The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land Honors WWI Noncombattants

Canadian military chaplain Canon Frederick George Scott
Canadian military chaplain Canon Frederick George Scott

The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land begins like a romance for religious spinsters, but within 20 pages, the handsome missionary Barry Dunbar turns out to be asthmatic, pedantic, and tactless.

When war breaks out, Barry, a Canadian, tries to enlist. He is rejected on medical grounds, but his father is accepted.

Barry reluctantly accepts a chaplaincy and attempts to enforce godliness among the troops.

On the eve of his arrival in France, an elderly Anglican chaplain sets him straight: “My dear fellow, remember they are far from home. These boys need their mothers… And, my boy, they need God. And they need you.”

Those words change Barry’s attitude.

Later as Barry watches while his father, both arms blown off, die of his injuries, he learns personally what it means to be alone far from home.

Ralph Connor’s descriptions of trench warfare are horrific. Oddly, the descriptions of the sleep deprivation, loneliness, and submerging of their own needs that Barry and other non-combatants endure are even more painful.

Despite some implausible elements — the medically unfit Barry remains healthy, for example—Connor spins an unforgettable yarn about men and women who picked up the pieces of those who went over the top.

Though Connor’s story is fiction, the war’s horrors are not. In The Official History of The Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Vol. 1, A. Fortescue Duguid writes: 

Carrying out their spiritual duties the Chaplains were to be found both in the field and at the dressing stations giving comfort to the dying. Major (Canon) F. G. Scott on the evening of the 22nd encouraged an advancing battalion with the words “A great day for Canada, boys—great day for Canada,” and he was in their midst when they charged the wood.

The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land
By Ralph Connor
1919 bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg e-book#3288
My grade: B

Photo of Military Chaplain  (and noted Canadian poet) F. G.  Scott is from the George Metcalf Archival Collection  of the Canadian War Museum.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Romance Is Blight on The Desert of Wheat

The Desert of Wheat is an unsatisfactory romantic novel by the master of westerns, Zane Grey.

The story is set in the Bend Country of eastern Oregon in 1917 after America had declared war on Germany. The Industrial Workers of the World is organizing farm and timber workers to disrupt the war effort by sabotaging America’s food production.

Kurt Dorn sides with his father’s mortgage-holder, Anderson, against the IWW, causing a breach with his father. Anderson tells Kurt how to save his wheat crop. The plan succeeds, but the IWW burns the harvested wheat before it can be sold. Kurt’s father dies attempting to save the wheat, and  Kurt deeds the farm to Anderson to pay the mortgage.

Kurt insists on going into the military to fight Germans. Anderson’s daughter Lenore promises to marry Kurt when he comes home.

Grey held me spellbound with the IWW material and his description of trench warfare in France. Lenore’s letting Kurt go to war made psychological sense to me, too. But I never got the sense that the issues that gave rise to the IWW were solved, nor that Kurt’s post traumatic stress was over.

I can’t help wondering what this novel might have been if Grey had shaken off the conventions of cowboy romance.

The Desert of Wheat
By Zane Grey
1919 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook 10201
My grade B-
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

All Quiet on the Western Front Still a Disquieting Tale

In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque takes readers into the German trenches of World War I. By the time readers meet the novel’s 20-year-old narrator, Paul Baumer, and his friends, they are battle-hardened veterans.

All Quiet on the Western Front is not a pleasant novel, but it is a well-written one. There is a reflective, meditative tone to Paul’s narration that gives the story immediacy and humanity.

The events of the novel, graphic and horrible, are the events of war.

Soldiers bleed and die at the front, at aid stations, in hospitals.

Rats attack in packs.

Horses scream in agony, sending shivers down the spines of veterans who have watched unmoved as men died.

Worn out artillery kills the men it is supposed to protect.

All the while, safe at the rear, commanders make plans that send hundreds more to extinction.

A sniper’s bullet ends Paul’s life shortly before the armistice. But ironically the bullet saves Paul from what he most feared: the attempt to re-enter civilian life burdened by the memories of war.

As long as nations send their young people straight from schoolyards to combat zones, All Quiet on the Western Front will continue to be an important book.

All Quiet on the Western Front
By Erica Maria Remarque
Trans. A. W. Wheen
Little, Brown, 1929
291 pages
1929 Bestseller #1
My grade: A
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni