Month: May 2024

History Matters

Canadians landing at June Beach June 6 1944

June 6, 2024 will mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Already, around the world countries, armed forces, and ordinary citizens are preparing to commemorate this historical milestone. We are talking about our history.

Earlier this week, Americans marked Memorial Day with tributes to men and women who fell while serving in the armed forces. They are talking about history.

“. . . the most important thing I learned from Dr. Sloan and Ancient History 101 was that there is more to history than facts, more to truth than reality. . . . once upon a time, I thought that history was carved in stone.” Diane Schoemperlen in Our Lady of the Lost and Found. 

The above quote was an eye-opener for me. I, too, am of the generation who believed that history was carved in stone. Events happened. Facts are facts. If the textbook records it, it must be true. So, it is not surprising that the revisionism of our modern age disturbs me. But if there is more to history than facts, it is equally true that we must consider the facts when studying history.

As a lover of history I have been unsettled by the “cancel culture” rampant in my world. Men and women I considered heroes are being villified as racists. Accomplishments of past generations are rewritten as disasters. Values, once honoured, are mocked as Imperialist propoganda. 

As a writer of historical fiction, my dilemma grows. Do I portray the past by the standards of the time or through the lens of modern sensibilities?

Do I throw up my hands in despair and retire from public discussion altogether? Given the amount of venom spewed on social media, that last option seems wise. 

But, did men die on the beaches on D-Day in order for me to play the coward? Is their heroism to be crushed into the sands of time and forgotten?  To bury my head in the sand while the voices of tyrants and aggressors grow louder, is unconscionable.  As one who has benefited from the vision and courage and sacrifice of previous generations, I am honour-bound to “remember them.”

Sir John A. MacDonald, the founding father of Canada, is one historical figure who has been recast as a villain, given his record on residential schools. But that reading of his character disregards the time he lived in, the society he was born into, and the many other facets of his characters. This article has its own bias, but is at least a scholarly approach to the man and his times. 

A recent essay at Writer Unboxed also touched on our understanding of history and our response to war. What lifted my spirits on reading this article was the author’s desire to commemorate hope.

Finally, a story in my local newspaper, the Times-Colonist filled me with optimism. It is the story of a piano teacher who has assigned her students to write musical compositions in memory of a fallen soldier from World War II. The program, called “Music for Veterans Project,” connects students and veterans in a unique way. The young musicians are given a package with information about a fallen soldier. They are told to research the life of the solider, find his family if possible, learn about his likes and dislikes. What was his favourite food? Did he play in instrument?

Armed with this detailed knowledge, the young musician composes a piano piece in honour of the man who died. They then play their composition at a Veteran’s Lodge.

Through the life of someone who may not have lived beyond his twenty-first birthday, old soldiers and young students are brought together in a very meaningful way. I still believe that those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it. So, knowing that these dedicated piano students are remembering and connecting with the past gives me hope.

I am of a generation who has only known peace, but I have studied history. The parallels between today and the 1930’s is frightening. I pray to God that enough of us will remember history and work to avert the forces of hatred and greed, that we will subdue the desire for power, and recognize the “other” as a fellow human being. 

History has shown us the disaster that will follow if we fail.

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Jane and the Brand

 

This week my book club meets and we are each bringing a different book by Jane Austen. I chose The Watson’s, which was an unfinished fragment left by Miss Austen when she died. Various members of her family tried to complete the ms using Jane’s notes and her sister’s (Cassandra) recollections. Each of these writers used the original manuscript and then tagged on an ending of his/her own, trying to imitate Jane Austen. The version I read is one completed by John Coates — no relation of the Austen’s — that is a rewrite of the whole book, including the part that Miss Austen left unfinished.

It must have taken considerable confidence to re-write the famous author’s original words, but Coates argues that she left only a rough draft and would have edited it herself if she had ever finished it for publication. The result is seamless. I cannot tell what is original to Austen and what was added by John Coates.

