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Write On Ottawa: Maggie’s Choice and the vagueness of memory

By Joseph Hutt on February 13, 2016

MaggiesChoice_CVR400-500x500-600x600Filled with a sense of national pride and duty, when the war effort for WWI calls for nurses to work on the front lines, Maggie O’Conner answers. However, as she watches the war exact it’s price from friends, family, and John Hardie, the socialist recruit she falls in love with, she comes to realize that her motivations are more complicated than that.

However, even when the “war to end all wars” comes to an end, the fight is not over for Maggie, not when the people she has worked to protect still suffer under the thumb of the 1%.

Susan Taylor Meehan‘s Maggie’s Choice is the first book in a series that “follows a small group of Canadians as their lives intersect with the major events of their times.” A work of historical fiction, Maggie’s Choice can be further classified as a mild wartime romance with inklings of social commentary throughout. The focus of the story seems split between these two latter points.

There is a vague and nostalgic feeling about this story. While it kindles impressions of what it was like to be a Canadian during and after WWI, it does so through the invocation of certain staple events—Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Passchendaele—almost giving you the sense that you’re strolling the WWI exhibit at the War Museum. Powerful memories but, vaguely described, they lack depth.

Pair this with implied conversations and bandied terms that have complex historical context, such as “apartheid” and “Bolshevik”, and it feels as though something is being left out.

On the one hand, it may lend credibility to the memoir style that this novel takes, as the majority of action takes place in the mind of a 70 year-old Maggie, whose memories are being triggered by a box of keepsakes and her granddaughter’s parallel adventures as a nurse in South Africa.

As much as the reader may want to hear the intricacies of every little conversation or the truth behind every detail, it just isn’t realistically feasible. I have trouble remembering verbatim conversations I had a week ago; after fifty-some years, Maggie is going to be far from a reliable narrator. If her recollections were filled with extensive dialogues, it would have to be assumed that she is paraphrasing or fictionalizing, intentionally or not.

It’s also worth noting here that this story is also based upon the life of Meehan’s great-aunt, Martha Morkin, and the “short, telegraphic, and spare” notes she had shared. Meehan may have not wanted to put words into her great-aunt’s mouth for the sake of this story, wanting instead to stay as close to the source material as possible, those specific memories that Martha Morkin had wanted to share.

However, this vagueness seems to cloud the narrative in a mist of idealism, where socialism is the only right answer, the war is bloodless, the wounded are silent yet cheerful, and death, even when it happens right in front Maggie, seems to happen at a remove. Not that war stories need to be violent or gory—I am partial to M*A*S*H*—but with all the complex emotions and ideas being referenced, I feel they do need to be  more thoroughly explored.

I feel the story really picks up when Maggie returns from the war. It feels as though the curtain is pulled back from the narrative a bit more, focusing more clearly on the happenings leading up to the Winnipeg general strike of 1919.

However, when I finally put this book down, it left me wanting more. The story whet my appetite with its historical tidbits, like the references to social unrest within the lower classes of WWI Germany, but it never went quite deep enough to satisfy my curiosity. Too often are fascinating topics brought to the fore with the promise of a compelling conversation, only to be summed in a handful of words: “…and we discussed this for a time,” or something of the like. Dialogue, the voicing of and the contest between ideals, is largely missing from this book.

That isn’t to say I disliked the story—I am just being greedy. I found Maggie’s growing social conscience and Hardie’s socialist activities, both locally and abroad, to be interesting. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either, to bring these ideas further into the public discourse and to exemplify the continued heroism and strength of women like Maggie O’Conner and Martha Morkin.

So, if you are looking for a simpler brand of historical fiction/romance, you may be want to track down Meehan’s Maggie’s Choice. It’s suitable for adults, young or otherwise, and might even find a good place on a high school syllabus.

If you want to know more about Susan Taylor Meehan and her book, check out her website.