Reading By the Ghost Light

When I heard the author, R.H. Thomson, being interviewed about his new book, By the Ghost Light, back in November, I knew I had to read it. Couldn't believe that a Canadian with British ancestry—highly regarded in the theatre world—would come down hard against patriotism. However, I'm grateful that he did.  

His international project, The World Remembers, aims to name all the First World War dead ... of every country.  Here my family's losses are on par with the victor's losses.

The book's title refers to the lone light left on in a theatre after a play is done. Here’s a quote from the book: “To stand in a dark theatre after so much life has been acted out is a thrill. The only motion is the beating of my heart, the photons fleeing the ghost light, and my shadow shifting on the walls.” (page 168).

As a theatre actor, Thomson asks whether it’s worthwhile to tell stories that inevitably fade. He answers with an italicized Yes! (page 169).  Why?  Because it’s part of the “cycle of creation.” (page 169).  I appreciated his nuanced approach to shameful parts of his family history ... "I understand that I do not carry guilt for Augustus' actions, but I do carry the burden." (page 301). 

He shares family photos, letters, memories and encourages us to share ours. Even my family losses … silenced by so many years of Remembrance Day services that didn’t include my lost uncles, grandparents or civilian dead. I was an adult before I stopped wearing a poppy ... before I realized that the red flower celebrates military violence, rather than mourning war’s destruction.

public domain, Grieving Parents, K. Kollwitz, Belgium
I came across a review of the book by Dave Obee, in the Times Colonist. Obee writes, “It is a complex, fascinating, and passionate book that, despite side journeys, never strays from the main theme of wars, memory and families.”  I’m grateful to Obee, a BC journalist and genealogist who, along with Don Miller, have greatly aided me in solving my own family mysteries about the Germans from Volhynia. 

The final image of Thomson’s book comes via the art of German sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (born in Königsberg), who lost her son, Peter, during the Great War. The pain of a mother grieving the loss of a son to war is universal and her sculpture, Mother with her Dead Son, has been recreated inside the Neue Wache museum in Berlin.  Her Grieving Parents sculpture sits outside near Peter’s grave in Belgium.

CC Neue Wache, Berlin
Mother with her Dead Son by Kollwitz
Again, I’m reminded how my lost family members never got graves. For a long time, they didn’t even have names. But I’ve found them, named them and given them life in my own stories. Because sharing stories is part of remembering, part of healing, part of creation. 

 Thomson's book is worthwhile reading and it's prompting me to check out Chris Hedges, whom he quotes: "Until there is a common vocabulary and a shared historical memory, there is no peace in any society, only an absence of war.." (page 152)

Christmas is near ... time for family ... time for sharing stories and always, a time for peace.

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