November 2013

From Nova Scotia to France’s front lines

By P.S. Duffy
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In the dispiriting list of pointless wars, few were more pointless than the one associated with the Somme or Passchendaele. The Great War saw tens of thousands die in an inglorious miasma of gas and mud. Yet the contribution made by Canadians to this carnage is seldom highlighted—that is, until P.S. Duffy’s first novel, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land.

The novel is divided between Nova Scotia, where Angus MacGrath lived, and France, where he fights. Angus joins the war to find his brother-in-law Ebbin, who is missing and presumed dead. A talented artist raised by a pacifist, Angus had hoped to be a peaceable cartographer, but finds himself instead amid the barbed wire and vast graveyards.

Meanwhile, the Nova Scotians worry about local Germans whose loyalties are suspect, like Mr. Heist, a teacher. When Heist builds an observatory, the authorities decide he’s crossed a line.

The contrasts between the home and war fronts are stark. At home is buttered rum, while on the battlefield, soldiers obsess about squares of chocolate. Home represents the freedom of the ubiquitous sea, while the soldiers suffer the trenches’ claustrophobia. Still, the wounded Angus resists being invalided out. Despite the war’s futility, he remains committed to his troops.

Duffy writes well—if occasionally sentimentally—about war’s privations. Her heroes are not reticent Hemingway types, and her descriptions, especially those of battle, are rich. The novel succeeds most in evoking the Canadian maritimes, whose resilient seafaring ways Duffy, a native whose family has lived in Nova Scotia for generations, is amply qualified to address.

Duffy says of Angus on his return home, “He would not talk about the war. He barely talked at all.” Yet to him and his unsung Canadian comrades Duffy has given a memorable voice.

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