Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The Great War theme read’

fightingfrance

Fighting France: from Dunkerque to Belport is a small collection of essays, written by American novelist and short story writer Edith Wharton at the beginning of the First World War while she was living in France.

“The signs over these hotel doors first disturbed the dreaming harmony of Paris. In a night, as it seemed, the whole city was hung with Red Crosses. Every other building showed the red and white band across its front, with “Ouvroir” or “Hopital” beneath; there was something sinister in these preparations for horrors in which one could not yet believe, in the making of bandages for limbs yet sound and whole, the spreading of pillows for heads yet carried high. But insist as they would on the woe to come, these warning signs did not deeply stir the trance of Paris. The first days of the war were full of a kind of unrealizing confidence, not boastful or fatuous, yet as different as possible from the clear-headed tenacity of purpose that the experience of the next few months was to develop. It is hard to evoke, without seeming to exaggerate it, that the mood of early August: the assurance, the balance, the kind of smiling fatalism with which Paris moved to her task. It is not impossible that the beauty of the season and the silence of the city may have helped to produce this mood. War, the shrieking fury, had announced herself by a great wave of stillness. Never was desert hush more complete: the silence of a street is always so much deeper than the silence of wood or field.”

As a consort to the president of the American chamber of commerce in France, Edith Wharton was given unique access to life at the front. In these essays Wharton meets with French soldiers, seeing for herself the impact upon everyday life, the devastation and desolation in once beautiful villages along the Western Front.

In many ways this book – though gloriously written, as one would expect from the pen of Edith Wharton – is rather out of step with the world we live in now. It reads rather like a piece of flowery propaganda at times, which in itself I think is fascinating, showing us as it does the spirit of patriotism that everyone it seems wanted to show the world. Edith Wharton was a fierce Francophile, and there’s no doubt where her sympathies lay here, the French are brave and stoical, the Germans evil, laying siege to the French countryside, destroying its villages. Written in 1915, it is hardly surprising that this is her view – it couldn’t be expected that it should be otherwise, it is probably only now with the distance of time that we are able to acknowledge, faults and heroisms on both sides.

They are grave, these young faces: one hears a great deal of the gaiety in the trenches, but the wounded are not gay. Neither are they sad, however. They are calm, meditative, strangely purified and matured. It is as though their great experience had purged them of pettiness, meanness and frivolity, burning them down to the bare bones of character, the fundamental substance of the soul, and shaping that substance into something so strong and finely tempered that for a long time to come Paris will not care to wear any look unworthy of the look on their faces.

During this year in France, Edith Wharton was able to tour various parts of the front, she appears fairly matter of fact about her presence in these places, but when we consider how close she was at times to the fighting this becomes a quite extraordinary chronicle. She focuses mainly on the deserted and war ravaged villages, and shows us temporary hospitals and soldiers’ messes and once poignantly encounters injured soldiers, suffering with no one to care for them. The soldiers set up little temporary villages right behind the lines, where they were able to live almost normally between engagements, and in the company of the her party and their guide Edith Wharton was able to meet these men. Wharton’s descriptions of landscape are just lovely, in her company the breeze rustles through the trees gently, while birds sing over head in trees alongside summer meadows.

“As we sat there in the grass, swept by a great mountain breeze full of the scent of thyme and myrtle, while the flutter of birds, the hum of insects, the still and busy life of the hills went on all about us in the sunshine, the pressure of the encircling line of death grew more intolerably real. It is not in the mud and jokes and everyday activities of the trenches that one most feels the damnable insanity of war; it is where it lurks like a mythical monsters in scenes to which the mind has always turned for rest.”

As an early twentieth century travelogue by a great American writer, Fighting France is a beautifully rendered little piece, locations exquisitely described with obvious affection. As a first-hand account of France during the first few months of The Great War, however, it is rather over blown and very one sided. The final section – entitled The Tone of France is particularly objectionable – as Wharton appears to speak for the whole of France, allowing her admiration of the French spirit and patriotism to descend into terrible generalisations. However I can’t help but also see something rather interesting in Fighting France as a social document, and I wonder what it might have been like had Edith Wharton written these essays with some greater distance to the war.

