September 26, 2014

How Far Back is the Past?

by Juanita Klassen

I walked into the hushed Carole Shields Auditorium at the library, a dark, clean space permeated with the aroma of books. After Bruce Symaka’s brief introduction, John Nadler said that he lives in Budapest, Hungary where he doesn’t visit libraries often, so he said the locale of this presentation was a rare treat, especially speaking in the city where this story started and where its heart still lives.

Nadler introduced his book Valour Road, the riveting story of three local heroes: Corporal Leo Clark, Lieutenant Robert Shankland, and Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall. Over the decades this story has been told by many media outlets, and folks all across the country have been captivated by the story of these young men from an ordinary neighbourhood who performed with extraordinary bravery. In terms of Big Ideas, Valour Road is a perfect fit, since World War I, or, The Great War, is at the centre of it, forever changing the world including the lives of three young men and their families who were caught up in this huge conflict of nations.

As an author and Canadian, Nadler said that he has grappled with the scope of this “colossal catastrophe” since his youth, never fully understanding it but wanting to try again (and again, and again). During his childhood, the Great War seemed both far away and very near; he had no direct experience of the conflict but many of his neighbours during his childhood were old veterans who had pretty brutal injuries, and, they always had the stories. Getting to know these particular men through letters and journals, talking to family members, traveling far afield doing research, and most importantly telling this story, were all efforts towards creating that connection between the past and present. Nadler sees this more focused story as a conduit towards understanding this conflict, by seeing the place of these people within it.

After his preamble, Nadler read from the engaging prologue where he describes a defining moment that helped him decide to write this book. During an especially severe Winnipeg blizzard on November 11, 2012, he watched Paul Clarke and others read the citations to a frozen group of determined veterans and their families who defied deep snow to make it to this neighbourhood service at Sargent Avenue and Valour Road. He kept watching all of these people when the clock struck 11 and silence fell. People paused to focus on their loved ones, and for him, this was moment when “the past and present folded together” and brought him to the question: How far back is the past?

The questions and comments from the audience also referred back to this question. Symaka asked Nadler how he brought these past people to life and his reply was that they came alive for him through conversations with their families, letters, journals, photographs, and sometimes newspaper articles and local stories when he didn’t have the personal documents. For instance, when it came to writing about Lieutenant Shankland, he relied heavily on Scottish articles and stories since Shankland traveled to Scotland frequently and spoke with the media there. Also, the Shankland family preferred to keep their memories private so he respected their wishes and kept his distance.

Right at the end of the presentation, a few members of the Clarke family identified themselves and expressed gratitude that Mr. Nadler had not only shared the memories of their past loved ones accurately, he did so with great care and respect. In turn, the author thanked the families for taking the time and effort to help him do just that. For me, hearing these family members share their continued love for those who are long gone made a very familiar story more real and personal than it had ever been before.

The legacy of these hometown heroes lives on in the love their families have for them and the generosity they have in sharing their lives with us. History is a living vibrant creature. How far back is the past, and what is the past anyway, but the people who lived it? This past is alive and well in the hearts and minds of their loved ones, and those who will follow.

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