Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Three Day Road

I am of two minds about this book. I started it and liked it immediately, getting quickly into the story and a third of a way into the book. It had an authenticity in most of the parts dealing with the James Bay Cree and vivid and moving descriptions of WWI trench warfare. The author, Joseph Boyden, had included detailed vignettes which were graphic and human which would be difficult to imagine for someone who had not experienced them himself. Wonderful acheivement I thought for a young and first author. I was impressed.

And then something happened. I read something else that tinged my impression of the book, or rather of the author and affected my evaluation of his work. Let me tell you what happened. My sister, by happenstance just at this time, sent me a detail she had found among my recently deceased great aunt's papers about the death of my great uncle. He died Sept 2, 1918 - so close to the end of the war- and was buried "in the vicinity of Noreuil which is North North East of Bapaume, between Amiens and Cambrai in northern France". So I googled these names hoping to find out what battle his regiment fought on the day he died and came upon an online book written by a WWI war correspondent Phillip Gibb. When I started reading this I was struck by the similarity between this work of non-fiction and the wartime parts of Three Day Road.

Also by happenstance I had just read this piece by Brian Bethune who wrote :

In December it came out (passive voice, because I can’t remember how it came out) that McEwan had found such compelling war-time material in the autobiography of romance novelist Lucilla Andrews, that he used some 450 words of it in his 2001 masterpiece, Atonement. Trouble is he didn’t change much at all, just pulled a quick cut—and—paste job. McEwan was able to shrug it off—he is, after all, probably the world’s greatest English-language novelist. A horde of big-name peers rallied to the cause, fellow lords of creation who adhere to the novelist’s first article of faith: we have the right to utilize as we wish the scribblings of lesser mortals (i.e. non-fiction writers), just as we have the right to play with the lives of real people (at least those who are safely dead and unable to establish lucrative relationships with libel lawyers)

And I so liked Atonement. I went to Boyden's book looking in the back or front for a bibliography or acknowledgement of any research he did. There was very little. He credited one person for help with the northern Cree language, and one WWI historian - R. James Steele ( who will not come up on a Chapters or an Amazon search) and his brother (for attention to military detail). His profile says that his father served in WWII and a grandfather and uncle served in WWI

I am not saying that Boyden lifted Gibbs words but I would be willing to bet that he read Gibbs memoir and picked out many of the images (changing them slightly) and this gave his book that veracity I sensed. What other sources did he use I wonder. Why didn't he mention them? It was obvious that he did a lot of research. How would he know about "duckboards" and "estaminets" unless he had. But more than just little details there was a similarity in the writing, the mood between the two pieces, although I found Gibbs account much more moving as one might expect from a piece that was so highly coloured by emotional memory and profound experience. Here is a small excerpt from Gibbs' first chapter:

In Dixmude young boys of France-- fusiliers marins--lay dead about the Grande Place. In the Town Hall, falling to bits under shell-fire, a colonel stood dazed and waiting for death amid the dead bodies of his men--one so young, so handsome, lying there on his back, with a waxen face, staring steadily at the sky through the broken roof. . . . At Nieuport-les-Bains one dead soldier lay at the end of the esplanade, and a little group of living were huddled under the wall of
a red-brick villa, watching other villas falling like card houses in a town that had been built for love and pretty women and the lucky people of the world. British monitors lying close into shore were answering the German bombardment, firing over Nieuport to the dunes by Ostend. From one monitor came a group of figures with white masks of cotton-wool tipped with wet blood. British seamen, and all blind, with the dead body of an officer tied up in a sack . . . .
"O Jesu! . . . O maman! . . . O ma pauvre p'tite femme! . . . O Jesu! O Jesu!"
From thousands of French soldiers lying wounded or parched in the burning sun before the battle of the Marne these cries went up to the blue sky of France in August of '14. They were the cries of youth's agony in war. Afterward I went across the fields where they fought and saw their bodies and their graves, and the proof of the victory that saved France and us. The German dead had been gathered into heaps like autumn leaves. They were soaked in petrol and oily smoke was rising from them . . . .

And a little further on:

In the very early days we lived in a small old house, called by courtesy a chateau, in the village of Tatinghem, near General Headquarters at St.-Omer. (Afterward we shifted our quarters from time to time, according to the drift of battle and our convenience.) It was very peaceful there amid fields of standing corn, where peasant women worked while their men were fighting, but in the motor-cars supplied us by the army (with military drivers, all complete) it was a quick ride over Cassel Hill to the edge of the Ypres salient and the farthest point where any car could go without being seen by a watchful enemy and blown to bits at a signal to the guns. Then we walked, up sinister roads, or along communication trenches, to the fire-step in the front line, or into places like "Plug Street" wood and Kemmel village, and the ruins of Vermelles, and the lines by Neuve Chapelle-- the training-schools of British armies--where always birds of death were on the wing, screaming with high and rising notes before coming to earth with the cough that killed. . . After hours in those hiding- places where boys of the New Army were learning the lessons of war in dugouts and ditches under the range of German guns, back again to the little white chateau at Tatinghem, with a sweet scent of flowers from the fields, and nightingales singing in the woods and a bell tinkling for Benediction in the old church tower beyond our gate.

I would like to read some of Gibbs other book, also online, titled The Soul of the War. And I would like to re-read 3 Day Road and pick out the parts which compare to Gibbs memoire and put them side by side. I might just do that.

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Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)