As You Were by Gerry Fostaty

This documentary 2011 Goose Lane publication subtitled The Tragedy at Valcartier is a compelling story which you will wish had not happened. It is nonetheless a story which needs to be read and registered by as many readers as possible, young and old and all those in between.As You Were

There is a summary of the organization and the history of the Royal Canadian Cadet Services here. For those who are not familiar with the organization this might be helpful. I found what it had to say about girls in the cadet forces interesting because I participated in a girls cadet program for five years (1954-1959) in high school in southwestern Ontario. Our corps was under the direction of our French teacher who had been a navel officer during the second world war. A Wikipedia article says the cadet organization changed the word “boys” to “persons” in 1975 so I guess my status  during high school was not official.

Gerry Fostaty tells the reader up front exactly what she/he is going to read: “”one extraordinary and horrible day has stayed with me for more than thirty years” he writes in the Preface. “In 1974, while I was on a cadet summer training assignment at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Valcartier, a live grenade that somehow got mixed in among the teaching aids blew up during an indoor lecture on explosives safety. That day instantly changed me as only something terrible can. This story focuses on that day, although, for context, I touch on the days leading up to the incident and the few weeks that followed.”

Cadet CrestThe year 2004 marked the 125th Anniversary of the Royal Canadian Army Cadets and the Army Cadet League of Canada issued 25,000 + anniversary pins for distribution to Canadian army cadets. Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp honouring  cadets. This information gives us a very rough idea of how many young persons in this country have passed through the programs provided as well as an idea of how many potential readers there are out there for this story. There is additional historical data here.

Fostaty explains in the Preface exactly why he wrote this story: “First, I never seemed to be able to tell the whole story in one go without interruption. It really is the kind of story that raises questions throughout, and the detours one must follow to answer them can assume a life of their own, prompting new questions and additional side trips. …I wanted to recount the story as it unfolded … I set the scene by describing the usual routines that occurred on a normal day of cadet summer training camp before the explosion.”

“The second reason I wrote the book is to tell my family what happened to me in 1974. My sisters and my mother surely had forgotten about it, while my children and my wife needed to know that something had changed my life thirty-four years ago – perhaps more important, I needed to tell them.”

I found all parts of this account equally interesting. I appreciated the straight-forward tone of the writing and the specific detail about camp life including Fostaty’s position as an NCO.  “There were forty-seven cadets in my platoon. Although they had been here for three weeks, I was still getting to know them. Some were easy to know because of their large personalities or because they were troublemakers…Others, though, were quieter and kept to themselves. My brother, Nick, was a cadet in 10 Platoon. Karl Medvescek’s brother Ingo was a cadet as well. Karl and I had an agreement that, if the need arose, we would handle each other’s sibling issues; that way we hoped to avoid complaints of nepotism or sibling rivalry.” Whether this had been suggested by superiors or not, I found this level of maturity impressive and indicative of the intelligence of these young men. Such decisions also exemplify the qualities of leadership the cadet services fostered in its members.

The chapters about the actual explosion and the hours immediately following it are not a comfortable read. I had to pause before them and prepare myself to continue reading the next day. The emotional force in the simple description is made more powerful I think because the reader knows what it will say.

Fostaty was there when the roll was called in the mess and could see the list the Sergeant was reading from: “There was a circle around his name and beside it was marked, Décedé. I felt my throat tighten and my stomach fall. ” Fostaty had been required to attempt identification of one of the dead cadets (a daunting task for an adult with considerable life experience never mind for an  eighteen year old) and so he knew that the attendance call was part of the process of validating the identification so that parents could be notified.

The details about that night (“Night Watch”) when the company is moved into the chapel and the sections titled “The Days After” and “Investigation” are absolutely compelling. The investigative interview was a harrowing experience for Fostaty: “They started firing questions at me, literally, from left and right. I would no sooner finish answering a question from the officer at one end of the table than the officer at the other end would sharply ask another, causing me to look from side to side as though watching a tennis match. If my answer was not going in the direction they wanted, they would just cut me off with another question. …They seemed to be challenging what I said…I started to feel very uncomfortable with the way I was being questioned…The way they were questioning me was both accusatory and dismissive.” And finally, “Days later, although no one went into any detail about the questions and answers, a few of us joked and laughed about the inquiry. It was an uneasy laughter.”

Valcartier Crest

Another review  can be read at Buried in Print’s website. There is a comment there by Charles Gutta the CSM of the company involved in the Valcartier tragedy and who appears frequently in the book.