This was my eleventh read for the Librarything Virago Group’s Great War theme read (I have rather neglected it of late) links to my other Great War reads are on my reading challenges page.

Edithwharton

Read Full Post »

we that were young

My latest read for the ongoing Librarything Great War theme read, found me back among women war workers not unlike those featured in Helen Zenna Smith’s ‘Not so Quiet’ and E M Delafield’s ‘The War Workers’ two of my earlier Great War theme reads. There is a short preface to my Virago green edition written by E M Delfield, in which she states:

“When I read Miss Rathbone’s faithful and unromanticised story of women’s war-work, I felt: Here is one who has remembered”

‘We that Were Young’ was Irene Rathbone’s fictionalised account of her own wartime experience, and that of many of her friends. She is uncompromising and painfully honest, and through the eyes of Joan Seddon, and her friends, Barbara, Betty and Pamela the war feels long and devastatingly destructive. In return for sacrificing their youth, their health and their men, what did these women gain?

“Pre-war interests had vanished almost as though they had never been; and the struggle for the vote which had been her especial interest, no longer required to be pursued. For the vote had been ‘given’ to women – to a section of them, at least – in 1918, as a reward for ‘war service,’ rather like a chocolate is given to a child who has behaved unexpectedly well under trying circumstances”

As ‘We that were Young’ opens, Joan Seddon is living in a happy, lively home with her Aunt Florence, her adored young brother Jimmy and their Airedale terrier. Joan’s contribution to the war thus far, bandage rolling alongside other local women doesn’t feel like enough. Joan’s friend Barbara is already working in the YMCA huts out in France, and Joan is anxious to join her and wants her friend Betty Paley to join them. This opening section of the novel in which we meet Joan and her family, her Uncle Robert and Aunt Rose Seddon, her cousin Jack, Betty’s brother Colin who so loves Joan, and their easy happy associations provides a stark contrast to what comes later.

nursesww1Joan’s war-work takes her first to France, and the YMCA huts that provide food and drink to the khaki clad men on their back from or to the front. Here Joan meets up with her friend Barbara, and they are later joined by Betty. The work can be hard, and there are times when their huts are busy, but their lives are on the whole quite pleasant, life in the hostel one of friendship and camaraderie. Eventually Joan is conscious of her life being too easy, and she heads back to London to take up nursing. Joan is surprised at how good she is at nursing witnessing the horror of war injuries, missing limbs, infections, blindness and despair. While nursing Joan meets ‘Thrush’ Shirley whose early bereavement leads her to throw up war work completely and take up a life of soulless nightclubbing and flirtation. As well as long hours, difficult sisters and horrifying scenes Joan also finds that she encounters great gratitude, in her hospital work, often rather touched by the men whose spirits remain high in the face of terrible injury.

Another friend of Joan’s; Pamela also nursing in London, is a big hit with the men she cares for. Pamela falls head over heels for a New Zealand officer on her ward, and for a time is walking on air. The war claims it victims time and time again, the friends, lovers, brothers of women already sacrificing so much are despatched cruelly and suddenly and without warning. Prompted by revengeful despair, Pamela decides to work in munitions, much to her family’s bemusement and as Pamela’s health is already weak, it not long before it breaks down and she is obliged to leave munitions too, bitter and disgusted with everything that had happened and she had been witness to.

The war drags on, and Joan return to the YMCA huts in France, having utterly exhausted herself in her long service in the hospitals of London, having suffered septic fingers several times, and being persuaded by her friends, Joan sees the war out back where she started.

“People said ‘Time will heal,’ but you didn’t want it to heal – or rather you didn’t want it to heal at the price of remembrance. The one thing you were terrified of was numb forgetfulness. Suffering was atrocious; it was not a thing to be sentimentally hugged; but if it was the inevitable accompaniment of remembrance you would keep it”

After the war, firmly disgusted by all she has seen and experienced, Joan now a pacifist, is furious with the old men war-mongers and politicians who sent all those boys to their deaths. Here again, as in Helen Zenna Smith’s ‘Not So Quiet’ we see the older generation beguiled by the glamour and patriotism of war, with the younger generation, in the midst of it experiencing the realities, and at times shielding the older generation from the truth. The final chapter of the novel is set in 1928, and those women who gave the best years of their lives to that terrible conflict have been shaped by those experiences in a way that the younger generation cannot fully appreciate.

