21 December 2007

Book Review of Eric McGeer's Words of Valediction and Remembrance

This review, my latest of a recent Vanwell Publishing Limited release, is of Eric McGeer's Words of Valediction and Remembrance: Canadian Epitaphs of the Second World War (Vanwell, 2008). When I first thought about writing this review I wasn't at all sure what to say about this book. I'm still not. An interesting subject. Well-researched. Organized in a difficult fashion.

Eric McGeer, a history and Latin teacher in Toronto, Ontario, has most definitely put his heart into this book, and it shows. This is, above all else, a labour of love and a definite tribute to the possibilities of material history - a form of public history still underutilized in Canada, particularly in the study of Canadian military history.

Words of Valediction and Remembrance deals with the text found on Canadian military headstones of the Second World War - in particular the bottom few lines where family were given room by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to record their own statements of fact, emotion, and memory. A visit by the author to Normandy in 1998 led to his reading these epitaphs:
It struck me that in their abundance and diversity these individual expressions of sorrow and consolation, touching, heartfelt, and permanent, spoke more poignantly than any memorial for the burden of loss borne by thousands of parents, wives, and children for the rest of their lives.
McGeer explains that the intention of the book is to provide the reader with "a meaningful testimonial to the efforts and sacrifice of an earlier generation". Not only does it reflect the losses suffered by the individual themselves, but also those of the family left behind. To do this the author has gathered as many examples as possible - although not too many in his opinion - from cemeteries well-known and obscure throughout the various Canadian theatres of the Second World War.

Most of the chapters in the book revolve around a particular theme. He begins by discussing Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in France as an introduction to the subject and its general place in the Canadian wartime experience. It is here that the reader gets some of the details about the typical headstone - the types of information contained, the order of information, and the fact that up to sixty-six characters were permitted for "a personal inscription" - the epitaph. Throughout the chapter, and every subsequent chapter, are examples of epitaphs supporting particular areas of discussion. Some are formulaic, others heartfelt, others absolutely distraught (for the family and the reader).

McGeer then moves on to Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery in France - from "up" to "down" emotionally - and the haunting memory which the wartime operation still leaves and which the cemetery can only reinforce. Then comes Calais Canadian War Cemetery in France as the centrepiece of a discussion on the influence of the epitaphs and memory of the First World War on the Second World War inscriptions. If nothing else, and there is much else to digest in the chapter, it is - as the author points out - a reminder that for the soldiers and families the losses of the First and Second World Wars were only a matter of a few years apart.

Holten Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands provides the core for the discussion of the connections of wartime epitaphs with themes brought forward throughout Western civilization from the time of antiquity. The losses suffered by the members of the Royal Canadian Air Force are introduced by Hanover War Cemetery, in Germany, a reminder that although First World War Canadian headstones are (statistically) almost entirely army-related, in the Second World War the air force shared the staggering losses suffered by the army. Here, and elsewhere throughout the war graves system, the badge of the Royal Canadian Air Force lies alongside airmen from throughout the Commonwealth.

Adegem Canadian War Cemetery in Belgium provides the scene for a discussion of professions of loyalty - to Canada, to the empire, to each other - as a theme of epitaphs. Next comes a chapter simply listing epitaphs in chronological order, an attempt "to replicate a visit to any given war cemetery."

A discussion of epitaphs specific to French-Canadians, with Gradara War Cemetery in Italy as the base, is next, the author's goal to show the themes - both common and different from other Canadians - found in French-Canadian inscriptions. Next comes Cassino War Cemetery in Italy as a similar discussion of Canadian ethnic minorities - epitaphs which come in a multitude of languages and alphabets and reflect common and some unique themes. Agira Canadian War Cemetery in Sicily likewise sets the stage for Jewish-Canadians and the epitaphs provided by their families.

Finally, McGeer returns to Normandy in the form of Bretteville-sur-Laize Cemetery, as he completes the loop and provides closure to the subject.

As I said at the very beginning of this review, I'm not sure what to say about this book. I think it is definitely a worthy and important subject. Yet, I'm not certain this was the best way to deal with it. Sometimes, I found there to be a conflict - as a reader - between my emotional reaction to the epitaphs and the analytical work which McGeer was trying to undertake. It's hard to read with your heart and your mind at the same time.

Sometimes, I was simply overwhelmed with the number of epitaphs quoted.

Most of all, however, I think had the hardest time with the organization of the book. In short, I'm not sure tying a theme to a particular cemetery worked all that well. It might, in my opinion, have been better to allow the themes to dominate, with the particular locations being less prominent. I realize that doing that would have defeated the purpose of encouraging notice of particular cemeteries in the first place. I don't have the answer. All I know is that this might be part of the difficulty in trying to marry up "commemoration" (emotional) with "memory studies" (analytical) - a combination which lays at the foundation of this book.

Regardless of this - and maybe I'm the only reader having a hard time taking it all in - McGeer writes that his "main purpose in writing this book has been to inspire Canadians travelling abroad to visit the war cemeteries where their forebears lie at rest and to look with renewed interest at the story that the monuments and epitaphs combine to tell."

Words of Valediction and Remembrance absolutely fulfils that purpose.


Anonymous said...

An interesting review. It's refreshing to read one that identifies a troublesome aspect of the book and proposes a possible, though not necessarily perfect, resolution without arrogance.

Anonymous said...

An interesting review, perhaps, but it doesn't really engage with the book. The reviewer admits his difficulties in assessing the book, summarises the table of contents, and says he would have organized it differently. That's it? Does the book not offer anything of historical value in its discussion of French Canadian and ethnic Canadian epitaphs, the influence of First World War commemoration on the consolatory themes used after the Second, or the general outlook of the Canadian population towards the war as shown in the epitaphs. There was much more to say, but the reviewer seemed unable to get past his own difficulties.