This is a story about healing: it has the potential to help anyone who reads it.

In a broader sense, its acknowledgment of the role of cadets in the lives of young Canadians and in our history should not be overlooked.

Natural Order by Brian Francis

“The buzzers keep me awake at night. That’s one thing that hasn’t gone – my hearing. Most everything else has faded. My taste. Vision. Even my voice, which comes out sounding like a scratch in the air.”

“My name is on the wall outside my room next to a straw hat with a yellow ribbon and a couple of glued-on daisies. The hat reminds me of my sister, Helen, although it isn’t hers.”

Ruth Schueller is the name on the other side of the door. She’s my roommate….Ruth is eighty-two. I turned eight-six in July.”

“I suppose, it could be worse. There’s Mae MacKenzie down the hall, trapped with thatNatural Order horrible Dorothy Dawson. Dorothy keeps the divider curtains shut so the room is cut in half. She even safety-pinned the flaps together. She means business.
“She trapped herself in once,” Mae told me. “Kept pawing her way around, trying to find the opening. It was the best entertainment I’ve had here yet.”

Mae says Dorothy is a bitter woman. “Some people get a rough ride in life,” Mae says. “I held my tongue.”

This was only a few pages into this novel but I was convinced it was about life in a retirement home and/or nursing home and it is in many ways. But Brian Francis takes a very different approach, one that manages to tell much more of the story of some of the people living in the home. The stage is set on the opening page with the obituary for a young man (31 years old) in The Balsden Examiner, July 27, 1984.

This is the obituary for John Charles Sparks, son of Joyce who is now living in a retirement home and sharing a room with Ruth. John’s father was Charlie who predeceased Joyce.

As we get to know the eighty-six year old Joyce and journey with her through parts of her life, we gain insights into her psychology. It begins with a new volunteer, Timothy, who is coming in to visit Joyce after dinner. Joyce is nervous about him coming but when he does come she says “I don’t need anything right now…the nurse already came by and filled up my water jug.” She is shocked by his youth and thinks first that he could be her son but then remembers that her son would be in his sixties now. She “suddenly feels self-conscious.” After some brief exchanges she tells Timothy that he must have been misinformed and that she doesn’t need a volunteer. He asks about the picture of her son and she tells him he died a long time ago from cancer. She wants to know why he is asking and accuses him of sticking his nose into her business after she checks the list of people he has been given to visit. Timothy makes a tidy exit.

Then we go back into Joyce’s relationship with Freddy Pender who ran the Dairy Maid concession where Joyce works. “Freddy isn’t like most boys. He’s fun and loves to talk and I’ve never once caught him looking at my chest instead of my eyes.” Freddy was also  a movie buff and he and Joyce went to several movies together. Fun as he was, Joyce had trouble getting Freddy to “see” her. Her sister is going to marry a fellow just because he has asked her and Joyce has a problem with this. She thinks Helen could do better. Helen tells her: “Your life is already mapped out whether you realize it or not. There’s a natural order to things Joyce. You might as well make the best of it.”

Freddy’s mother, Mrs. Pender, was Joyce’s teacher in grade six. Her husband died in an accident. Joyce noticed that Freddy never talked about his father. He actually thought he (Freddy) was going to be a movie star. Joyce overheard her sister Helen tell someone that Freddy was “as fruity as they come” and Joyce got angry with her. She saw Freddy lead a parade when the Queen came. She thought she’d never seen a boy so….she tried on the word “feminine” but it wasn’t right…she chose “garish” and “outrageous”.

Her sister straightens her out about the meaning of “fruity”. But Joyce thought Helen was wrong about Freddy and she only wanted to protect him “She wanted to keep him safe from the crowds.”

But she can’t protect Freddy and she can’t protect John. And the harder she tries to hide from the truth the more damage is done to people she loves. She kept denying what she knew to be the reality.

“My son wasn’t perfect. He had some problems. I knew that. But there wasn’t anything seriously wrong with him.Nothing that  couldn’t be fixed. Growing pains, I told myself. All boys went through stages. He’d thin out. Make new friends. Join a sports team. Sign up for student council. I imagined the phone ringing with invitations to parties and championship games. All that was needed was a fresh start. It would only be a matter of time before I’d be laughing at my foolish worries.
So why couldn’t I shake my fears?”

“I thought I knew best, the way all mothers think they know best, especially when it comes to their children. But they don’t. Mothers know only what’s best for them.”

