Michael Winter, Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead (Toronto: Doubleday, 2014).
by Christopher Schultz.
It took until the penultimate page of Michael Winter’s Into the Blizzard to finally make sense of the previous three-hundred and some pages. This is good and bad, in equal measure. As a historian, I found it poor form that his meandering narrative is so difficult to decipher, so slow to build to a central point, so seemingly devoid of narrative purpose or meaning for so long. As literature, however, reserving ultimate meaning until the near-end provides a sense of climax that might otherwise be lacking in a more traditional historical narrative. After all, and by the author’s own admission, Into the Blizzard is not a battle narrative, but rather a travel narrative into the spaces affected by war: personal and public, present and historic.
Michael Winter, Into the Blizzard:Walking the Fields
of the Newfoundland Dead (Toronto: Doubleday, 2014).
This is a book in two parts, both of which are attempting to craft counter-narratives to what he witnesses in such monumental sites as Thiepval and Beaumont-Hamel, the former the site of the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and the latter the infamous site of the near- decimation of the Newfoundland Regiment on July 1st, 1916. The first is an anti-war treatise that marches out the usual suspects—the famous First World War poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen—while providing little they haven’t already said. Winter even states that he is writing this book because Newfoundland lacked such warrior-poets during the war (205). In his search for novelty in the interpretation of war, Winter instead reifies Paul Fussell’s four-decades-old poetical hierarchies. Meanwhile, his own insights are a seemingly endless barrage of often-glib similes. For instance, describing his thirst at the Somme, he laments becoming a victim of “withering sunfire” (144). This gallows attempt at a pun is intended to undermine the clichéd “withering gunfire” associated with the Somme battlefields (162), but it is a false equivocation that misses the mark entirely.
In Winter’s defense, he seemingly does this to depict the difficulty of discussing war in new ways. The counter-narrative of tragedy set against state triumphalism, he knows, is well trodden ground. His initially infuriating habits are slowly, if not obviously, revealed as an exercise in absurdity—though he never does divorce himself from the populist, but hardly accurate ‘lions led by donkeys’ myth he espouses at nearly every turn. This is a problem. By accepting narratives of uniform calamity, Winter literally kills the individuals about whom he writes. Pure victimhood is reductive, best exhibited in the text when he suggests that Newfoundland’s only Victoria Cross winner, Tommy Ricketts, simply “halted in [his] natural development” after the war (301). What does this say about his long marriage? Or his lifetime ownership and operation of Rickett’s Pharmacy? What more does Winter want of him in order to confer a mantle of success? In his attempts to undermine the automatic heroism afforded Tommy Ricketts by the state, he diminishes the heroic narrative one might otherwise find in a life well-lived in spite of war. Winter would have been better suited taking the state to task for its framing of “heroism” in purely military terms, rather than seeking out tragedy.
Regardless, the big reveal at the end lends significance to many other narrative departures along the way, both historical and personal. Winter writes: “[The] hometown of Tommy Ricketts no longer exists as a habitable place. […] The house where he met his young wife Edna is demolished. The pharmacy where he died is torn down. The only thing left of Tommy Ricketts is a field in Ledegem” (325). Winter’s travelogue operates against this erasure, repopulating the present with those past narratives. He re-situates historical actors and actions in the present, thus crafting a geography of activities lost to our eyes today. When he is not distracting through forced wartime remembrance, he is showing how people connect across time and in place. A demolished house is no barrier to remembrance if the place upon which it stood is peopled anew, by both past and present, for present and future. He does this throughout the text; Winter’s frequent reflections on his own experiences in these historic places add depth, breadth and longevity to these sites despite their impermanence. By extension, he encourages others to do the same in a spirit of collective histories, provided one gets past his privileging of Newfoundlanders over all others (155). Though often self-centred, one is struck by a sincere sense of localized, historical pluralism in Winter’s writing which is commendable, if not quite novel.
Christopher Schultz is in the late stages of his PhD in History at Western University, supervised by Jonathan Vance, and focusing on Canadian soldiers’ concepts of “home” while serving on the Western Front. He is the co-creator and co-editor of “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series” at ActiveHistory.ca. He resides in Ottawa with his wife and three children.
 Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).