Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

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This new anthology comes in the middle of the centennial of the Great War, later called World War I. Usually when we think of centennials we think of celebrations, but this occasion is one for remembrance, with all the mixed emotions memory evokes.

I have written before about the reasons for my intense interest in this war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon took me beyond the dry facts of schoolroom history. My fascination grew as I began to realise just how much those few years changed Western culture and influenced all that has happened since.

These stories all take place, at least in part, on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended, not in victory or defeat so much as in exhaustion. They are love stories: romantic love, love between parent and child, love of a native or adopted country. They express on a personal level what that day meant.

The authors—Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig—come to that day in different ways. Some stay firmly in that day while others start before or after. Stories are set in Paris, Brussels, Kenya, Dublin, the English village of Brimsworth, even Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

All are haunted by loss. The indescribable losses of those years, falling on a population accustomed to peace and plenty, left everyone terrified whenever the postman stopped at their door, as Hazel Gaynor describes in her story “Hush”. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces experienced 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom died. French and German forces also suffered huge numbers of casualties.

Yet even with the omnipresent losses, these are stories of unexpected connection. Evangeline Holland’s narrator in “After You’ve Gone”, Morven, is a woman of color from Scotland, without money or friends in Paris when she meets a man who has a surprising link with her past. In Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph” set in the present day, Bridie learns something new about her beloved great-aunt that helps her find a way forward in her current troubles. In “Hour of the Bells” Heather Webb’s heroine, Beatrix, the native German widow of a French clockmaker-turned-soldier, undertakes a journey out of despair that leads to surprising encounters.

If there is consolation to be found in contemplating these cruelly hard times, it is this: that in the midst of death, we are alive. Even in our great grief, we can be touched and at least a little healed by love.

What stories of World War I have you read?

Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

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My friend Laura recommended Ehrlich’s work to me, and I enjoyed Ehrlich’s novel, Heart Mountain. However, this collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence.

Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. In the short essay that opens the book, “Looking for a Lost Dog”, she starts by grounding us in concrete action: “I started off this morning looking for a lost dog.” She uses a couple of sentences to bring the dog to life, with the surprising image of a saddleshoe to describe his markings and the quick sense of ranch life from learning that his right front leg is crooked because it froze to the ground on the thirty-below-zero night he was born. Clearly the stakes are high in this environment.

Then she tells us, “I walk and I listen.” This is a good description of her modus operandi throughout the book and, indeed, for the essays that I have most loved, like Barbara Hurd’s Stirring the Mud and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These writers combine close attention to the natural world with fragments of information and memory, not randomly thrown together, but carefully crafted to challenge us to open our minds. What we take away from this mosaic may be different for each of us.

Ehrlich in this essay never strays far from her concrete experience. She remembers another time when the dog was lost, and she found him by putting her ear to the ground to listen for him whining. This leads to thinking about what the construction of our ears, their limited range, says about humans, and the memory of a musician friend talking about the music of the world, “’the great suspiration of life everywhere.’”

But then she goes back to her search and describes the falls she heads towards, the raven overhead. From then on, she leaves the narrative only for a paragraph, a sentence, but each digression adds another dimension to the experience. We have all looked for what is lost, and sometimes tried to lose what has been found. Living through this essay awakened echoes in me, that resonated with the images she conjures up, deepening into chords, creating a new and strange music.

Many of the other essays in this book also take events on the ranch as their starting place. It is a life closely tied to the weather, as her explorations of the permutations within each season make clear.

It’s spring again, and I wasn’t finished with winter. That’s what I said at the end of summer too. I stood on the ten-foot-high haystack and yelled, “No!” as the first snow fell . . . It’s spring, but I was still cataloguing the different kinds of snow: snow that falls dry but is rained on; snow that melts down into hard crusts; wind-driven snow that looks blue; powder snow on hard pack on powder . . .

Other essays take us further afield: a search for the source of the Yellowstone River, a trip to Japan to follow in Bashō’s footsteps, a visit to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands to learn about the Chumash, a culture and language pulled back from the brink of vanishing by the work of a few dedicated people. I’d never heard of the Chumash before.

For eight thousand years or more, the Chumash lived in isolation and peace. One of at least sixty tribal groups in California, they once numbered fifteen thousand. They had no neighboring enemies and no warrior cult.

Their beliefs, their history, their experiences after being discovered are seamlessly integrated into Ehrlich’s journey to San Miguel, known to the Chumash as Tuqan.

In all of these journeys, Ehrlich’s gives her close attention to her immediate experience while layering in information, quotations, and feelings. Whatever conclusions she may have reached, whatever overall pattern she has found, Ehrlich does not force a lesson on us. We are left to draw our own conclusions from sharing her journeys. As she says in the brilliant first essay about searching for her lost dog, “I walk with a purpose but no destination.” Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

What have you learned from the natural world?