Whether the above statement is right or wrong or partially right and partially wrong and whether it depends upon circumstances or not, it doesn’t really matter one bit if in the end the betrayal destroys the relationship. An interesting and revealing study of parenting and of facing one’s grievous errors when those who suffered are dead.

Is there any healing to be found? Joyce’s friend and neighbour Mr. Sparrow might have put his finger on it when he told Joyce that some women get stuck in what should be instead of what is.

Sad but realistic with strong characters. Some lighter moments occur when Freddy’s partner visits from Miami. Joyce’s friend Fern also provides some humour as does her  sister Helen. Well worth a careful read for the story itself but also for what it teaches us about ourselves and our families. You will recognize some or all of these people.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. …Sometimes I think I see it again, the arm, burning in the dark. Sometimes I can feel the ache of winter in my lungs, and I think I see the flames mirrored in the ocean, the water so strange, so flickered with light. …I looked back to watch the fire, and if I lick my skin I can still taste the salt. The smoke.”

These are the imagined words of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was convicted of killing two men, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson between the 13th and 14th of March in 1828 at Illugastadir, Iceland. Two other persons stood accused of the same crime, Fridrik Sigurdsson  and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir. They were found guilty in the District Court and the sentences were upheld by the Land Court in Reykjavík and remained in custody while the case was tried in Copenhagen’s Supreme Court where the original judgment was expected to stand.

Hannah Kent informs readers in the Author’s Note at the end of the book that her Burial Rites“interpretation of the Illugastadir murders and executions is informed by many years of research, during which I have accessed ministerial records, parish archives, censuses, local histories and publications, and have spoken with many Icelanders. While some historical characters have been invented, omitted, or had their names altered out of necessity, most … are taken from historical records.” There is a fascinating Program Transcript here which tells more of Hannah’s search for Agnes.

“Many known and established facts about Agnes’s life and the murders have been reproduced in this novel, and events have either been drawn directly from the record, or are the result of speculation; they are fictional likelihoods.The family at the farm of Kornsá did hold Agnes in custody after she was held at Stóra-Borg, and Agnes chose Assistant Reverend (Thorvardur) …Jónsson to act as her priest in her last days.”

When Agnes was brought from Stóra-Borg to Kornsá, the Mistress there ” was unpre-pared for the filth and wretchedness of the woman’s appearance. The criminal wore what seemed to be a servant’s common working dress of roughly woven wool, but one so badly stained and caked with dirt that the original blue dye was barely discernible under the brown grease spread across the neckline and arms. A thick weight of dried mud pulled the fabric awkwardly from the woman’s body. Her faded bluestockings were soaked through, sunk about the ankles, and one was torn, exposing a slice of pale skin. Her shoes, of sealskin, it seemed, had split at the seam, but were so covered in mud it was impossible to see how damaged they were. Her hair was uncovered by a cap and matted with grease. It hung in two dark braids down her back. Several strands had come loose and fell limply about the woman’s neck. She looked as if she had been dragged from Stóra-Borg, Margrét thought.”

When asked to raise her head, “Margrét winced at the smear of dried blood across the woman’s mouth, and the grime that lay in streaks across her forehead. There was a yellow bruise that spread from her chin down to the side of he neck. Agnes’s eyes flickered from the ground to Margrét’s own, and she felt unnerved by their intensity, their color made lighter and sharper by the dirt on her face.
“This woman has been beaten.” The officer searched Margrét’s face for amusement, and, finding none, lowered his eyes. ”

And so begins Agnes’s stay with Margrét and her daughters Lauga and Steina (aged 20 and 21 years). Margrét’s husband Jon is a District Officer under the supervision of the District Commissioner, Bjorn Blöndal. There are no detention centres or prisons in Iceland at this time and so the District Commissioner was responsible for finding suitable accommodation for prisoners who were not sent on to Copenhagen for execution. It had been decided to keep the prisoners in Iceland and to execute them locally to give a message to the populace. This is why Margrét has Agnes in her home.

