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November 14, 2013

Book Notes - P.S. Duffy "The Cartographer of No Man's Land"

The Cartographer of No Man's Land

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

P.S. Duffy's impressive debut novel The Cartographer of No Man's Land brings both seaside Nova Scotia and the horrors of World War I to life, and is filled with unforgettable and brilliantly wrought characters and relationships.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Physical and emotional geography are beautifully rendered, and Duffy’s vivid descriptions illuminate war’s transformative effect in fresh ways. Well-nuanced characters and carefully choreographed (but still surprising) situations make this a strong debut."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is P.S. Duffy's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Cartographer of No Man's Land:

For me, music often comes unbidden, as does a scene, character, set of words, single word, single note—a liminal knowing, both dangerous in its power over you and vulnerable in its potential to evaporate. The Cartographer of No Man's Land takes place during the First World War and includes music of that era—all of which came to me without conscious effort. It is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of Angus MacGrath, a lieutenant in the infantry on the Western Front in France, and his 13-year-old son on the home front, a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. Angus, an artist and coastal trader and an initially reluctant soldier, is searching for Ebbin Hant, his best friend and brother-in-law. Hoping to be a cartographer in London, Angus is instead sent to the front lines. Still searching, but now for some greater purpose, what he discovers about Ebbin makes sense only in the context of war. At home, his young son is coming of age without him, and like all the characters in the book, must navigate the shifting ground of war's uncertainties. Most of the music quoted here occurs in the more serious sections of the book; the more lighthearted ones don't mention music—perhaps because they bounced along in my head without it.

Enigma Variations: Variation IX, Nimrod adagio, by Edward Elgar

If there was a single theme or score for the book, it would be this magnificent, haunting piece. It happens to have been the score for a documentary on the battle of Passchendaele, which my husband and I, sitting alone in the battlefield museum at Thiepval in France, heard together. It captures what words cannot, and for both of us represents the depth of tragedy that is the First World War.

"Of All the Fishes in the Sea"

On a different note all together, the first line of the prologue, a dreamy sequence that informs the rest of the narrative , is "The boy had been laughing under the clouds on a flat gray sea as his father sang an old and funny song about all the fishes climbing upon the seaweed trees." That "old and funny song" was one my father made up and we sang often, at odd moments and for no reason at all. After I'd written the prologue, I understood why it had come to me. It is innocence juxtaposed against all that is to come, a very small, whimsical song that captures the intimacy between the boy and his father, together in a rowboat when they are struck by a moment when "all time—past, present and future—gathered and expanded and released." Sung to the tune "Auld Lang Syne," it goes like this:

Of all the fishes in the sea
I like the best the bass.
He climbs upon the seaweed trees
And slides down on his hands and knees.

Of all the fishes in the sea,
I like the best the jelly.
He climbs upon the seaweed trees
And slides down on his belly.

Interestingly, a French translator working to translate the prologue, wrote to say that she could not find a reference for 'seaweed trees' nor for fishes that climb upon them. Some things actually don't translate, but I did convey the whimsy of the words and their lack of a basis in reality and she understood entirely. I will be interested to see what she comes up with in French.

"It's a Long, Long way to Tipperary," by Jack Judge and Henry Williams

This British music hall song, written in 1913, was adopted by British troops, bometh for its upbeat rhythm and its reference to love and home. Tipperary may be in Ireland, but it loses that geographic specificity in the context of the war.

It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye, Piccadilly,
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It's a long, long way to Tipperary,
But my heart's right there.

In the book, it is referred to in an exchange between the main character, Angus, and his best friend and brother-in-law, Ebbin Hant, who are out on the porch one night in Snag Harbor, Nova Scotia. Ebbin, with characteristic pluck and optimism, is making light of having just enlisted in the war, but both he and Angus are aware of the enormity of his decision. Angus feels it was impulsive and rash, but at the same time, the strength of purpose in Ebbin makes him painfully aware of his own lack of purpose. Ebbin, who operates on instinct more than analysis, senses this and encourages Angus to grab hold of life, take a risk of his own by taking some of his paintings to an art dealer in Halifax. "Do it for me," Ebbin says. "It's a long way to Tipperary, you know." Angus replies, "Longer still to France…"

"There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding," by Stoddard King and Alonzo Elliott