‘We that were Young’ is not just about the women in WW1, their men are a constant presence, their sacrifice often far greater, and the impact of their loss upon these women will last a lifetime. This is not a faultless novel, there are some pieces of dialogue I found clunky and unrealistic, and it could be seen as being over long (about 460 pages). Overall, however the testament that Irene Rathbone has left us with of an unimaginable period, and the destruction of a generation far outweighs any minor faults.

Read Full Post »

Eunice Fleet

My latest read for the Great War Theme read saw me ordering my first Honno Classic, who I had heard of but not really investigated before. Honno Classics reprint works by Welsh women writers that are no longer in print. There are several more titles on their list which I rather fancy ordering – but I have resisted so far.

The Great War theme read has brought several books my way, which acknowledge the dreadful sacrifice made by so many men and women during World War One, both on the western front and the home front, this novel though is different, this is a novel of war resistance. Eunice Fleet takes as its theme the treatment of conscientious objectors in World War One. Lily Tobias was the daughter of a Jewish immigrant from Poland and Jewish culture is featured to a small extent in this novel, but it is on the experience of her own brothers as conscientious objectors that she particularly draws in this novel.

Eunice Fleet is the rather spoiled daughter of a Cardiff industrialist. When her widowed father re-marries a much younger woman, Eunice is horrified, and sets herself against her young step-mother and the half-sister who eventually comes along. Eunice is quick to marry herself – when still very young, her young teacher husband; Vincent is a political being, who proved himself as a strong and fearless when he saved a young girl from drowning. However it isn’t long before Eunice and Vincent’s happiness is threatened by war, and Vincent is branded a coward when he refuses to fight. Eunice finds it hard to understand her husband, and struggling with the realities of being the wife of a C.O she is dragged along to pacifist meetings, where she meets other members of the Cardiff pacifist community. Vincent’s convictions mean he is unprepared to serve with any of the other non-combative services like ambulance drivers – and Vincent soon finds himself in prison. Eunice feels so disgusted by Vincent’s convictions and understands them so little, that she is led to take drastic action that will still be affecting her in the 1930’s – her eventual refusal to visit her husband having disastrous consequences. Some snippets of letters from Vincent during these awful times – when he suffered such horrible indignities and felt as if he had nothing left – are heartrendingly poignant. Eunice is not a very likeable character, her callous turning away from Vincent is just awful, her selfish disregard of what he was undergoing, and her concern for how other people might view her as the wife of a C.O. is quite sickening. Tobias’ depiction of society’s attitude to conscientious objectors in Cardiff at the time is superbly drawn.

“She walked about the streets of Taviton on the tenth, vaguely aware of commotion in the town. People were hurrying hither and thither, there was a block of vehicular traffic at an unexpected point, brazen music sounded, and something like the tail of a procession wound ahead. Troops marching through, perhaps. She did not look at passers-by or listen to their talk. She was afraid of being recognised. Her visit home was hedged with aversions, and she meant not to prolong it. “

In the 1930’s Eunice is a business woman, having part ownership in a women’s corsetiere, following her father’s death and the flight of her step-mother Eunice was unwillingly made her sister’s guardian. Living in Maida Vale, they have a housekeeper called Mrs Johns and the war and its consequences in Cardiff seem a long way away. Young Dorry a fairly selfish young girl – seeming to take after her mother – is often jealous of her beautiful elder sister. Out of the blue Eunice meets George Furnival again, a man who she once took to visit Vincent just before the time she stopped seeing him. Faced with her past in the person of George, Eunice starts to think of Vincent again in a more tender way, remembering fondly the young man she had fallen for, her guilt appearing to press down upon her. George Furnival, holds similar political views to those of Vincent allowing Eunice to face up to the truth of her actions. However Eunice isn’t the only one drawn to George.

The novel is told in three parts; the present – 1932, the past when young Eunice and Vincent come together only to be separated by his convictions, and the present again – with Eunice still living with the consequences of her actions and living in some conflict with her younger sister.