The priest has been assigned because Agnes requested him. She had met him when she was very very young and he had helped her get across a river. He did not remember her at first but after some time he and Agnes establish a relationship within which Agnes is able to talk about what happened to her at Natan’s farm and what came about in mid-March 1828. Her story is compelling and the reader is drawn into it along with the Reverend and Margrét and even Lauga and Steina. Agnes works hard at a variety of tasks including both household and farm tasks and also shares her knowledge of herbal preparations. She is skilled and useful and earns the trust of the family even the skeptical Jon. She becomes far more to Margrét than another pair of hands and the Reverend  (Tóti) learns more from Agnes than she learns from him.North Iceland farm in winter

The winter isolation in the country is a character in the novel and inserts itself into the character of the people. It plays a major part in the murders and in the lives of both the victims and the perpetrators. While reading one cannot help but try to imagine what life would have been like for Hannah, for Margrét, for Jon, for Tóti, and/or for a number of other characters including the servants and even the executioner. (Northern exposure … an isolated farm near Iceland’s north coast. Photograph: Patrick Dieudonne/Robert Harding.)

To the Reverend, Agnes eventually reveals some of her relationship to Natan but she reveals more to the reader. “How can I truly recall the first moment of meeting him, when the hand I felt press my own was merely a hand? It is impossible to think of Natan as the stranger he was, once, to me. …I cannot remember not knowing Natan. I cannot think of what it was not to love him. To look at him and realize I had found what I had not known I was hungering for. A hunger so deep, so capable of driving me into the night, that it terrified me.”

This is an exceptional reading experience. Hannah Kent says that the book “has been written to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman.” She has most certainly accomplished her goal.


Ice Dragon by George R.R. Martin

I was looking for a book with a dragon in it and I was already reading the third volume in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. I was really looking for a young adult story but I found The Ice Dragon listed in the library catalogue and because it was written by George R. R. Martin, I really could not let it lie unread on a library shelf. Could I? Of course not!

The cover reminds me of scenes from The Never Ending story and I am fairly certain that I am going to have to purchase a personal copy before much more time elapses.

The first chapter is called Winter’s Child. It reminded me of a recent read, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. It also seemed an unusual coincidence: these books both came to me to be read at the tail end of a very difficult and challenging winter with record snowfalls and extremely low temperatures for this particular geographical region. It helped to read books set in winter (it was, in fact, impossible to read books set in summer or in a warm part of the world).

The child in the book, Adara, liked winter because it was when the ice dragon came.  “She was never quite sure whether it was the cold that brought the ice dragon or the ice dragon that brought the cold.” Adara had been born during “the worst freeze that anyone could remember”. She overheard talk about how “it was the chill of that terrible freeze that had killed her mother, stealing in during her long night of labor past the great fire that Adara’s father had built, and creeping under the layers of blankets that covered the birthing bed.” Talk also had it that Adara had been “pale blue and icy to the touch when she came forth, and that she had never warmed in all the years since. The winter had touched her, left its mark upon her, and made her its own.” She was different from the other children, her brother Geoff and her sister Teri who loved the summer. In the summer Uncle Hal came to visit. He was a dragonrider “in service to the king. “Adara did not like Hal; when Hal was there, it meant that winter was far away.”

Adara played with the ice lizards who came “wriggling out of their burrows” at the first frost. They were tiny blue creatures who darted this way and that. Other children treated them cruelly and snapped them in two like breaking an icicle. Even her brother held them too long in his hands and they melted and died. Adara had cool and gentle hands and she fed them scraps and put them in the castles she built and pretended they were kings and courtiers. The ice lizards were her favorite household pets but “it was the ice dragon that she loved.”Ice Dragon

“The ice dragon breathed cold.”

“The ice dragon breathed death into the world: but Adara was not afraid. She was a winter child, and the ice dragon was her secret.”

“She had seen it in the sky a thousand times. When she was four, she saw it on the ground. ”  It came back one more time that same winter and Adara touched the ice dragon that time.

A beautiful story for readers of all ages. I am so glad to have discovered it this winter.

Five Graphic Novels

In the dull days of February and March I have read five graphic novels: among the five were one standalone (Encyclopedia of Early Earth), one consisting of a series collected into one edition (Amy Unbounded) and the first three in the series Locke & Key. All provided very different reading experiences.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg should have general appeal. EowynEncyc of Early Earth Ivey who wrote The Snow Child which I will post about later this week said this about the book: “The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a delightful accordion of a book. This graphic novel casts a spell like that of Scheherazade – when you sit down with it, prepare to stay until the last page.” And, another writer, Mark Haddon said:”It’s a book about many things – love, snow, god, poisoned sausages … but mostly it’s a celebration of storytelling itself. Strange and wry and funny and beautifully drawn.” It includes a journey to Britanitarka, stories about The Old Lady and the Giant, Dead Towns & Ghost Men and The Great Flood and much about The Gods. I found it unusually calming.Amy Unbounded

Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming by Rachel Hartman came to my attention after I read and reviewed Seraphina. It was a genuine “for fun” read largely because I enjoy it when one book is connected to another even though neither is actually a sequel to the other. In this graphic novel Amy is reading the epic of Belondweg who was a mythical queen responsible for uniting Goredd (the country in which Seraphina takes place). Blondweg saves Goredd from invaders. In her introduction, Lind Medley says that Amy “lives life with an unbounded spirit and enthusiasm which wins over crotchety old widows, reserved businesswomen, and even makes a careless dragon face the consequences of his actions”. Medley concludes her introduction with this encouraging and inspiring dedication: “Here’s to the turn of a new century, to new heroines and new literature classics, and to being unbounded.”