Like most World War I songs, this poignant melody of longing sounds sentimental to 21st-century ears. One of the little-known legacies of the First World War is our modern sense of irony and sarcasm, which was almost nonexistent before the war. There were no tours of duty—men were in it "for the duration." The horror of World War I triggered disillusion and a dystopian world view. But that came later. At the time, in the context of the muddy, blood-soaked, grueling monotony of the trenches, where men lived like sensory-deprived troglodytes for months on end, delusion and hallucination were common. Sentimental poetry and dreams of home sustained them. The first verse of this haunting melody is, "There's a long, long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams, where the nightingales are singing and a white moon beams. There's a long, long night of waiting until my dreams all come true, until the day when I'll walk down that long, long trail with you."

This song--an anthem really, of the war--was in my head when I wrote the scene where Angus and a small group of soldiers, hiding in a thicket on a reconnaissance mission, hear the notes played on a harmonica in a stone barn where Germans are thought to be hiding a howitzer. "Tendrils of remembered lyrics" come to the Canadian soldiers, and then they're outraged. It's our song. Angus says, "They're playing with us, they know we're here."

Several years later, when I was signing books at BookExpo America in New York, a woman in line, a singer, it turned out, told me she was making a CD of World War I songs. We immediately broke out in a duet of "There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding," to the astonishment of those in the line. She had a beautifully clear voice. Her name is Helen Breen, and she later sent me a lovely collection of her adaptation of songs of the era, called Visions of What Used to Be.

"Annie Laurie"

An old Scottish ballad, "Annie Laurie" was popular with male singing groups in the early 1900s. It has the plaintive melody typical of many Celtic tunes (think "Danny Boy") and describes the bonnie "Annie Laurie," with "brow like the snow drift, throat like the swan," who gave the poet her promise true, "which n'er forgot will be," and for whom he'd gladly die ("lay me doon and dee"). This tune appears twice in the book: first, Ebbin plays it before he leaves for France. Later, Angus, having spent his first weeks on the front line, hears it again in an underground passage, played by a soldier in a cave, after an explosion that ripped mules and men to pieces. And the line "lay me doon and dee" cuts through him with fresh meaning.

"Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven"

Written in the early 1800s, this hymn soars with full choir and descant in a place like Westminster Abbey, but is equally at home in one of the humble white Anglican churches that dot the coast of Nova Scotia, the home front setting for the novel. Hymns come to me often, and in this one the lyrics and melody are perfectly balanced, highlighting our human frailty, our transitory existence in the face of the eternal, with lines like this: "Frail as summer's flow'r we flourish, blows the wind and it is gone. But while mortals rise and perish, our God lives unchanging on" and "Sun and moon, bow down before him, dwellers all in time and space." I like the notion that sun and moon are included with us as "dwellers in time and space," bound by these dimensions, unable to fathom the unlimited time, endless space of the eternal. During World War I, hymn sings and church services were common behind the lines, often provided by the YMCA. There were chaplains for each unit--"padres," the men called them. In Cartographer, Angus is stumbling about, undone by terrible news that he is desperate to deny, when he passes a YMCA hut and almost against his will is drawn to where the hymn is being sung full throttle, every line taking on new meaning for him.

Father-like He tends and spares us,
Well our feeble frame He knows;

In His hands He gently bears us,

Rescues us from all our foes.

But it is the third line of the first verse, "Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven" that presents a terrible irony to Angus. Here are some renditions of the hymn on YouTube:

"Un Canadien Errant"

An old folk tune, "Un Canadien Errant" refers to the Acadians sent away from their homeland in Nova Scotia by the British when they took over North America in 1763. French-speaking but distinct in culture and custom from other French Canadians, the Acadians ended up in Louisiana and are known today as Cajuns. I first heard this song by the folk duo Ian and Sylvia when I was a teenager. It had been in my head for days before I wrote the scene in which it appears. In that scene wounded soldiers have gathered on the deck of a troop ship headed back to Halifax from England to catch a first glimpse of the shores of home. Their initial excitement transforms to uneasy silence, as they think of those they left behind on the field of battle. And then I knew why the song had been playing in my head. Like the "wandering" Canadien, these soldiers were themselves wandering between what was once home and all they'd been through and all they'd left behind.

P.S. Duffy and The Cartographer of No Man's Land links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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