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By the Ghost Light: Wars, Memory, and Families

by R.H. Thomson

What insights emerge when we linger by the ghost light? Whose stories impress us with their significance, and whose spirits speak to us? These are questions that Canadian actor and playwright R.H. Thomson extends to the theatre of war in an ambitious new memoir reconstructing his family’s remarkable entanglement in the First World War – eight of his great-uncles served, five of whom died.

A ghost light is a single lamp left on stage to burn through the night after a theatrical performance, illuminating a barren space still pulsing with the energy of a play’s life and characters. It’s an apt metaphor for Thomson’s quest to commemorate those who endured “incredible pain and unimaginable loss” but whose devastation and despair have been “tidied up” or forgotten in the interests of sanitizing and containing the brutality of war. Sitting readers down by the ghost light, Thomson summons forth the legion of warriors, both human and play figurines, from his childhood in 1950s Toronto, interweaving fragments of memory and text from family correspondence with astute commentary on the conditions of war and the problems with war stories.

Such stories follow a predictable script: the “good guys” win. Out of a resolve to unlearn our assumptions about war, Thomson tells a more nuanced narrative. In the process, he dispels not only his childhood illusions about heroes, but also many of the collective fantasies and fears of the so-called “Other” that lie at the heart of many Remembrance Day rituals. The shadowy figures of his childhood become a channel, as it were, for glimpsing collective wisdom about the realities of war.

Some of this wisdom is also found in the voices and views scrubbed from most official accounts that Thomson includes – those of Indigenous combatants and women, both on and off the battlefield. Take R. Stacey LaForme, elected Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, who offers the Ojibwe perspective: there are no winners in war, only one side that loses comparatively less. Keeping an ear to the ground for stories of futility and failure, Thomson refuses to use storytelling as a licence to make meaning from or give purpose to war. The boldness of this approach is summed up when he reminds us that there are “no Canadian monuments that depict amputees or corpses,” never mind “the mental wounds of veterans.”

By the Ghost Light is an astute analogue of another epic project of Thomson’s: The World Remembers, an online global commemoration project that sets out to name the millions who lost their lives, on both sides, in the Great War. Such a fully inclusive memorial – one that makes no distinction for race, religion, or other human differences – has never been attempted before. The thousands of statues and headstones that already exist are terribly silent on the horrors of war: dismembered bodies, maternal grief, human hubris, senseless death.

Thomson’s bigger frame for understanding the past is needed to rectify the collective amnesia reflected in national archives and to trouble the victor-villain lens that could still easily tilt a fragile global order toward nuclear conflict. This broad canvas, however, makes for tricky storytelling. At times, Thomson’s proverbial stage becomes too cluttered with characters, its arc too ambiguous, its narrative too byzantine to always hold the reader’s interest.

That said, there’s no denying the urgent need to amend our conventional narratives of war, to question our ideas of the enemy, and to let a light shine on the dark corners of conflict. Patriotism might make for good war stories, but we all lose with each retelling. As the politics of the far right resurface in Europe, and as polarizing rifts and extremist politics divide countries and populations, the need for remembrance and reconciliation is paramount. In this context, Thomson’s invitation to linger by the ghost light is hard to resist, for only by imagining our human interconnectedness can we finally move beyond prejudice and the appalling violence it unleashes.


Reviewer: Julie McGonegal

Publisher: Knopf Canada


Price: $37.00

Page Count: 360 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-1-03900-838-0

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: November 2023

Categories: History, Memoir & Biography, Reviews