The heartbreaking new picture book from Montreal illustrator Jacques Goldstyn is dedicated to George Lawrence Price, a Nova Scotia–born infantryman who died on a First World War battlefield at 10:58 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 – literally minutes before the armistice that ended the war.
In The Eleventh Hour, Goldstyn fictionalizes that historical event, using it as the narrative hook for a story that provides a very brief history of the conflict that devastated Europe and transformed the world, as well as an affecting portrait of two young friends who get pulled into the bloody churn of war.
Jules and Jim (who bear no resemblance to the eponymous characters of Truffaut’s 1962 film) are lifelong friends born at almost the same time, with Jules following Jim into the world by a mere 120 seconds. As they grow up, this two-minute gap becomes a pattern for their friendship, with Jules always hurrying to try to catch up to the more charismatic and skilful Jim.
When conflict breaks out in Europe in 1914, the two boys enlist in the army and are sent to France, where they discover the horrors of modern war. They live in the trenches, ankle-deep in mud, beset by lice, catching rats, and occasionally repelling German attacks, or else going over the top to mount their own failed offensive. On the morning of Nov. 11, in yet another battle, Jules lags behind Jim as usual. Jim gets shot through the heart and dies in his friend’s arms.
Goldstyn does a few things in this book that add to its power. Though he tells his story with deceptive simplicity – and employs pencil-and-watercolour illustrations that, in their directness and reliance on caricature, owe a lot to his other career as a political cartoonist – Goldstyn never shies away from the violence of war. The shelling of trenches, for example, is depicted as a hell of red fire and flying bodies. He also gives young readers a glimpse of war’s fundamental absurdity: he reveals that the armistice was actually signed many hours before 11:00, making Jim’s death not only tragic but literally pointless.
And finally, in what may be his book’s most touching and powerful narrative choice, Goldstyn does not end his story with Jim’s death but instead follows Jules back to Canada, where the young man eventually becomes a sad-looking clockmaker – one whose creations all run exactly two minutes slow. Be warned: this one is hard to get through with dry eyes.