle’s room so she knows he’s there. He can’t sleep without music playing, usually old school rock stuff. Aerosmith and AC/DC. Classics, he’ll say with a smack across the head if anyone ever tries to say no one listens to that shit anymore. Phoenix has always liked the music. It reminds her of him, of back when she was small and he was a good kid, before all these other people started hanging around him and he had to get hard.

She’s so fucking glad to be here.

The language Vermette is frank, bold and gritty at times. But it reflects the reality the story is set in. The language can also be tender and sad. Again reflecting the scene or an emotion. And while the whole narrative is somewhat complex, it is a great story illuminating an element of the human condition we may or may not be aware and creating empathy.

Page 290-291

“PHOENIX ANNE STRANGER . . .”

Scott turns his radio down again, rubs his eyes, and tries to concentrate. He needs to get to sleep. He needs to text Hannah and tell her he’s still working. No, he just needs to get an actual good night’s sleep.

Christie looks straight ahead as they drive. Tommy can tell he’s annoyed and want to ge this over with. Tommy’s been leading him around for days. The sergeant was no help. He didn’t see anything linking this Monias guy to the assault. The numbered company turned out to be in the name of Angie Dumas, the skinny girl, Monias’s girlfriend and no one was home at her residence so Christie suggested the sister.

“What was her name? Settler?”

“Settee,” Tommy had said and looked up the address in his written notes. Pritchard Avenue.

They are going there now. But it is all starting to feel like a circle.

After they talked to the sergeant, Sunday night had descended on the northside as predicted. Tired drunk people fell out of tired drunk houses. There were only two domestics as if everyone was too tired to fight too hard. As if they were only going through the motions, passionless. Tommy had just pulled a large, handcuffed man into the squad car and looked back at the women left behind, standing impassively.

He shivers and wants a coffee. If he doesn’t find anything soon, they’ll just have to leave the case unresolved, and the words will become numbers. Emily will become Case 002-121869, never to be opened again. He thinks of the other girl, Zegwan. It means spring. He thinks of his language teacher again. His face was always  on the veryge of a smile, a light smirk as Tommy tried to make his tongue wrap around the strange words.

“Zeeg-wahn.”

Katherena Vermette has given the literary world a great bit of insight with her novel The Break. It is an emotional, gritty and complex novel but one that builds empathy and enlightenment about Indigenous people in our time. A great read and a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Break

Link to Katherena Vermette’s website