The Stone Carvers, by Jane Urquhart

Last week I wrote about a rural family where a girl leaves home—because of restlessness and a desire to see the world, as we are led to believe—while her brother stays and tends his orchard. In this story as well, set some decades later, we have a sister and brother, but here it is the brother who has the wandering gene.

In a remote village in Ontario in the beginning of the 20th century Klara and her brother Tilman are taught how to carve by their grandfather, who emigrated from Bavaria as a young man in search of better wood to carve. He makes a life for himself, working at a gristmill and carving beautiful statues for the church that a priest arriving from Bavaria decides to build in what was then barely a settlement far off in the woods.

Of course, Joseph Becker never thought that his granddaughter would be able to master carving—better for the girl to learn to sew—but he lets her tag along while he teaches Tilman, the child he expects to carry on his work, the enormously gifted boychild.

But Tilman, even as a child, wants to be off and away. He does learn to carve, but only wants to carve the small background landscape, the road leading off into the world. at first he leaves and returns, traveling with hobos, learning to ride the rails, but eventually he leaves for good, while Klara stays. She makes clothes for people in the village and works on her statue of an abbess, living a quiet life, until a young man, a neighbor, begins coming to sit in her kitchen, watching her work but—to her fury—not saying anything.

Urquhart is one of my favorite writers, and this is one of her best books. I find it hard to summarize because of its complexity, though it reads like a dream. It’s about people with big dreams: to build a huge stone church with a bell in remote pioneer settlement in Ontario, to build a huge monument to the Canadian dead at Vimy Ridge. It’s about people with small dreams: to marry and create a home, to find the next meal, to preserve the names of the dead.

Canada suffered in the Great War in ways that the U.S. did not. While this novel is about the war, it is mostly about the effects of the war on those at home and those who return, too few, as Wilfred Owen said, “too few for drums.” The book made me think about memorials and what purposes, intended and not, they serve. My local parks are crammed with statues of generals and brave men on horses, but more important for me are those which bring home the cost of these wars: the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.

The book also made me think about the parents in Canada, on this Mother’s Day. I’ve read and thought so much about this war, I didn’t think there was a new perspective. Then Urquhart wrote about the reverse migration, the parents who left war-torn Europe for a hard but peaceful life in Canada watching their sons migrate back across the Atlantic to fight Europe’s war. And I thought of a song by singer-songwriter Josh Hisle, an Iraq War veteran: “Stay home . . .”

What war memorial has moved you the most or made you think?

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