Civil war

Oh say, can you see?

Stars and stripes everywhere, of course, and white pillars, like those identifying the big white house that is impossible to approach, even to reach the stipulated distance.

Monuments, memorials. Grand Lincoln on his marble throne taking me back to grade school where I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address. The sound of the words returns to me as I stand reading the text here, and the next day at the stunning Library of Congress, the Jefferson Building, where Lincoln's neat handwriting is on display, behind glass.
Heading south, this is a good start. "Now we are engaged in a great civil war." It is a war identified by many names. Most commonly known as the civil war, the further south I get, it is called the War between the States (Fort Macon), or the war of Northern Aggression (Savannah). Here in the capital of the nation, however, the emphasis is on the triumph of having kept the states under one flag, and what a splendid capital it is. The looming neo-classical buildings, the hum of argument that must be going on inside the hotels, and the office buildings as people try to persuade one other to cooperate or resist. Still a kind of civil war. In the news I hear about a broken congress, or broken government, but outside everything is beautiful; bright sunny days, brisk autumn winds, wonderful fall colours, red and gold being the coin of the season. With my personal guide to steer me to the best places, including the brilliant café at the Museum of the American Indian, which offers such native foods as alligator and blue corn bread, I pass through Washington without having been touched much. Only security everywhere and the bollards that go up, preventing access to any kind of close up view of the White House, only those things rouse the anger I used to feel at policies that seemed a joke in this so-called land of liberty.

I left the country to protest all that transpired during the Vietnam War and the inspired design of the memorial to that war amazes me for how it evokes the darkness of that time. We walk along the path beside the black marble bearing the names of all those poor soldiers sacrificed for something abstract and absurd as the domino theory and are literally overwhelmed by its shadow, even my tall friend Jimmy.

On my last morning I try once again to glimpse the White House, and it is a perfect day to walk the length of Pennsylvania Avenue, but no luck. I am stopped a block away, and so head back to Union Station, but by a side street that takes me to Ford's Theatre and the house where Lincoln died. Relics of history everywhere, and of conflicts that have morphed into different forms. Beneath its gleaming white beauty, the bones of Washington rattle.

Confederates, faceless men, draft dodgers...old wars reconsidered

Reading a paper book, and  an ebook, both concerned with the lingering effect of old armed conflicts. Civil wars, if wars can ever be considered civil. Confederates in the Attic is the ebook, and I am reading it in preparation for my southern odyssey in November.  I finished the first few chapters on the train from Toronto back to Quebec City, between glances out the window at sumacs dripping scarlet alongside the tracks, and white birch trunks composing a warp behind the turning maples.
Tony Horwitz writes about his boyhood obsession with the the war between the states, as it was called, his experience as a hardcore reenactor of life as a confederate soldier, and the southern loyalists he met in Salisbury, North Carolina. As the Via train rolled east, after a switch at the Montreal train station, (where I picked up a felafel sandwich from my favorite Libainaise food kiosk) I learned of the commitments people make to keep memories alive. There is even a group called Children of the Confederacy. Horwitz examines the South through a lens ground to a single focus. My aim is to get a general first  impression. Instead of following the trail bloodied by combatants in the 1860's, a subject that never really compelled me, except when I was in school and I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, I plan to make my first trip to the southern U.S. a bit of a literary pilgrimage. I want to visit Asheville and think of the wordy romanticism of Thomas Wolfe; You Can't Go Home Again waits on my ereader too.

But here, chez moi, it is a novel en français, L'ombre du vent, or The Shadow of the Wind, that absorbs me. Even though I am not yet, nor may ever be, fluent in French, I can read well enough to savour the language, the style of Zafon, the compelling voice of his narrator, who, as a child, is taken by his father to a cemetery for forgotten books. That sequence begins a story haunted both by a man with a face burned so that he has no features, and, more intrinsically, by the Spanish civil war. But a cemetery for forgotten books! How wonderful! All we authors must wish for a kind of Graveyard day (I remember the Bobby Ann Mason story), when people would come visit our neglected books

That has happened to some extent recently with my novel, Centre/Center (Talon, 1992) which, coincidentally, also concerns war, the Vietnam war in this case, and consequent migration to Canada of draft dodgers and war protestors. A few messages from readers who discovered the book (in the kind of cemetery that now exists on-line), and a book club discussion have convinced me that the divisions created by that war also still exist, here in Canada and in the United States. It was a different kind of civil, rather, uncivil war.