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Novelist Michael Winter: ‘The idea that disaster helps create a nation seems ridiculous’

Newfoundland Regiment soldiers, First World War 1914-1918.

ARCHIVES OF NEWFOUNDLAND

Michael Winter earned his undergraduate degree at Memorial University – established in 1925 and named to honour the roughly 1,300 Newfoundlanders who lost their lives in the First World War.

But the award-winning novelist says that somehow the Great War and its devastating impact on his home province didn't really touch him until a publisher asked him to write a non-fiction book about it.

Hundreds of men from the Rock died on one bloody day just under a century ago – July 1, 1916, during the battle of Beaumont-Hamel – part of the Allied attack against the Germans that later became known as the Battle of the Somme. "When they asked about this book," says Mr. Winter, "I said from the get-go that I couldn't see writing a potted history of Newfoundland's war; there are already some good ones out there. I wasn't sure what I would have to say, but I knew it wouldn't be that."

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The book he eventually did write – Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, to be published Nov. 4 – is part travelogue, part philosophical investigation and, yes, part history, albeit an unconventional one. He recently sat down with The Globe to discuss the making of this hybrid work.

If it wasn't a natural subject for you, how did you find your way into this project?

A few years ago, I was trying to buy a piece of land next to a house I had in Newfoundland. I discovered that the plot had been owned by a family, and the son had gone off to World War I and been killed. It began to interest me: What would have happened on that land if the son had lived, had brought up his own family there? When I was building a wall on it, I found the remains of

the little house, some ceramic doorknobs, and I had this sense of what was – and might have been.

Did you find out where he died?

I even stood on the spot. In France, at Gueudecourt. Richard Sellars.

What else did you find over there?

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I was ambushed by what I felt. The fantastic thing about the memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel is that it's one of the rare examples where they've preserved a battlefield more or less as it was. You can see all the trenches, where the British were, where the Germans lined up. I took a picnic, a bottle of wine, on the evening of June 30 [2013]. No one was there; it was completely empty.

How many fought and died there?

Of about 800 Newfoundlanders – under British command – 650 went down, and there were about 250 deaths within minutes of the battle opening. The total British casualties that day were about 60,000 – the worst single day for that army in history. The night I was there, the sun was setting; and, at twilight, I had this strange feeling of so many of these men experiencing what they didn't know would be the last night of their lives.

You've written, too, about the formal parts of the memorial.

It's effective. The whole park is surrounded by 5,000 trees native to Newfoundland. These trees by now are huge, some 100 feet tall – much taller than they're able grow on the Island. The soldiers died young, and yet the trees are ancient now. They felt like witnesses, a force from home that overlooks this battlefield.

What did you think of British artist Basil Gotto's caribou sculpture?

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The caribou was the emblem of the regiment. In the guidebooks, they talk about this caribou looking upon the old German lines with haughtiness, with arrogance, but they're wrong. I've seen caribou like this in the wild: It's smelling the air and sensing overwhelming danger; it's about to run into the woods. Of course, the Newfoundlanders couldn't run. When the British said to go over the top, they did, and they were mainly killed.

Some politicians talk about Canada's finding nationhood on the fields of Vimy. What were the repercussions for Newfoundland of these losses?

Before Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, there was the same sort of talk of young men sacrificing their lives so that a country might grow – that somehow it had been a great nation-building success for Newfoundland. After 1949, the opposite talk grew more prevalent – that this battle marked the beginning of the dissipation of nationhood: that because of this, and several economic factors, Newfoundland was forced to capitulate as a nation, and join Canada.

To me, the idea that any kind of disaster helps create a nation seems a ridiculous one. There was no family in the house on the land next to me, and there might have been.

Apart from the boy who grew up on the land next to your house, who else did you find?

One of them was Tommy Ricketts, the Newfoundland soldier who won the Victoria Cross at age 15, the youngest to do so. He was from the town, now abandoned, of Middle Arm, in the district of White Bay. There are no roads to it now, so I hiked there. While he was being pinned with his Cross by the King, his father was incarcerated, in jail for being a ne'er-do-well. After the war, Tommy wanted to go back to be a fisherman, but the Newfoundland people wouldn't let him: They wanted the war hero to be respectable. I interviewed his son, and he said the Newfoundland people captured Tommy Ricketts – "captured" was the son's word – and made Tommy become someone else.

Did you do many such interviews?

Some. But so much is there in the documents: the flesh and blood of these people, now gone. It's amazing how much specific detail is in the records, with each regiment member's whereabouts accounted for each day. What I've written about is what happens to us when the past ambushes us. That emotional, visceral thing.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Alec Scott is a Canadian writer (@Alec_Scott on Twitter) now based in San Francisco.

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