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

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Best title ever. And since you cannot copyright a title, it’s been used before, by Leon Uris in his 1999 novel about a presidential election. I haven’t read it, but according to some reviews, the story gets lost in the single-minded hammering of the author’s political views.

The title comes from “Nature”, a poem by Emerson:

A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we wake from dreams.

Why am I going on about the title when there is a book to discuss? And it is a book by one of my favorite authors. Because I thought it a shame to see Atkinson’s brilliant wordsmithing wasted on such a miserable story.

This book is a companion piece to Life after Life, her novel exploring the many lives of Ursula Todd, which asks: what if when we die, we get to go back and try again? And so we return over and over to a snowy night when a baby is born, with a longer or shorter time to go before death comes to reset the game. Aside from one bratty brother, the characters around Ursula are not unpleasant: a large family in a comfortable country home waited on by a few servants. Their rather ordinary joys and sorrows change slightly with each go-round, some permutations lasting long enough to thrust the family into WWII and bleak post-war England.

It’s a neat trick, certainly, and well-handled, but not a story that touched me or moved me particularly. I was slightly interested in the way Ursula’s previous lives began to push through the veil, manifesting themselves as odd impulses or déjà vu. Atkinson can make a scene incredibly vivid, but any emotion conjured up is quickly dashed away. Death begins to mean no more than the buzzer at the end of a video game before it starts up again. With the stakes lowered to almost nothing, the events of Ursula’s life, each life, lose all significance. The drama fizzles out, leaving the story curiously flat.

Let me say it again: Atkinson is an incredible writer. I could pull passage after passage to show you what I mean. But the book as a whole just seemed like a bloodless experiment.

I hesitantly began this companion book, which follows Ursula’s little brother Teddy from adulthood into old age, dipping repeatedly back into his experiences flying a bomber in WWII. Again, individual scenes are brilliant. However, the story never took off for me. The characters seemed nothing more than chess pieces being moved about to demonstrate the clever structure.

Without do-overs, the stakes should have seemed higher for these characters. Teddy, after all, faces death day after day during the war. Yet, although a confident and successful pilot, he is an oddly empty person, letting things happen to him, accepting what comes without a murmur. Not a bad philosophy in wartime when pilots didn’t survive long, but not making for an interesting protagonist to follow through several hundred pages.

The other main character is his daughter Viola, a horribly selfish and nasty person without a single redeeming characteristic. Atkinson gives her every negative stereotype of a hippie boomer: rebellious, wearing sandals year-round, making inedible vegetarian meals, neglecting the two children she’s named Sun and Moon, just to list a few. Even if all I knew of hippies and boomers were the labels used to mock them, I could not accept such a flat, uncomplicated beast as a real person.

I recently read Elizabeth George’s Playing for the Ashes, which features a similarly crude, rebellious and angry young woman. She has devoted herself to making her parents and herself miserable, perhaps even causing her father’s fatal heart attack. But by the time we meet her, she has come to love one person, though she cannot yet admit it to herself, and the animals he cares for. That’s all it takes to make her seem real.

Viola simply loathes everyone and everything. Near the end, we are given a possible reason for her awful behavior; perhaps if it had appeared near the beginning I might have been able to see her as more than an ugly cartoon. Atkinson’s vivid writing makes Viola’s beastliness into something truly atrocious, as when for example we are plunged into Sun’s misery when he is sent to live with his father’s cruel parents because Viola can’t be bothered with having him around. The author is able to work her magic by giving us Sun, previously only seen as a brat, in all his complexity of competing needs and desires, even while leaving the grandparents as simple monsters.

Great writing, but in service to what? I know the book has gotten some rave reviews. I thought the best parts were of Teddy’s wartime experiences. The other sections gave me that sensation of chess pieces being cleverly—if somewhat obviously—manipulated. I’ve loved Atkinson’s books ever since stumbling across Behind the Scenes at the Museum. All the more disappointing then that A God in Ruins, like its companion novel, seems more like an intellectual exercise than a novel. Still, it’s a wonderful title.

Have you ever chosen a book primarily because of its title?

Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley

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I like to read stories about ordinary lives, so I looked forward to this novel by Tessa Hadley. In ten discrete chapters, we experience the life of an ordinary Englishwoman named Stella from childhood to middle age. Written in the first person, we see Stella’s life as she sees it: her experience of the events of the last half of the 20th century.