Eunice Fleet is a wonderfully moving and quietly devastating novel. I rather like reading about unlikeable complex characters – which may seem strange, but they are often more interesting shining a light on the darker side of human motivations. As a war novel, this is certainly very different – it tells an altogether different story, but one that is important and certainly needed to be told.

Read Full Post »

the war workers

The War-Workers is an early novel from E M Delafield, published about twelve years before her most famous work The Diary of a Provincial Lady (which I re-read recently). This is one of the titles on the list of books for the LibraryThing Great war theme read – it was actually one of the books for March and April – I’ll be playing catch up for the rest of the year I think, and I am rather surprised at just how much I loved it.

This novel is not one which takes us to the trenches of the Western Front – plenty of the other books we are reading this year do take us there – this is a home front WW1 novel, with an army of a wholly different kind. The army in question is an army of women, the women who ran the supply depots, met hundreds of men off troop trains late at night supplying them with sandwiches, cake and steaming cups of tea, and ran canteens. Women war-workers who were indefatigable in their approach to their duty, and who put their own lives on hold, and kept going even when ill.

E M Delafield’s wonderful wit and eye for the ridiculousness in people is quite evident in this early novel. I did chuckle over the marvellously dreadful Mrs Willoughby – who talks incessantly to her spoilt little Pekinese Puff, and the equally dreadful Miss Delmege – whose stubborn devotion to Miss Vivian blinds her to Char’s obvious faults, and who declares anything she doesn’t like or agree with to be strange.

“The new Canteen in Pollard Street was opened before Christmas. Lesbia Willoughby, in an immense overall of light blue-and-white check, stood behind a long buffet and demanded stridently whether she wasn’t too exactly like a barmaid for words, and Char’s consignment of helpers worked for the most part briskly and efficiently, only the unfortunate Miss Plumtree upsetting a mug of scalding tea over herself at the precise moment when Miss Vivian, trim and workmanlike in her dark uniform, entered the big hall and stood watching the scene with her arrogant, observant gaze. She did not ask Miss Plumtree whether her hand was scalded, but neither did she rebuke her very evident clumsiness. She moved slowly and imperially through the thick tobacco-laden atmosphere, speaking to several of the men, and silently observing the demeanour of her staff.”

Delafield’s ‘The War-Workers’ is centred around a Midlands supply depot run by domineering 29 year old Charmaine Vivian, the only daughter of Lady and Sir Percy Vivian, who struggle to understand her total absorption in her work. It is to their wonderfully comfortable rural estate Plessings – that Char returns later and later each evening – after a day of organising and managing her slavishly devoted underlings. At home Miss Bruce, another blindly devoted woman – once Char’s governess, now her mother’s secretary – fusses happily around Char upon her return each day. Char is blissfully unaware of how the little comforts she takes for granted are managed for her by other people. Her beloved Brucey and her maid, make sure she is warm and comfortable, her room lit by a wonderful fire, good food and hot water available upon her late return. Her office is always lit by a good fire when she arrives at ten o’ clock each morning – yet Char gives no thought to how it might have got there. warworkers

At the over-crowded hostel across the street from Char Vivian’s busy little office – live the squabbling exhausted women who work for Char. They share rooms, manage with limited hot water, and small kettles in their rooms, working ridiculously long hours for a woman who is barely aware of them as human beings. For Miss Vivian keeps her workers firmly at arm’s length, never entering into personal or friendly conversation, or considering their small discomforts and illnesses, irritated should one want to take time off. Miss Vivian is proud to put work before everything else, and declares herself puzzled should anyone think to do anything else. These women workers are a wonderfully drawn bunch of characters, gossipy, fretful, snobbish and highly entertaining. Into their midst comes Grace Jones, “a lady” Grace becomes Miss Vivian’s under-secretary, although quite obviously enormously capable – Miss Vivian stubbornly refuses to see her as being as capable as she is. When Grace meets Lady Vivian, Char’s mother immediately takes to her – much to Char’s enormous irritation.

When Char’s father is taken ill, Char’s mother requests that she should stay at home more – as her father is becoming distressed by the constant late night comings and goings. Char is outraged by the suggestion that the office could possibly manage without her constant attention – and after only a few days off because she herself is suffering from flu – she returns to her office in high dudgeon – her mother has insisted she move into her worker’s hostel.

