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The Book of War Letters: 100 Years of Private Canadian Correspondence

by Audrey and Paul Grescoe

The Book of War Letters is the ambitious second entry in Paul and Audrey Grescoe’s planned trilogy of collected Canadian letters. Spanning this country’s entry into the Boer war in 1899 to the death of four soldiers by friendly fire in Afghanistan last year, the collection lends a human face to some of the most prominent events of the last century.

Perhaps inevitably, this face often shows an older Canada peopled by British colonial subjects. This is not to say that the compilers make no effort to be inclusive: the correspondence also includes letters from interned Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, Jewish soldiers celebrating Yom Kippur in a liberated death camp, and the 7,000 First Nations soldiers who fought in the two world wars. These are in addition to letters from wartime nurses, female factory workers, and prisoners of war.

With such a broad range of contributors, The Book of War Letters should be more compelling. As a straightforward narrative, the book is cumbersome, with letters chosen and ordered to follow the chronological events of war, rather than the lives of the individuals involved in those conflicts. This creates a discordant effect that prevents the reader from developing greater insights into the lives and personalities of the letter writers.

The collection is most successful when the letters are read as a series of eyewitness accounts to historic events, demonstrating the fortitude of ordinary men and women who were being stalked by death. Read in this way, The Book of War Letters is a useful tool for teachers and students of Canadian war history seeking to flesh out the dry facts of names, dates, and statistics.