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by Joel Yanofsky

While the historical novel has always been a popular genre, it hasn't always been well-received by critics and reviewers. I remember a time, not too long ago, when historical fiction was viewed with the same kind of scorn as Harlequin romances. Writers like James Michener and Herman Wouk ruined things for everyone by routinely publishing bulky bestsellers that were inevitably turned into insufferable television mini-series. The critical attitude was probably summed up best by the reviewer who said of one of Michener's thousand-page tomes, "My best advice is `Don't read it.' My second best is `Don't drop it on your foot.' "
This disdain for the historical novel may have had something to do with the North American trend in the late 1970s and early 1980s towards minimalism, a kind of fiction in which writers refused to look any further than what was right in front of their faces. Everything was pared down; all that mattered was the moment. Of course, writers eventually realized there were limitations to this approach and they began to look elsewhere for inspiration. The past was one of the places they looked. As a consequence, the historical novel is now recognized, by writers and readers both, as a genre that can take fiction to new, untravelled places. At its best, it evokes parallels with the present, while illuminating a corner of the past we may have forgotten or overlooked.
It's hard to imagine that there's a corner of World War I that has been overlooked. "This conflict produced the war literature to end all war literature," said the historian Simon Schama recently-from the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen to the novelists Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway. And it keeps on producing literature. Just last year Pat Barker won the Booker Prize for the final part in her trilogy on the war.
This is, in other words, crowded territory for the Newfoundland novelist Kevin Major. Still, he manages to find some elbow room for his new book. No Man's Land condenses four years of carnage and inept military decisions into a tense, tragic story of the Newfoundland Regiment as it waits out the last few hours before going "over the top" on July 1st, 1916, at what would later be called the Battle of the Somme.
Henry James said, "One needs a great deal of history to produce a very little literature," and maybe that's why so many writers keep returning to World War I: because it provides an abundance of history. In some ways, it is much more representative of this century than World War II, which was propelled by a sense of moral necessity. Not too long after 1914, it became clear to just about everyone involved that everyone was at fault. All the destruction, all the killing was pointless.
Which also makes No Man's Land grown-up territory for Major, who's best known for his popular novels for young adults. Even so, he doesn't get bogged down in the bigger picture. He focuses instead on a couple of characters: Allan Hayward, a young officer, who's already been through the hell of Gallipoli, and Ned Martin, an even younger infantryman, who is about to see action for the first time. Major does a good job of conveying the thoughts that occupy their minds as they prepare for battle. Hayward, for instance, keeps his mind off his fears by trying to catch the eye of a pretty French farm girl. This subplot feels a bit clichéd at times, but Major makes Hayward's pursuit of the girl work by using it as a way to reveal just how innocent his protagonist really is:
"As he grew older he had not entirely overcome [his] shyness around young women.. It was not a trait that looked good in the army, but neither was it one that often had any opportunity of showing itself. In Cairo, on the way to Gallipoli, when other officers sought out brothels, he made excuses saying he would rather visit the pyramids again, which he did."
The seventeen-year-old Martin takes his mind off what he is going to have to do in a few hours by daydreaming about what's going on back home in Newfoundland:
"For a St. John's lad like Martin the news was of what new sights there were to be had on Water Street, and what to make of the city's sporting rivalries now that the keenest athletes had joined up."
Along the way, Major introduces a few other characters and all of them serve to remind us of the poignant conclusion that exists between these young men who aren't just linked by the fate that awaits them but by the fact that they all come from the same place. Narrative momentum is not the strength of No Man's Land, which is probably what Major intended. Instead, the story maintains a slow, steady crawl, regularly pausing to observe the very human desire of these boys-because boys are what they are-not to face reality until they absolutely have to, always clinging to the hope that maybe the upcoming battle won't be as bad as they imagine. When it turns out to be worse and 272 soldiers in the Newfoundland Regiment die, as they did at the Somme, the reader has the feeling of a small world being obliterated. The dust-jacket provides the information that is dramatized in the novel: "No community in Newfoundland escaped the consequence of the [battle]..It was the single greatest disaster in the island's history."
Ironically, this sense of collective loss sometimes overwhelms the reader's sense of individual loss. If I have one serious complaint about No Man's Land, it is that I never learned enough about Major's characters. None of them are particularly memorable, not even the main ones. To sustain the build-up of tension, Major keeps the story in the present, choosing not to tell us much about his characters' backgrounds or to go very deep into their desires. Hayward's romance and Martin's homesickness are never much more than minor distractions. There are no real conflicts between the characters either. Major portrays everyone, with the exception of a couple of senior officers, as trapped and passive, lambs to the slaughter. Which is undoubtedly an authentic representation of the reality of their situation, but it diminishes the possibilities in No Man's Land for personal revelation of growth.
Of course, in the end, it's unfair to criticize an author for doing what he set out to do. In this case, that means telling the story of the Newfoundland Regiment in an honest, straightforward way. Everything in No Man's Land is purposely pared down; all that matters is the moment. Kevin Major may have stumbled into new territory after all: historical minimalism.

Joel Yanofsky is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Laval, Quebec.


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