8.17.2014

The Cartographer of No Man's Land, by P.S. Duffy

The Cartographer of No Man's Land
Angus McGrath has always lived for other people. In Snag Harbor, Nova Scotia, he plies a coastal trader boat for his father. He keeps his wife on an even keep. He cares for a wayward cousin's child. And when his brother-in-law, Ebbin, disappears after the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, Angus signs up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force to go looking for him. His recruiter promises that he will be assigned safely behind the lines as a cartographer—but that plan goes awry immediately. As P.S. Duffy's The Cartographer of No Man's Land opens, McGrath has been promoted to lieutenant to replace the hundred of dead officers and shipped of to the front.

As it is for every new recruit, the front is a shock for Angus. Some of his men are breaking down from shell shock. Others are just breaking down. Angus' instinct is to care for those around him and he develops a deep attachment to the men in his command. On the other side of the Atlantic, Duffy shows us how Angus' son, Simon Peter, is carrying on at home. As the women get wrapped up in knitting woolens and packing comfort boxes for the soldiers, the men of Snag Harbor start to grow suspicious of the German teacher. It doesn't matter to any one except Simon that Mr. Heist is a naturalized Canadian. Rumors begin to spread about what Mr. Heist is up to with his Fresnel lens and telescope.

Duffy switches perspectives between Angus and Simon as they are forced to grow up. Angus soon seems more at home at the front than he was back in Snag Harbor. He makes a friend in his major, Conlon, and they help keep each other sane in spite of the absurdities of war:
"It's insights like that that make this war worth it, eh?" [said Conlon]
"Exactly," Angus smiled. "Where would we be without irony?"
"Continuously drunk, I'm afraid." (164*)
Conlon finds comfort in an old copy of The Iliad, and he's not the first (fictional) soldier to do so. It's a surprise to me, considering how much of it is devoted to honor and glory. And yet The Iliad also has moments in which characters discuss the pointlessness and tragedy of war. Meanwhile, Simon grows into a young man with his own ideas and finds himself at odds with most of the adults around him. They are so set in their ideas that they can't see how circumstances make all the difference.

I can't say much more about The Cartographer of No Man's Land without spoiling the ending. In a war novel, after all, you can't know who will survive without loosing the nail-biting sympathy you feel for the characters. (I did know beforehand that many Canadians were killed in battle at Passchendaele. I worried as I saw the dates tick by that Angus and his men might end up there. I can say that this doesn't happen to Angus.)

This morning, I posted some questions that I had about World War I literature written by survivors and veterans versus historical fiction written much later. I still have questions. Duffy does assign a lot of symbolic weight to objects and events that veterans' literature tends not to do. At times, I was irritated by how Duffy would spell out the subtext. Still, The Cartographer of No Man's Land was a thought-provoking read. It's a worthy addition to the genre.

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* From the Kindle edition. Page numbers are approximate.

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