Dropping the Torch?

Reviewed by Alicia Fahey

The image on the cover of Neta Gordon’s book is a close-up of a Canadian propaganda poster that depicts an armed soldier with his back to the viewer; his stance suggests he is ready to engage in what is presumably combat taking place on the horizon. The text on the original poster reads, “Back Him Up! Buy Victory Bonds,” but the omission of this text from Gordon’s cover allows for another interpretation of the image. In a second reading, the soldier is looking backwards, metaphorically fixated on the past; the activity that captures his attention is remote, reduced to abstract forms. The latter reading of the image resonates more closely with Catching the Torch. Gordon examines her primary corpus of texts (by authors who have not directly experienced the First World War) through the lens of memory studies, with particular focus on Maurice Halbwachs’s term “historical memory,” a sub-category of collective memory, which Gordon defines as, “false ’memory’ of events that are known only indirectly.”

The title of Gordon’s book alludes to John McCrae’s popular poem “In Flanders Fields.” Gordon convincingly argues that the neglected third stanza of McCrae’s poem, in which the voices of the dead soldiers call upon readers to, “Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch,” is a call to arms that complicates customary interpretations of the poem as a sacrificial narrative of distinctly Canadian values. These values-a sense of duty, a myth of the national collective, and a moral commitment to peacekeeping-provide a through line for the four chapters of the book. Gordon’s revival of McCrae’s famous poem, along with the title of her book, sets up the expectation that she intends to “take up [the] quarrel” by carrying forward the torch of Canadian war literature; however, this is not the case. Using McCrae as a point of entry, Gordon proceeds to argue that the works of literature she examines, including Jack Hodgins’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 the its cultural significance. As a result, instead of questioning the historical record, contemporary Canadian 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, although she occasionally underplays the subversive aspects of the literature she discusses. For instance, in Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, Gordon appropriately indicts “the artist figure” (Walter Allward) for “transforming the particular into the allegorical,” but limits her discussion of Klara, Tilman, and Giorgio as alternative artist figures who challenge Allward’s totalizing tendencies. While I agree with Gordon that the works of literature she examines share a common tendency to reinforce the myth of a national collective, I do not think this observation sustains the argument that these works are not critical of the historical record; many of these novels and plays (as well as R.H. Thomson’s The Lost Boys, which is absent from Gordon’s discussion) draw on lesser-known aspects of Canadian history in order to criticize official versions of the war and its effects.

Gordon concludes her study with the assertion that Paul Gross’s film Passchendaele (2008) marks the end of “the Great Canadian War Novel”; Canadian authors have moved on to military events that are still part of living memory. Catching the Torch is an important survey of Canadian war novels and plays-Gordon also covers an impressive scope of literary criticism generated by these texts-however, I am not convinced that we should drop the torch just yet. Is the state of anxiety that Gordon describes not simply a substitute for the myth of a national collective? Is it not possible to endorse a national collective and to challenge the official historical record? Before we extinguish this flame by declaring the First World War a “closed book,” I suggest we wait and see how responses to the centenary shed light on these questions.

This review “Dropping the Torch?” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 160-61.

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