Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day: Dad, Louise Penny, the Conscription Crisis, and the Canadian forest

Image: Remembrance Day at McGill, Montreal 2012, by Adam Scotti

Remembrance Day brings much to remember. First, yesterday was the 24th anniversary of the death of my father, a veteran of World War II. Dad served on the North Atlantic in the RCNVR, the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. Born at the beginning of the twentieth century, he died aged 88 in Kitimat General Hospital.

It was while he was on shore leave in St. John's, Newfoundland that Dad met Mom in 1944. Like so many of my generation, the Baby Boomers, I would not have been born without the war; that conflict caused my parents to meet.

Also, I remember the delightful opus of Louise Penny, former CBC journalist and Canadian mystery writer extraordinaire. From food and jokes to friendships and misunderstandings, I remember today how she renders a picture of the Francophones and Anglophones living together but also separate in Montreal.

Too eager to wait for the next consecutive novel in this series and read it in order, I have read or listened on CD to all but the last of Penny's books as soon as I could get my hands on it. Each tale reveals a few more strands of back story, wisdom and remembrance.

In recent days, I have been listening to Ralph Cosham narrate the adventures of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir as they investigate the suspicious death of a woman killed by a toppling memorial statue. In A Rule Against Murder, Penny draws us into the deep forest surrounding a former hunting lodge in rural Quebec, now an exclusive inn. Here she unveils, along with her plot and characters, the past history of the province and the nation.

While Beauvoir is baffled and irritated by the incomprehensible behaviour of what he sees as typical  masked Anglos, his Chief is more mature and philosophical. In this novel, the reader is taken to the heart of a secret about Gamache's father that has been alluded to in other books.

Honore Gamache, a man of peace, was involved in the Conscription Crisis of World War II. In Montreal, M. Gamache Senior spoke publicly and persuasively against Canadian involvement in the war. Though he refused to join the army, he went to Europe with the Red Cross. There something he witnessed changed him, and caused a twist in the fate of his son Armand.

Though Gamache's father is long dead, his son reveres his memory, and is unmoved by the nasty remarks of certain wealthy Westmount Anglos who dismiss Honore Gamache as a coward. While these quarrelsome and deeply troubled individuals reveal their ignorant prejudices, the Chief works at solving the murder.

Throwbacks to the time when the Anglophones controlled the business of the province, the Morrows, damaged by their inherited wealth, openly look down on Gamache for being French. The eldest among them recall WWII and the time before the Quiet Revolution when the Quebecois began to call themselves "maitres chez nous."

With the refracted light she casts upon each character in turn, the work of Louise Penny reveals how history casts long shadows. The world changes but somewhere deep inside, for good and ill, we remember the early influences that formed us.

Remembering the history of Canada, and especially of Montreal, let us embrace the many threads that have bound us from the beginning, and bring to consciousness those impulses that would separate us. On Remembrance Day, in serenity and without bitterness, like Armand Gamache, let us remember and own our historic conflicts.

Let us remember also the geographical and symbolic influence and power of the Canadian forest that Louise Penny so often mentions. The Canadian wilderness has shaped all our souls.

And finally, let us feel in our bones the sonorous rhythms of  the poetry of Walter Scott, remembered by Armand Gamache from his own poetry-quoting father. Like Louise Penny's bilingual Cambridge educated detective, who is also quintessentially French Canadian, and a lover of the Canadian wilderness, we may intone today:

"This is my own, my native land."

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