There are those who recognise the monster within Char Vivian, Grace Jones not the least of them. John Trevellyan, her mother’s cousin, is annoyed and dismayed by Char’s behaviour, John is just one more thing Char takes for granted, and so she is a little uncomfortable when she sees him getting rather friendly with Grace. Dr Prince, the doctor who has known Char since childhood, thinks Char’s slavish obsession with her work has more to do with being seen to do it and the power and prestige it gives her than anything else.

“I’ll tell you something else. It’s not the work you want to get back to, young lady, it’s the excitement, and the official position, and the right it gives you to interfere with people who knew how to run a hospital and everything connected with it some twenty years or so before you came into the world”

Char is finally forced to make some changes to her organisation, and Grace finds herself to be deeply appreciated by others whose good opinion she is glad to have. I really loved this book; I really should have had more faith in it.

EMDelafield

Read Full Post »

testamentofyouth2

My latest read for the ongoing Librarything Great War theme read. I have not read as many of the listed books as I had hoped so far – but I am so enjoying (if that is the right word) gaining a deeper and greater understanding of that dreadful conflict, and the men and women who sacrificed their lives, and especially their youth to it.

Testament of Youth is one of those books I have always been aware of and yet managed to never read. It’s just the kind of book I might well have encountered years ago but I was destined to not encounter it until this anniversary year. Aside from its description of life, loss and service during the years of the Great War, one of its particular interests for me lies in the great friendship which existed between the author Vera Brittain and another author – Winifred Holtby whose books I have so enjoyed. Testament of Youth is a fair sized tome at over 600 pages – and generally an enormously compelling and readable autobiography. However for me, it would have been more powerful had it ended around 100-150 pages sooner. More of that later.

VeraBrittain1915Vera Brittain was born into a well to do upper middle class family in Newcastle under Lyme in the Potteries, later the family moved to Buxton in Derbyshire. Both Vera and her dear brother Edward attended boarding school – and three of Edward’s great school friends, Roland, Geoffrey and Victor were to become important figures in Vera’s life. Vera’s great ambition was to attend Oxford – at a time when that was rather an unconventional life choice for a young lady. Vera managed to attain a scholarship for Somerville College and entered into college life in 1914. After just one year of study however in the summer of 1915 Vera decided to put her studies on hold and volunteer as a V.A D. For the next four years, following her initial training, Vera saw service in several hospitals, in Buxton and London and later in Malta and France.

“And then, all at once, the whistle sounded again and the train started. As the noisy group moved away from the door he sprang on to the footboard, clung to my hand and, drawing my face down to his, kissed my lips in a sudden vehemence of despair. And I kissed his, and just managed to whisper ‘Good-bye!’ The next moment he was walking rapidly down the platform, with his head bent and his face very pale. Although I had said that I would not, I stood by the door as the train left the station and watched him moving through the crowd. But he never turned again.”

Towards the beginning of the war she had become engaged to Roland Leighton, as the young men who surrounded her prepared to join the forces fighting in France. During the time Roland was in France he and Vera wrote to one another constantly sending one another poems and desperately looking forward to Roland’s next leave when they might spend a few rare days together if Vera herself could get leave from the hospital. These two young people began to feel rather middle aged as their experiences began to tell upon them, and they found themselves more and more often looking back to happier pre-war days. Her love for Roland is poignantly obvious still in her writing that she completed almost twenty years later, their story surely that of so many couples.

“How fortunate we were who still had hope I did not then realise; I could not know how soon the time would come when we should have no more hope, and yet be unable to die”

As a fiercely intelligent woman and feminist she was quick to understand the true nature of the sacrifice she and her colleagues made, as they endured difficult, arduously back-breaking work, while their youth slowly passed them by. As volunteer nurses they differed to those qualified and experienced nurses they sometimes worked alongside, and in a society reeling under the loss in vast numbers of its sons, were subject to recall by anxious grieving parents which compromised their professionalism. Vera was perfectly placed to witness the effect of this conflict upon her own generation; she and the men she cared for were its victims.