Hadley beautifully captures what life was like during that turbulent time: we get Stella’s teenaged rebellion of embracing punk culture with her androgynous boyfriend Valentine, and later her avoiding the arguments about politics in her commune, and so on to the end of the century. Hadley also shines at using quick, precise details to capture a person, place or thing. When she finds buttons at an old bombsite, they are “a coral rose, wooden toggles, a diamanté buckle, big yellow bone squares, toggles made of bamboo.” Of Stella’s grandmother, she says:

She bought her clothes from the children’s department (cheaper), and went to the hairdresser’s every week to have her hair set in skimpy grey-brown rolls pinned to her scalp: not out of vanity, but as if it was her duty to submit to this punishing routine.

As writers, we’re told that the first page of your novel should not only grab the reader but also introduce the main character, the time and place, the main character’s goal, and a hint at who or what might stand in the way of achieving it. Looking at this novel’s first page, we can confidently check off a few items. Our narrator is a child living alone with her mother in the 1950s and early 1960s, though only later do we find out they are in Bristol. She and her mother get along well, sharing the same tastes.

The first paragraph is about Stella’s missing father, “unpoetically” named Bert. Her mother says that he is dead but in the same sentence we are told that “I only found out years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old.” As it turns out, this undercutting of Stella’s present-day experience by the interjection of knowledge acquired in the future will continue throughout the book. As a result, there is little suspense. We know, for example, who will die before the scene plays out.

Another aspect of this paragraph gave me a qualm. It seems to indicate that the book is going to be about how Stella’s life is shaped by a man. Sadly, that turns out to be true. Each chapter is focused on a man who changes Stella’s life. The only references to the women’s movement of the seventies come from an intense lesbian at Stella’s commune.

What about Stella’s goal? A structural difficulty with starting the book with her as a child is that children rarely can articulate a goal that will carry through their lives into middle-age, but even within each chapter she doesn’t seem to have a goal. We have the clue of the title. There is this sentence on the first page about her father having absconded rather than died: “I should have guessed this—should have seen the signs, or the absence of them.” From these slight tokens, I guessed that Stella’s goal through the book would be to grow into her cleverness. Accurate enough, as it turns out, though references to it are few and overwhelmed by the drama of deaths and dirty dishes and diaper pails. The rare times she mentions something related to her emerging intelligence (“cleverness” is pejorative and somewhat demeaning to me, but means something different in England) I began to be interested, but it didn’t last long.

The book would have been a lot stronger if this goal—or any purpose on Stella’s part—had been sharpened and used to tie the incidents together. Without it, the book is not so much a story as a hodgepodge of happenings.

For what might stand in her way, we have this sentence about things that were powerful at that time: “shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you from the inside.” As it turns out, what stands in her way are her abrupt changes of direction, the consequences of her decisions or more often non-decisions. I can see where these could be a result of that fear. She even says at one point that “I couldn’t bear the idea of being exposed in my raw, unfinished ignorance.” Even at the end she says, “I still feel sometimes as if I’m running away, escaping from something coming up behind me.”

I’m confident that Stella’s fears, sudden changes of direction, and concealed cleverness, not to mention her way of letting men define her life, accurately reflect the lives of many women. However, I found myself observing her from a distance; I did not care what happened to her. Perhaps that’s because I found little to admire in her. And oddly, she always fell on her feet. As a single mother myself, I found it unrealistic that she always found someone willing to take care of her and her children.

Other roadblocks also magically melted away: for example, she suffered no teenaged angst because she had the perfect boyfriend; the woman who learned her husband was having an affair with Stella immediately volunteered to give him up so they could be happy; plus the wife’s children showed no resentment towards Stella for breaking up their family. Since Stella didn’t have to struggle to overcome her obstacles, the story lacked drama and I couldn’t muster any concern for her.

The lack of suspense bored me. Things certainly happened to her (She says, “I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life.”), but without any buildup to them, there was no tension. She would also change direction with no warning, such as when from one sentence to the next she loses interest in the university degree she’d spent pages acquiring and heads off in another path. Without foreshadowing or dramatic tension, these events coming from out of the blue don’t create the kind of narrative I expect from a novel. The book feels like a random collection of incidents. Life can be like that, but it doesn’t make for an interesting book.

One friend who liked the book a lot said that it was the story of a person who floated through life, letting things happen to her, and didn’t live up to her potential. She added that it was an important book because many people don’t live up to her potential. That may be true, but doesn’t make it a compelling story. Another friend pointed out that nothing that happened to Stella changed her; she didn’t grow or become wiser, so she still sounded child-like as she aged.

I don’t mean to be overly negative. There are many things to like about this book: the novel-in-stories aspect, the evocative images and wordplay, the recognition when you stumble across things from your own past. One friend said that recognising so many incidents made her feel as though she were reading the story of her own life. Adding something to be achieved and suspense over how that might happen would make this an excellent novel. Even an ordinary life can be a good story.

What does the first page of the novel you are reading tell you about the rest of the book?