The remaining three graphic novels I read are the first three in a series and are for a Locke & Key 1different audience, or at least a more narrowly defined audience, than the two above. The first volume is called Welcome to Lovecraft and that is the reason I looked into these books,- the connection to the name Lovecraft, an American author known for his horror fiction. It turned out not to be about the author but about a house named Keyhouse and a town called Lovecraft. Its writer is Joe Hill, the son of two writers and the artist is Gabriel Rodriguez. the introduction by Robert Crais says that “Locke & Key is a graphic novel of the richest kind, presenting a story and characters conceived with all the depth of a full-blown novel, yet perfectly rendered by both writer and artists to take advantage of the graphic medium. ”  The main characters are members of a family whose father is brutally murdered: we are presented with this back story in the first few pages so passing on this information to possible readers is not a spoiler but, rather, a warning. The three children are likeable characters: Tyler, the oldest son feels responsible for not saving his father, Kinsey the middle child and daughter is a sensible, sensitive young woman and Bode is a six-year-old who will play a major role in future volumes.After their father’s death, the family moves to Lovecraft, Massachusetts to live in their father’s nephew’s house. But the past has followed them.

Just so you know, Joe Hill is also the author of the novel, Heart-Shaped Box and a collection of stories, 20th Century Ghosts and is working on a new novel The Surrealist’s Glass.

Locke & Key 2Gabriel Rodriguez is a Chilean artist and the co-creator of the “twisted but wonderful world of Locke & Key. In his biographical note at the back of Volume 1, he asks “that readers unlock their hearts and minds, and accept an invitation into new realms and tales, thrilling experiences, and secret places that his efforts craft into a vivid universe.” I seriously believe it is this unusual and creative art work that has kept my attention for three volumes when I only intended to read one as a sample.

The second book is entitled Head Games and is built around the idea of using keys to open our heads and see everything that is hidden away inside. This concept becomes very interesting when applied to a situation in which Tyler must prepare for a test the next day and has not read the material he will need to know. There are terrific pages showing all the keys  on a  two page spread labelled The Known Keys (excerpts from the Diary of Benjamin Pierce Locke, 1757 – 1799) and a special section entitled “Series Illustrator and Co-Creator Gabriel Rodriguez, for the first time, shares the process involved in developing a page of Locke & Key”. I think these additions enrich these volumes considerably and ensure that they will become references for some readers.

Locke & Key 3The third volume in the series is called Crown of Shadows and the introduction is written by Brian K. Vaughn who says this: “…just look at how perfectly each scene is paced, how thoughtfully every single page is constructed. I once told another writer that while comics can be creepy or unsettling, they’re almost never frightening. Without the benefit of music, sound design, and editing, I think its tough for most fiction to elicit genuine fear.” Vaughn think that maybe Hill and Rodriguez have created some truly scarey scenes. The black and white drawing on the page facing the introduction is a good example as far as I am concerned. Vaughn continues the introduction with this: “And while the supernatural stuff is brilliant (I will never tire of learning about new keys), the reason I’m afraid is because of how much I’ve come to care about Tyler, Kinsey, and especially Bode. Those kids aren’t characters, they’re people.” I have found this to be true for me also: I have invested in these three kids and their mother and what happens to them. Since that is one of the main things I ask of whatever I read, I guess that means that if a graphic novel meets the same criteria as novels and short stories I have finally reached the stage of accepting graphic novels into my reading circle.

The Art Gallery at the end of this volume and the expanded lexicon of the keys are updated and equally impressive as the same features in the second volume. The fourth volume is entitled “Keys to the Kingdom”. I wonder how long I can hold out?

Have you tried a graphic novel yet? Choose carefully and get recommendations from those who know your reading habits. I started with Jeff Lemire’s Essex County and that choice made a very big difference in my attitude towards graphic novels.