After the war Vera returned to Somerville to continue her studies, switching to history, but she found it a difficult world to fit herself into following her experiences and losses of the previous four years. At a time when she was suffering from a kind of depression, Vera met Winifred Holtby, after an inauspicious start the two became friends and shared a flat in London. Having attained her degree – Vera set about a life of writing and lecturing, speaking for the League of Nations and working for the feminist Six Point group.

This volume of Vera Brittain’s autobiography ends in 1925 at around the time she finally marries. I understand why she ended this volume here- and yet the last 100 pages or so of the book were not quite as compelling for me as everything that had come before (all of which was utterly brilliant). Vera Brittain’s depiction of life as a V.A .D is absolutely unforgettable and there were moments I could hardly put the book down. There is a profound astuteness in Vera Brittain’s depiction of her wartime experiences that must surely be unparalleled from a female perspective. However, despite the fact I would have missed Vera’s meeting and early friendship with Winifred Holtby I might have preferred it if the book had ended in 1919 when Vera returned to Somerville. By the time the book ended the memory of Vera’s wartime experiences had already begun to fade a little in my mind to be replaced by memories of lecture halls and novel writing. Perhaps it was just me, but I would have preferred to have been left with those powerful wartime stories.

verabrittain

Read Full Post »

allquietonthewesternfront

(This translation by Brian Murdoch 1994)

All Quiet on the Western Front – is one of those modern classics that I have always been aware of but never actually thought about reading. However the Librarything Great War theme read is highlighting a lot of great books for me this year – which I may otherwise never have read.

“This book is intended neither as an accusation nor a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling”

There are so many great novels of World War 1 out there – the majority perhaps focusing on the British/American side. Depicting the horrors of warfare, life in the trenches and military field hospitals, and the effect of these realities on our young men who sacrificed their lives, it becomes easy to forget about the young men on the other side. What was it like on the other side of No man’s land? Were the trenches any the less uncomfortable? Were the horrors of death and destruction any less traumatising? was the sacrifice any the less terrible?

allquietonthewesternfront3All Quiet on the Western Front, is a classic novel of German literature, first published as a newspaper serialisation in 1928 it was published as a novel a year later. Author Eric Maria Remarque – was himself a World War 1 veteran. This is not a story of heroic deeds undertaken in the name of war, but rather it is a story of comradeship, and the conditions in which soldiers find themselves: The struggle to find food, the monotony of camp life between military engagements and the widening distance between their old lives and their existence in the trenches.

 

The novel is narrated by nineteen year old Paul Bäumer who goaded by his school master to do so, joins the army soon after the outbreak of war, accompanying Paul to the trenches are several school friends. Paul and his friends, Tjaden, Müller and Kropp are joined in the trenches of the western front by soldier comrades from all walks of life; they form some unbreakable bonds with these men. The older Stanislaus Katczinsky – known to all as Kat – becomes a particular friend of Paul’s and something of a mentor to him. Together these young men experience all the horrors of trench warfare, the constant expectation of death, the terror of new recruits who are ill prepared for the realities of war. The constant shelling, hiding in mud filled holes, the disease, rats the size of cats and the loss of their friends. Ramarque’s war torn landscape is described with extraordinary vividness, we see it though, through the eyes of these heartbreakingly ordinary young men, forced to grow up during one of the most brutal conflicts in history.

“The evening benediction starts. Night falls, and mist rises out of the shell holes. It looks as if the craters are full of ghostly secrets. The white vapour creeps around fearfully before it dares to float up over the edge and away. Then long streaks drift from one shell hole to the next”

Alongside the slaughter and brutality, there are more mundane concerns, usually concerning food, finding it, cooking it, and sharing it out. Great excitement surrounds the capture of a goose and the making of potato pancakes, this new world, makes trading bread with Russian prisoners for boots seem matter of fact.
When Paul is given leave – he travels home to see his dying mother, father and sister. This short sojourn affects Paul psychologically – he feels closer to his friends back at the front, wanting only to get back to them, adrift now from the world he once knew. Paul seems to understand that things will never be the same again for him and his friends.

“I am young, I am twenty years of age; but I know nothing of life except despair, death, fear and the combination of completely mindless superficiality with an abyss of suffering. I see people being driven against one another, and silently, uncomprehendingly, foolishly, obediently and innocently killing one another.”

