Why Classic CanLit Matters

Why Classic CanLit Matters

Posted on April 25 by James R. Calhoun in Fiction
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Just before Christmas of 2015 I got a delightful call from Michael Gnarowski, editor of Dundurn’s Voyageur Classics series. “What do you think we can do about getting Philip Child’s novel God’s Sparrows back into print?” 

I was over the moon. As a collector of Canada’s war literature, with a particular interest in the novels of the First World War, I knew that only one publisher in Canada was serious about bringing these unjustly neglected novels back before the reading public. 

I’d spent the previous five years indulging my passion for book collecting, doggedly tracking down Philip Child’s novels and poetry. It led to many inquisitive glances in bookstores across the country, as I enquired about Child’s first novel The Village of Souls, or his elusive WWII spy novel Blow Wind, Come Wrack, written under the pseudonym John Wentworth. Eventually, with the help of Canada’s best booksellers, I was able to put together a complete run of Child’s novels, poetry, and pamphlets.

I’d also spent days pouring over and making copies of Philip Child’s papers, held in the archives of the Hamilton Public Library. There are banker’s boxes full of manuscripts, journals, and notebooks. Outside of the odd doctoral student, this archive has rarely, if ever, been consulted. My time in the archives in Hamilton in turn led me to the Imperial War Museum and the British National Archives, where I found Child’s war record, comrade’s collections of letters, and the war diary of his siege battery.

I told Michael I had all the material I needed to write an introduction but that Philip Child’s war experience was a difficult one to tell. Practically everything Child wrote either deals directly with the First World War, or has some allusion to it. Even his first published novel, The Village of Souls, a story of voyageurs set in seventeenth-century Quebec, contains an allusion to WWI: the female protagonist, Lys, is named for a critical site in both the German Spring Offensive of 1918, and the Allied Hundred Days campaign. 

The last line of Philip Child’s final published work, the epic war poem The Wood of the Nightingale (1965) is instructive: it reads, “1914–1964.” Child struggled with what the war meant for more than fifty years, and to say that the war haunted him is a gross understatement. No Canadian author returns to the war as frequently as Philip Child, and his portrayal of the war in God’s Sparrows is the most complex and wide ranging our literature.

With this Dundurn Voyageur Classics edition of God’s Sparrows, a new generation of students and readers across the country will have access to this critically important Canadian novel of the war, along with appendices containing some of Child’s unpublished war poetry, photographs, and a critical essay explaining Child’s reaction to the anti-war novels of the post-war period. I am both grateful and humbled that I could play some small part in re-introducing this novel to readers, and trust they will find Philip Child’s portrait of the war as moving as when it was first published.

James R. Calhoun

Posted by Dundurn Guest on November 8, 2016

James R. Calhoun

James Calhoun is the archivist for the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Museum and Archives. A writer with a particular interest in the Canadian literature of the First World War, he is the co-author, with Brian Busby, of the introduction to Peregrine Acland’s All Else Is Folly. He lives in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia.