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Archive for World War One Centennial

From Page to Stage: Nicole d’Entremont’s “A Generation of Leaves” becomes a play

Nicole d'Entremont

Author Nicole d’Entremont heads toward home from the ferry landing on Peaks Island.

One benefit of commuting by ferry to and from Peaks Island is the opportunity to connect with neighbors on the ride across the harbor. One damp, windy evening (that’s my wink to  a “dark and stormy evening” purple prose), I sat with Nicole d’Entremont and learned about the adaptation of her novel, A Generation of Leaves, into two plays, one of which — Le Retour (or The Return) — premieres this summer.

Le Village Historique Acadien will stage Nicole’s play in beautiful Lower West Pubnico Nova Scotia. Nicole said, “Le Retour captures the second half of my book — Elzéar’s return home to Pubnico and his attempt to “fit in” to life in the small Acadian village of Pubnico. As in the book, the image of his older brother Léonce who was killed in Ypres, Belgium haunts him and he must contend with this haunting in a visceral way. I won’t say more lest my words betray some kind of spoiler.”

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Le Village Historique Acadien offers costumed interpreters that bring history to life (photo courtesy of Le Village).

The Canadian Maritimes are dotted with French-speaking villages like Pubnico, the oldest Acadian settlement in the province. Costumed interpreters and events at Le Village Historique Acadien explore Acadian culture. Nicole explained, “Le Village is a perfect place for the performance since the amphitheater is set in the historical restoration of an Acadian village in the early 1900’s the time period of WWI and of the return of soldiers from the war. Unlike here in the US, the Centennial of WWI is being remembered in all the countries that took part in that massacre from 1914-1918 and not just remembered in 2017 one hundred years after the U.S. entered into the fray in 1917.”

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Le Village Historique Acadien cast in 2014 with playwright Nicole d’Entremont far right

“In writing a play, you can’t depend on long lines of descriptive narration. The fun challenge was crafting short lines of dialogue and suggesting stage actions to move the plot along. But then I missed the introspective life of characters so I needed to write asides–the actor breaking through the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience. In Le Retour, one character does quite a bit of that, but without long soliloquies. Le Retour is almost all in le français and I translated the script with the help of my teacher here in Portland–Nina Schmir. The necessary Pubnico acadien patois will be added by the actors.”

 
“In the first play last year, I enjoyed backing off and seeing what folks did with what I had written. Actors learned the lines and sometimes changed them–that’s because the lines have to work on the stage and that was not my craft. Actors knew what was working and I generally agreed. I loved the camaraderie, the set design, the costumes, the goofing around, the sound effects, the serious moments of discussion regarding how to move, gesture, and emote on the stage.”
 
“I have a little more riding on this one act play than last year’s play because I deal more forthrightly with some themes of French/English relationships which still resonate in Canada: the effects of war on returning soldiers and religious bias. These are issues we confront every day and either we look at them and say nothing or we discuss them. Maybe this play will provoke the latter.”

Le Village Historique will perform the play in early August, so check their website or Nicole’s blog for an announcement of the final schedule. Ferry service on the Nova Star sails from Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia; from there the Pubnicos are a short 45 minute 103 Highway or 60 min, scenic Lighthouse Route 3 up the shore.  Nicole said, “If you haven’t been to Nova Scotia, especially to the seven Acadian villages of Pubnico then you would be in for a treat. There are places to stay and Le Village has great regional cuisine.”

For more information about Nicole d’Entremont’s writing process, see 5 Tips for Writing a Historical Novel.

Written by Patricia Erikson, Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Can we understand the past? Tip #5 of writing historical novels

sheets“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
― L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Barring the invention of a time machine, we can never truly inhabit the past, perhaps never truly understand it. Tip #5 of the 5 Tips for writing a historical novel considers: how can we presume to write about it? Do we seek to understand the past as a “foreign country,” understanding it for its own sake and on its own terms? Or, do we wish to view history through the lens of the present, as though it is still with us, still informing and informed by our present point of view?

I would say that both are true. On some level, we must accept and respect that the past is a foreign country. Unless we’re working in a fantasy genre, we can’t write tomatoes onto the table of an early Roman banquet, nor can James Cameron get away with a reference in the movie Titanic to a man-made reservoir that did not yet exist. The past really was different. People spoke differently, experienced life differently, and had different resources available to them.

On the other hand, repercussions from the past continue to shape our world. An author can find, with great care, analogy in the present that can inform writing about the past. In writing about soldiers’ experiences in World War One, Peaks Island author Nicole d’Entremont reflected upon the war veterans who attended her Sudden Fiction* classes in Albuquerque. A story shared by one veteran from the first Iraq war found itself come alive in a scene about WWI. Nicole explained:

I remember a vet from the 1990 Gulf  War who wrote a reflection drawn from a Sudden Fiction prompt. He remembered the dust, heat, and hot wind of the desert.  Then, one day back home in New Mexico, he saw his mother’s freshly washed sheets hanging on the line, flapping and drying in the sun, catching the breeze.  He buried his face in those sheets for their clean smell, their coolness and freshness– burying his face in all of it. Reflecting on his writing now, I remember thinking that his feeling was almost like a cleansing, some kind of baptism. I had my character, Elzear, (back from the WWI trenches in 1919 having survived the war) do this same thing in A Generation of Leaves.  I thank that student whose name I have forgotten for such a lasting image.

While language, technology, and national boundaries change from the past to the present, there are aspects of our humanity that endure across generations. As long as we respect that the past is a foreign country, we can still cross the border and find common ground.

If you would like to meet Nicole, then come to her book launch event for A Generation of Leaves this week, Tuesday, February 25th at 7 PM in the Doug MacVane Community Center on Peaks Island.

*Here, Sudden Fiction refers to workshops, facilitated by Nicole and others, that encourage writers to respond to a prompt by writing for one unbroken hour and then reading aloud to share with the group.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Archive diving: Third of five tips for writing a historical novel

Inspired by an interview with Nicole d’ Entremont about her WWI novel “A Generation of Leaves,” Peaks Island Press is offering five tips to get you writing your historical novel. The first three of five tips are:
Tip #1 listen to family stories for inspiration;
Tip #2: visit historic sites;
Tip #3: dare yourself to go archive diving.

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Nicole points to her uncle’s signature on his attestation papers

First, let’s start with what archives are not. They are not “containers of brute facts” (as anthropologist Renato Renaldo would say). If they were passive containers of information, then I might not recommend them. Instead, archives are like spiders, spinning webs between remains of the past and those of us who inhabit the present. Beware of archive diving, though, because a faded document or a tattered photograph could seize your muse and lure you and your story somewhere you wouldn’t expect. That is precisely the point. Historical resources shape our perception of the past. Just be prepared for that adventure.

For Nicole d’ Entremont, archival research included exploring the Library and Archives of Canada in Ottawa to gain access to military records. Among the treasures she uncovered were her Uncle Leo’s attestation papers that he signed upon volunteering to go to war (pictured above).

To be able to touch his signature–it drew me into that precise moment when he committed himself to something that led to his death at a very young age. The young men going off to war in 1914 thought the war would be over in 6 months.

Nicole also located her uncle’s university transcript and could see his grades. It helped her appreciate the life he left behind, the life he lost.

The grades affected me more deeply than I thought they would.  Here was a young man from a poor French- Acadian fishing village–going to a University from 1909-1911.  Here were his grades in my hands (and good ones at that) inscribed in the whispery ink scratchings of  a long dead professor. What dreams did that young man have?  Why did he leave school in 1911?  All of that took me on another quest.

Nicole and I agree that our perception of the past is shaped much more intimately when we do our own “archive diving.” Some of my favorite archives are listed below. Dive in.

American Memory Project, Library of Congress

Maine Folklife Center

Maine Memory Network

Maine State Archives

New York Times

University of Southern Maine Archives

Stay tuned for the next in the five tips for writing a historical novel — Tip #4: Sort through secondary sources.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Tip #4 on writing a historical novel: Sort through secondary sources

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Some of Nicole’s favorite WWI sources

The first three of five tips on writing a historical novel focused on primary sources – Tip #1 family stories (oral history), Tip #2 historic sites,  and Tip #3 archives. This article encourages you to sort through and mine valuable secondary sources. If you write a historical novel using secondary sources alone, recognize that you’re reading through the lens of how another author has selected, organized, and interpreted primary sources. You would be a step removed from rich, authentic sources. However, secondary sources still have great value. As a cultural historian, I offer this distinction between the two:

Primary source -A surviving record of past events created during the time period under study by someone who participated in, witnessed, or commented upon the historic events, such as photographs, diaries, artifacts, or oral history.

Secondary source -Books, articles, essays, and lectures, often created using primary sources, that describe and interpret a time period after events have taken place.

In the case of island author Nicole d’Entremont, secondary sources – particularly Peter Englund‘s “The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of WWI”- complemented her use of primary sources in writing “A Generation of Leaves.” 

Swedish historian and journalist Englund describes his book as “a work of anti-history,” in other words, not a book that strings together noteworthy events, but “a book about what it was like.” Nicole explained to me how it influenced her:

“The Beauty and the Sorrow” features 20 people of several nationalities who were caught up in World War I. A young German girl. A Scottish woman. An Italian trooper. Forget the dates. It’s the people. This is their story. It’s not about the generals. I read this book twice. As a “non-historian,” I had doubts about how I was approaching the subject, but Englund, a noted historian himself and university teacher of WWI history, gave me confidence that I could follow my novelist’s inclination without fearing the wrath of historical rectitude.

I wrap up the 5 tips on writing a historical novel with the next article: Tip #5: Can we understand the past?

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Visiting Historic Sites: Nicole d’Entremont and 5 tips for writing a historical novel

If you plan to write a historical novel, then also plan on fueling your writer’s imagination with a number of historical sources. Following an interview with Nicole d’Entremont, Peaks Island Press decided to offer five tips to get you going on your historical novel. In case you missed it, Tip #1 was Listen to family stories.

Tip #2: Visit historic sites

In Nicole’s case, visiting a historic site relevant to her novel meant traveling to one of the most gruesome battlefields of the First World War, often known as Flanders Fields in Belgium. This was the blood-soaked Flemish countryside captured by the lines of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem,  “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses row on row…” When Nicole and I sat down together, she shared the role that visiting this notorious site played in writing her WWI novel, A Generation of Leaves. She said, “In order to write the book I wanted to write, I had to go to Belgium and walk where my young uncle had walked.  I wanted to go deeper than just book research and that was the way to do it.” Let’s listen to why Nicole feels that way.

Visiting the trenches at Ypres

“Two years ago, I went and connected with a battlefield tour organization — Flanders Battlefield Tours — in Ypres, Belgium. My guide, Jacques Ryckebosch, took me to a section of trench in Sanctuary Wood where many Canadian soldiers had been killed.  What I didn’t know was that Jacques had told the museum staff there that I was a relative of a soldier who fell at Sanctuary Wood. I was standing in the trench and I suddenly heard the sound of bagpipes coming from the forest nearby. I asked him what that music was. He told me that they were playing for my Uncle Leo. I understood fully then that it’s not ‘the past’ for them. It’s ‘the present.’