This novel is unsurprisingly deeply poignant – its power coming particularly from the relationships between these young men. There are moments when it is almost hard to read – Ramarque doesn’t pull any punches, the details of war never gratuitous, do feel terribly real. Finishing ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ I felt haunted by the images of the western front, and the young men who fought and died there, it is a quietly devastating novel, beautifully written and unforgettable.

ericmariaremarque

Read Full Post »

oneof ours

‘One of Ours’ is Willa Cather’s 1923 Pulitzer prize winning novel that I read for the ongoing Librarything Virago group’s Great War theme read.

Cather is particularly known for writing about Nebraskan frontier life, and this novel opens in the Nebraskan farming community at around the time that the First World War was starting in Europe. Claude Wheeler is the son of a successful farmer, his future on the farm, seems assured. Many of Claude’s friends and neighbours are European immigrants – several of them Germans, it is some of these friends who help to open Claude’s eyes to other possibilities in life, as he is exposed to lively family gatherings, and people who love the arts. Claude is certain that there is more to life than the world he sees around him on his father’s farm.

“Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together.”

Attending a small religious college, rather than the State College he had set his sights on, Claude is dissatisfied with the future he sees ahead of him. As the war in Europe takes hold Claude his mother and Mahailey, who works for them, eagerly pore over newspapers carrying the latest bulletins. When Claude’s father hands over responsibility of the farm to Claude, he feels a terrible weight of responsibility, the errors he makes along the way depress him out of all proportion.

Claude’s sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment only increases when he rashly marries the local miller’s daughter Enid. Having built a lovely new house for himself and Enid, Claude tries to settle down to the life of a Nebraskan farmer. However Enid is far more interested in prohibition work, quietly envying her sister’s missionary work in China, than she is in either her new husband or their home, leaving him to eat a cold supper while she goes off to meetings in town. When news arrives that Enid’s sister is sick, she rushes off to China to help – leaving her new husband to move back to the family farm house with his mother. What Claude sees as his abandonment by his young wife, embarrasses him, Claude imagines the entire community must surely be talking about his situation.

By this time America has finally entered the war, and this gives Claude his chance, his chance to finally do something. At a time when very few khaki clad men have yet to be seen around the small Nebraskan town where he is known – Claude is quick to join up. Initially used to train other men, Claude is eventually on his way to France in the summer of 1917 – aboard a ship struck down by the dreadful flu epidemic. Claude assists with the treatment of his stricken men, and revels in an unexpected sense of freedom and usefulness. Arriving in France with their numbers hugely depleted Claude and his comrades find a France heavily scarred by three years of war. The trenches await them, and Claude and his friends are soon caught up in the horrors of trench warfare.
I have read that Cather’s depictions of war have been criticised even accused of being too positively portrayed – I find that hard to understand, for me at least, Cather’s descriptions are always vivid – her characters realistic and very human. I found Willa Cather’s France of that last year of war a place where war had become a way of life. Where people had already paid the price of war again and again, and where fresh young American soldiers arriving, with limited French at their disposal, have to quickly learn the ways of war and what it means, while living alongside the local people.

“One night he dreamed that he was at home, out in the ploughed fields, where he could see nothing but the furrowed brown earth, stretching from horizon to horizon. Up and down it moved a boy, with a plough and two horses. At first he thought it was his brother Ralph; but on coming nearer he saw it was himself, and he was full of fear for this boy. Poor Claude, he would never, never get away; he was going to miss everything! While he was struggling to speak to Claude, and warn him, he awoke.”

Claude Wheeler’s sense of disillusionment leads him to make the decisions he does and ultimately take him to the battlefields of France. The ending is necessarily poignant, how could it be otherwise – and give much food for thought. ‘One of Ours’ is a beautifully written novel; I especially loved the longer section set in Nebraska. Cather is adept at beautiful descriptions of the rural landscape she knew so well, and in her memorable characters, are the mix of people that made up those communities. This may not be my favourite Willa Cather (I will only know which that is, when I have read more) but it is a fascinating novel – which is about far more than America’s involvement in World War One.

willacather

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »