The Great War ended 92 years ago today. I reflect on Canada’s experience in the war in a review I did for The Walrus of Tim Cook’s new book The Madman and the Butcher. The review can be read here.
My Walrus review was tightly constricted by space to 600 words, so I’ll take the opportunity to add a few extra thoughts.
Cook’s book (and his earlier works) represents both the strengths and weaknesses of English Canadian historiography about the Great War. The strength of this literature is that the way it has exhaustively combed through the archives to recreate the experiences of Canadians who fought in the war. Given the nature of the evidence available, there is a slight imbalance towards the experience of officers but in recent decades historians like Cook have also been paying more attention the experiences of enlisted men. What these books give us, at their best, is a deeply textured and specific phenomenology of the war as it was lived through day by day.
Over at the Walrus, they’ve posted some of the December issue including my profile of Stuart McLean, which can be read here.
When McLean was a boy in Montreal, he had the unusual habit of pretending to be a preacher, delivering ad hoc sermons to his parents’ friends. In a way, he remains a frockless clergyman, a parson in the guise of a popular entertainer. He is a deeply religious writer, but not in any narrow, sectarian sense. Rather, he articulates an unshorn natural piety that even unbelievers can accept. At the heart of all religion lies a feeling of gratitude for the simple and mysterious fact that we exist, that for reasons unknown to us we’ve been brought into this world and allowed to enjoy fellowship and earthly pleasures. It is perhaps no accident that his show airs on weekends, traditional days of rest and meditation. A century ago, many Canadians listened to homilies in church on Sundays, a practice some still follow. But now we can stay at home and hear secular sermons on CBC.