After my last novel, a semi-doleful book about a woman dying of cancer (Good to a Fault), I intended the The Little Shadows to be a vaudeville romp. I wanted to sashay around onstage and make jokes and have a good time for a change.
I planned the book’s five year span to start in 1909 and end before the First World War began, but discovered that the vaudeville circuits I wanted to talk about only expanded west in 1912, when old makeshift theatres were torn down and beautiful brick opera houses were built throughout the prairies. That pushed the timeline through to 1917, halfway through the war.
Researching vaudeville was an unalloyed pleasure—poring over hilarious accounts of performance and charming early photographs of gawky girls in silly costumes; quiet days spent reading other people’s letters (one of my favourite things to do!) and going through fonds boxes in archives, finding hidden treasure. One wonderful day, giving up on the dearth of vaudeville material in the Alberta provincial archive, I decided to look up prairie boarding houses. The first fonds box I opened was from a boarding house in Edmonton that catered exclusively to vaudeville artistes, each of whom had left the landlady a photo or postcard with heartfelt thanks for her good cooking scrawled across the back.
Researching the First World War was—alloyed, if that’s the opposite of unalloyed, to put it mildly. During the summer while I worked on the sections of The Little Shadows that are set in London from 1915-17, my teenage son kept racing upstairs to find out why I was crying.
It was the letters that got to me. The ordinary voices, the uncomplaining sense of duty or fate.
When one writer is subjected to chlorine gas—his own gas, blown back over the lines—there is no sense of injustice, just ill luck. In the hospital the dying work to make things gay, to keep their comrades’ spirits up. The wounded are scheduled to arrive home from the Front at midnight when the streets are quiet, not for ease of transport but so that the general populace will not be subjected to worry.
In the early letters and newspaper articles I saw a willingness, an eagerness for war that seems to rise from time to time in all of us. I wish I could believe that it’s connected to oppression, to a corresponding tide of evil which must be beaten back, but I am afraid it is not so rational. And I am afraid of its rise again, after the prolonged period of prosperity the western world has luxuriated in. Because I have a son, and a daughter; because I’ve read those firsthand accounts that make the dailiness of war hideously vivid.
Researching the war, I was looking for the small things of everyday life that would have mattered most to the girls in The Little Shadows: the long line of ambulances waiting at night for the soldiers coming in from France, the way the soldiers looked on the street in London, gossipy rumours of zeppelin sightings. Incremental changes back in Canada, in a small town on the prairie, as the bright banners go up in church and the boys are reported killed, by twos and threes, and some sense of the war’s huge appetite comes home to those far from the Front.
Books were a great help—among them of course the officially-indispensable Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell—but soldiers’ letters were better for my purposes, both unpublished letters in archives and an almost-unbearable book called Diary Kid, the Canadian soldier John Teahan’s diaries, published by Oberon in 1999.
What brought my son galloping up the stairs most often, though, was a letter I found in a small-town museum, a soldier’s letter sent home not through the post but with a friend, and therefore uncensored. Here he is talking about a German high explosive shell called a coal-box:
“Take one of your milk creamer cans, for size, only make it an inch thick of steel. Put about five hundred pounds of gun cotton, cordite or lyddite, then fill it up with bolts, burrs, rivets, anything and everything that will kill—shoot this thru the air at the rate of 2000 feet per minute and when directly overhead, about 10, 20 or 30 yards from you, let it burst! Goodnight! Talk of thunder, nothing to it. And it is not the explosion of the cursed coal-box that gets one’s nerves, it’s the whining, groaning noise it makes as it speeds thru the air towards its victims. Rifle fire is bad—when you hear a bullet go zip! past your head, or one buries itself in a sandbag an inch from you upper story is not at all healthy, and when bullets are coming thick like hail—it is not nice at all, but give me the rifle fire all day, every day, instead of one of those hellish coal-boxes.
No wonder to hear of men and see them go plumb loony, nutty—you read of such cases in the papers, how men suffer from breakdown. Don’t think they are nervous or weak or anything like that; pity them rather, for the whine and sizzle of the shell in the air, and the awful suspense of waiting for the explosion to come is what does the trick. —Enough of this—it is getting on to dusk, so with love to all and to Jessie for the pansies, I’ll close…”
This was the first war that ordinary people wrote about, that their families read about. Letters and reports from the Front detailed the unimaginable, beginning-to-be-imagined horrors.
During the Great War not just the officers (some of them the greatest literary lights of the time) but the enlisted men were able to read and write, and could send home accounts of the truth of war. The same kind of change we’re seeing again in the uprisings of the last few months, now that everyone has a cellphone and can text or send home instantaneously the video of what is happening in the streets.
I hope somehow those texts and videos are kept, so that a hundred years from now someone else’s mother, seeing them, can break down in helpless fury against the thought of war.