This book was a very enjoyable read, but I felt it hadn’t the depth of Austen’s finished works and lacked the humour and gentle mocking of “society” so wonderfully achieved in the major novels. Still, reading what is essentially a rough draft makes it easier to recognize the main characteristics of a Jane Austen novel.

To use modern terminology, the book follows the Austen “brand.” We have a gaggle of sisters, an ailing father, a great need for husbands, faithless suitors, a worthy but awkward hero, a country ball, gossip, and the many restrictions placed upon young ladies of this age. (If reading about the powerlessness of women of that era, whether rich or poor, doesn’t get your women’s lib passion frothing, you’re missing the point!)

Over the years I’ve read many articles and attended many lectures on “branding.” Often the emphasis is on visual similarity like covers and websites being instantly recognizable as belonging to a particular author. Since Jane Austen’s books were first published, they have gone through many editions and different publishers, so the “look-alike” covers don’t apply. But, I think, her story elements are just as reconizable as production elements like cover-art and author name. 

The branding lectures often focus so much on the art, the colours, the fonts, and the back blurb that they overlook what is between the covers. But, when it comes down to it, don’t readers come back to their favourite authors because of the story, the style, the voice, and the reliability of the writer to spin a tale that resonates and satisfies.

Spending my last week in Jane Austen world, I’ve wondered far from the Canadian frontier, and gold prospectors, and building a new country, but it has been fun to take a ” walk on the tame side,” just for a change.

What about you? Are you a confirmed “Janeite?” Do you have a favourite Jane Austen novel? A favourite character? Or are you firmly in the modern world and have no time for picnics and balls and changing your clothes five times a day?

 

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To Love and to Cherish

Why do we read romance novels? For most, it is the desire to experience again that rush of first love — the euphoria, the hope, and the passion. Writers who can tap into that moment meet the expectations of the genre and attract readers by the hundreds of thousands. 

And why not? Can anything be better than falling in love? 

I’ll betray my age, when I say yes, there is something better. There is living and loving throughout life, sharing all the ups and downs, the heartaches and the joys, with a beloved partner. Living the “for better, for worse” part brings a deep contentment that may not be thought of in the excitement of a wedding.

How many twenty-somethings really imagine living together in old age when they blithely promise “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, so long as we both shall live?” Youth is blessed with a sense of immortality. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the young believe that “it won’t happen to us.” We’ll never need a cane, we’ll never lose our figure, our skin will never wrinkle, our strength will never wane. In this case, denial is a good thing. It makes us take risks, it makes us hope, it keeps the human race trying to make a better world. It keeps the human race alive. 

There is a subset in the romance genre called “seasoned romance,” that features older characters as the love interest. Some of these books consider thirty to be “seasoned” but I think they miss the mark. It takes a lot of living to be well and truly seasoned. But what a joy when one reaches that stage of life when the bloom of youth is gone, some dreams have been set aside, some ambitions unrealized,  to find that even then, you are cherished by a loving spouse. Someone still sees you as beautiful, someone still thinks an hour in your company better than a week at the carnival, someone will still kiss your hurts and make them better.

I love that word – cherish. It means so much more than love. To cherish to to act, to decide, to care for and to support. Love, as an emotion, is fickle, fleeting and unreliable. Cherish is steadfast.

There is a song, “I”ll Walk Beside You,”  that sums up this idea. I can’t listen to it without a tear in my eye. I’ve provided a link to a recording by Kenneth McKeller. Bet you can’t listen to the end without a clutch of your heartstrings.

I’ll Walk Beside You

I’ll walk beside you through the world today
While dreams and songs and flowers bless your way
I’ll look into your eyes and hold your hand
I’ll walk beside you through the golden land

I’ll walk beside you through the world tonight
Beneath the starry skies ablaze with light
Within your soul love’s tender words I’ll hide
I’ll walk beside you through the eventide

I’ll walk beside you through the passing years
Through days of cloud and sunshine, joys and tears
And when the great call comes, the sunset gleams
I’ll walk beside you to the land of dreams.

— Edward Lockton and Alan Murray

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