One of the hardest things about this book project was reading about the staggering numbers and the conditions of the warfare. There were 20 million people killed in the First World War. How do you grasp that? But seeing one of the most notorious places on the Western Front helped put me in touch with my uncle [who is the basis for the character Léonce]. When I went to the Flemish countryside and saw the soil, I learned that it’s very distinctive; it turns into a viscous mud when it rains. I could then imagine crouching in the confined space of the trench wallowing, wallowing in the mud. Then I went to the Menin Gate in Ypres. My uncle’s name is among the 55,000 names on that gate. They are the names of the soldiers who fought nearby and whose bodies were never recovered.”

Menin Gate became the place where Nicole’s book ends. The character, Léonce, only survived the trenches a few months, so Nicole has other characters carry readers through the chaos to the end of the war.

View from within 80-foot high Menin Gate

Visiting the trenches and Menin Gate not only influenced her writing process, but they are shaping her book event plans, too. Through her research and travel, Nicole learned that every night at 8 PM for nearly 90 years, since 1927, Menin Gate shuts down to traffic; everything stops to allow for the playing of taps. It’s an extraordinary living tribute. Next year, in 2014, numerous events will commemorate the centennial of the start of WWI and Nicole plans to travel to Belgium to participate. Through her novel, Nicole will bear witness to “the war as not past, but present.”

Stay tuned for the next in the five tips for writing a historical novelTip #3: Archive Diving.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Nicole d’Entremont on family stories and 5 tips for writing an historical novel

Nicole d'Entremont

Nicole d’Entremont

Stories. Family stories. The ones spoken across dinner tables and at bedsides. These have the power to send us on journeys of mind, body, and heart. While my father’s WWII stories of the Arctic, propelled me to write about Greenland, “one little scrap of a story” sent Peaks Island author Nicole d’Entremont on a five-year journey to write what is perhaps the first historical novel to portray the Acadian experience in the First World War. While sharing her writing process, five tips for writing a historical novel emerged.

Tip #1: Listen to family stories

Alongside her pot-bellied woodstove, Nicole and I took refuge from the Polar Vortex and talked about “A Generation of Leaves,” her newest novel that follows her Uncle Leo from the tiny Acadian fishing village of Pubnico, Nova Scotia into the trenches of World War I.

Nicole: “I never knew my Uncle Leo. He enlisted to fight in World War I when he was 21 years old. My father told me one little scrap of a story about Uncle Leo, and that story had been passed down to him by my grandmother. My grandmother, Monique Adèle, was a devout Catholic and a formidable woman. She sent my father down to the train station every week to pick up the paper from Halifax and bring it back to the village. It was Monique Adèle’s job to read the newspaper for the names of those who had fallen on the Front. One evening, Monique Adèle went out to the woodpile and she saw her son, Leo, dressed in his uniform, standing there looking at her. He was smiling. She blinked. He was gone. She knew then that she would never see him again. Months later, his name appeared in the newspaper on the list of those missing in action. Eventually, he was

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Author Nicole d’Entremont with parents, brother, and grandmother Monique Adele

listed as killed in action. His body was never found.

I have been returning to the little village of Pubnico every summer since 1964 and that story of Monique Adèle’s experience at the woodpile always stayed with me. I wanted to understand the Acadian experience of World War I. How did families feel fighting for a nation that had expelled them in the 1700s? There is not much written about that.

My grandmother was like the prow of a ship. I remember being afraid of her. She died at the age of 90 when I was 17. But stories about her remained.”

Listening to these family stories inspired Nicole to learn more. For years, she spoke with villagers in Pubnico, gathered more oral history, and defined the characters in her novel. Like her grandmother, the character, Adèle, has 11 kids and she’s “the boss of the village and the matriarch of the family.” She becomes a central figure in “A Generation of Leaves.” Nicole’s Uncle Leo becomes the Acadian soldier, Léonce, who survives but a few months in the trenches.

Family stories and village oral history helped Nicole portray both how the war tore many families apart and how it also pulled the village more tightly together. But those stories were just a beginning in her writing process. Keep an eye out for the second of the five tips for writing a historical novel: Tip #2: Visiting historic sites.

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