In his first foray into non-fiction, novelist Michael Winter (This All Happened, Minister Without Portfolio) has written a love letter to the soldiers who fought for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War. But Into the Blizzard is not a typical history. Instead, Winter recounts the experiences of the regiment, which fought both in Turkey and on the Western front, through his own personal lens in an effort to bring the Great War to life 100 years later.
To achieve this, Winter follows the path taken by the regiment once they left Newfoundland, forging constant links between his own experience and that of the soldiers. Some of these are well-crafted, such as when he stands on Salisbury Plain, a training ground then and now, and realizes that “weapons may look new, but their sound remains old.” Other moments are less effective: comparing people getting on and off a subway with men leaving the trenches before battle is a bit of a stretch. Sometimes both author and reader feel a kinship with the soldiers; at other times it’s clear that our lives are so different, and the past seems further away than ever.
Winter’s thoughts jump quickly between present and past with no particular structure. In just a few pages he muses about the Toronto airport; the first Newfoundlander to enlist; the history of the boat that took the soldiers to England; the first Newfoundlander to die in battle; and the Titanic. In one moment, we see what Winter sees; in the next, we are learning about the entire family of one enlisted man, which may or may not include information about his actual war service. This unconventional approach to history made it hard to get into the flow of the story, but once I surrendered to the stream-of-consciousness writing, I appreciated how Winter’s rich language opened up new perspectives on the material.
One of the author’s strongest thematic concerns involves the overwhelming cruelty of war. Winter zeroes in on the horrific ways soldiers died on the battlefield, but also on the military apparatus behind it all, one that “encourages reasonable men to become butchers.” When praising deserters, his prose is uncharacteristically clear and to the point; he declares them heroes for having the courage to resist the military’s systematic obliteration of the individual, where the ultimate punishment for obeying the instinct to flee was to be shot by one’s fellow comrades.
Winter extends his scorn for the powers that be in his discussions of official commemorations of the war. But while he is quick to castigate those who are not sufficiently respectful, he admits that even he cannot clearly define the “right” way to remember. And despite the research that went into this book, he discovers at the end that he actually got a few details wrong, prompting some poignant observations about whether such a thing as accurate history is even possible. This willingness to acknowledge fallibility lends itself well to the book’s message that there are no correct answers when it comes to war.
Despite the book’s non-traditional nature, I was able to discover snippets of information that were new to me, such as the origin of the name “Blue Puttees” and the significance of the caribou as the regiment’s symbol. But when Winter is uninterested in something, he spares it no space. In part one, which covers the regiment’s time at Gallipoli, Winter provides very little detail about what happened, and why it was such a colossal failure. Whereas when he recounts the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, his lyrical writing and attention to detail are at their peak.
Winter appears to lose interest again as the regiment returns to England. Instead of following the soldiers as they prepare to go home, he focuses on Newfoundlander Thomas Ricketts, winner of the Victoria Cross, whose relatively uneventful life before and after the Somme seem to sum up for Winter the irrelevancy of the war almost as soon as it ended, despite the call to never forget.
It takes Winter more than a hundred pages before he poses the key questions that motivated him to tackle the Great War: “What do we recall, and how does it move us, or not?” And, “[Is] there a new way to talk of war that might break the fruit bowl of the battle narrative?” His answer, apparent in the very structure of his book, is that he is not interested in a traditional military chronicle. He prefers instead to present “a gallery of individual scenes” that he hopes will animate the people who actually fought.
While military analysis is absent, in its place are powerful imagery and detailed portraits of fragile human beings. As much as Winter may decry the war itself, he is ferociously proud of those who “faced the blizzard of machine-gun fire with their chins tucked into an advanced shoulder.” Winter asks us never to lose sight of their lives, no matter how short or apparently inconsequential.