Originally published in Literary Review of Canada 17.9.
From the Somme to Guernica
A novel’s historical canvas is by turns sketched upon and richly painted.
Underground. June Hutton. Cormorant. 246 pages. Trade paperback. ISBN 978-1-896951-81-2.
Why do Canadian writers so love the First World War? It features in some of the nation’s most canonized novels, from Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising to Timothy Findley’s The Wars, while the past decade alone has brought us Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, Frances Itani’s Deafening, and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. Perhaps it’s because the war marked Canada’s coming-of-age, thus making the conflict a fit subject for national epics. Or maybe it’s because unlike World War II, the First World War left behind few film reels, thus sparing it from the History Channel and giving novelists some room to manoeuvre.
Less charitably, one might point to the ready-made gravitas of war as a subject, the out-of-copyright archival material to be plundered, and the easy politics of condemning a conflict everyone agrees was a bad idea. There might even be a voyeuristic attraction to rehearsing the horrors of trench warfare with a by-now conventional style one could call eviscerealism.
Such considerations spring to mind at the beginning of Underground, a first novel by Vancouver’s June Hutton. It tells the story of a young man named Al Fraser who returns to Canada from the trenches with legs full of shrapnel and a consciousness freighted by traumatic memories. So established is the war’s iconography that when Underground opens with the heading “The Somme, 1916,” the picture that forms in one’s mind isn’t much different from what the novel’s first sentence suggests: “A mud sky churns over a mud field broken by coils of barbed wire, a wheel severed from a cart, a tangle of brown limbs” (1). It’s hard to avoid feeling this is terrain well travelled. Luckily Hutton’s not out to write yet another First World War epic. She has an even bigger story in mind.
After a shell blast puts Al Fraser out of the war, he’s shipped back to his family in British Columbia. Soon it’s 1929 and he’s made homeless by the Great Depression. Herded off to a Relief Camp, he gets an unfortunate primer in how society treats the dispossessed and ends up joining a strike in Vancouver, where a violent encounter with the police leaves him on the run, first hiding out with Chinese “illegals” in tunnels under the city, then working a trap-line in the Yukon. Finally, inspired by the horrors depicted in Picasso’s Guernica, he volunteers to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, hoping through his enlistment to quell the battle-memories that have plagued him ever since the Somme.
If the novel covers a large chunk of history, it’s for good reason. Writing about both wars allows Hutton to dramatize compelling links not only between the conflicts but between the life of a soldier abroad and that of working-class men at home. The squalor, violence, and homosocial bonds of the Relief Camps are convincingly paralleled to army life, and we see that the story of the First World War in Canada isn’t one that ends in 1918. Instead, Al’s experiences make it clear that the war had political, economic, and social repercussions stretching over decades. In presenting such a narrative, Underground might well qualify as a full-scale intervention in Canadian historiography.
It’s exciting to watch Hutton tackle such a broad canvas. Other novelists have approached the First World War by finding a conceit, an angle, and working it exhaustively. Underground operates instead through juxtaposition and telescoping across time. Rather than one finely wrought panel, it feels more like a triptych: the glooped grey oils of the trenches, the expansive Yukon and British Columbian landscapes, and then the baked earth tones of Spain. Hutton’s eye is equally assured in each of these panels, and there’s a wonder in watching her undertake all three in a short novel.
However, Underground’s breakneck pace doesn’t necessarily make the book a more satisfying read. Because the story’s scope forces it to keep on the move, there’s little time for attending to various possibilities along the way. The years between the wars are particularly underwritten, as the novel skips too quickly through time and between genres. There are aspects of Steinbeck’s social realism in the sections involving the Depression, a little of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in the surrealist scenes beneath Vancouver, and then a touch of wilderness-adventure yarn in the Yukon sequence. Each of these stops in Al’s journey is intriguing, but Hutton hasn’t given herself the space in which to slow down and let them come alive.
What’s more, no character other than Al draws the novel’s gaze for any length of time, and even he seems only sketched in, his fears and desires lightly traced. Al’s vaguely interested in women, in workers’ rights, and in making a home for himself, but he has few desires strong enough to push him into action. He’s a man defined by velleities. Perhaps this is a plausible psychic state for someone unmoored by forces beyond his control: the war, class conflict, the Depression. However, it makes him less than vivid as a protagonist.
Underground is on its surest footing in Spain. Here Hutton places tense descriptions of guerrilla warfare alongside passages portraying the ragtag character of the Republican side, with its poorly equipped international volunteers. Even here, though, the main narrative engine consists of a love story that seems ill-developed and less interesting than the evocations of scenery and battle.
Perhaps the most effective moment in the novel comes when Al and his fellow volunteers break off from training to help local workers harvest rye. Al finds himself feeling an unexpected contentment:
“He’s never used a scythe. The wooden handle, polished from years of toil, is as tall as he is, the blade a menacing curve of metal half its length. A false move would cleave the meat from his leg. He braces himself with feet spread wide, one hand on the long pole of the scythe and the other on the protruding handle, and swings carefully. The row of grass remains upright for an instant, then falls soundlessly.
“They work on into the morning. Bits of straw and grain stick to their necks. Dust coats their eyelids and the scarves they wrap over their mouths. Sweat runs down their chests and backs, their hands blister, the backs of their necks burn. Al’s pulse beats time with each swing and he thrills at the sight of swaths of tall grain falling at his touch.” (167)
This is rhythmic, taut writing, at once sensual and alive with potential violence. It’s true, the scene’s indebted to a similar sequence in Anna Karenina where the aristocrat Levin finds fulfilment scything with muzhiks. In the context of a war novel, though, such a moment gains further resonance: the harvest is at once a relief from a soldier’s labours and an extension of them. Al and his comrades are being generous and idealistic in offering assistance, but as combatants in a civil war they’re also out to win hearts and minds.
It’s with such spare, deftly political lyricism that Underground earns its stripes. Steering clear of ten-dollar words and show-off similes, the novel’s sentences are powerful precisely in their lack of ornamentation. Indeed, Hutton seems unwilling to risk writing a bad sentence. Perhaps such care throws up logistical barriers to producing a longer, more fully realized book. As it stands, one of the greatest things about Underground may also be its shortcoming: it leaves you wanting more.