An extended review of a 2022 novel by Genevieve Graham
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Simon & Schuster, 2022. 352 pages. $25 (e-book $14)
Genevieve Graham wants us to learn some history. The bestselling novelist is on a mission to engage our imaginations with stories that weren’t covered in high school. Graham, originally from Toronto, lived for 18 years in Calgary before relocating to Nova Scotia, whose rich history drew her to the province. Her previous novels have shed light on the Halifax Explosion, the Acadian Expulsion and the Christie Pits Riot. They have also acquainted readers with the origins of the Mounties, the influx to Canada of British Home Children, and the breach of German U-boats into Canadian waters.
In her most recent novel Graham transports us to a Belgian field hospital and, later, to the speakeasies of Windsor, Ont. Against the backdrop of the First World War, she explores the lives of young Canadian nurses caring for the wounded at the front as well as those of a company of tunnellers, whose stifling task it was to dig far below the deafening chaos of the battlefield and lay mines beneath enemy trenches.
And in post-war Ontario, she introduces us to Prohibition-era rum-runners, whose motives and allegiances are more nuanced than we might have imagined. In all, the author presents a diverse ensemble of individuals – some admirable, some pitiable – each doing what they feel they must in the face of danger and opportunity.
The story alternates between the book’s two central characters, Adele and Jerry. The ravages of war have left both with psychological scars, and we wonder if this shell-shocked pair will be able to rebuild their lives in Canada. The pacing of the book is unhurried, allowing readers access to characters’ inner thoughts and emotions, yet steady enough to sustain our interest and keep the plot moving forward to its surprising climax.
Bluebird does not sidestep or gloss over the painful aspects of that era. Rather, the author probes the ramifications of loss and trauma – not the least of which is survivor’s guilt – whether from war, disease or domestic tragedy. In one uncomfortable scene aboard a passenger train, Graham draws attention to matters of systemic racism. Elsewhere we note the changing role of women in the early 20th century.
The author spends more time, however, illustrating the thorny topics of prohibition and state control, issues over which there is much heated debate today. Is criminalizing certain vices the only way to curb them? Is there really any benefit in declaring an activity illegal? Does banning that activity effectively eradicate it, or does it merely drive it underground, where it flourishes – in plain view? Moreover, how does the mind rationalize – how does the conscience contort itself – to justify illegal activity?
A very interesting thread in the narrative is the theme of sibling relationships. We observe the dynamic between Jerry and John, as well as between Adele and Marie, and we note the way shared challenges can draw siblings closer, even as individual choices may bring about a certain emotional distance as commonalities become fewer. To help readers think more deeply about these various themes, the book includes a group discussion guide.
In recounting the story of Jerry and Adele, the narrative shifts back and forth between past and present. This structure underscores for readers the value of learning about our past. Far beyond inherited wealth or property, history is its own legacy. The challenges and sorrows, the triumphs and accomplishments of our predecessors – these must be remembered and treasured. In the end, their story is our story. It is worth remembering, and it is worth sharing with the generations that follow.
In bookstores across Canada, shelves are awash with Second World War tales of courage, love, intrigue and heroism; fewer novels depict the sacrifices and drama of the First World War. Bluebird provides a fascinating point of entry for readers eager to learn more about Canadians’ contributions during the Great War.
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