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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