The Danger Tree By David Macfarlane
No Man's Land is that space between the lines of the British and German forces in World War I, the title of a novel by Newfoundlander Kevin Major, published in 1995, and now a play to be performed at the Charles W. Stockey Centre later this week. Many Newfoundlanders fought in World War I and many of them were killed in battle. Kevin Major's character, Hayward, joined up with his friends, and became one of the “blue puttees”, so named because their puttees were initially made of blue flannel as there was a shortage of khaki material when their uniforms were first made. We meet Hayward and his mates in the French countryside, waiting for the “Great Day”, the “Great Push”. These are days of quiet between the earlier trench warfare and training. A period of calm, preparing for a battle that they know will be the most ferocious yet. The young soldiers are thinking of home, thinking the war will soon be at an end - they are planning their return home and their future lives. When the time comes to move, the advancing regiment can hear the artillery charges in the distance. They settle into trenches 250 yards from their own front line, with only 500 more yards to the German trenches. They wait until dawn. They listen as the regiments ahead of them advance. Hayward and his fellow officers realize that the advance is not going as well as expected. When they attempt to advise the Colonel in charge they are rebuffed - and their troops march into slaughter. As they attempt to pass through the barbed wire - into No Man’s Land - they find the enemy has fixed their guns on the gap and are killing any man who attempts to make it through. “No Man’s Land”, lacerated by weeks of artillery fire and strewn with the bodies of the relentless young souls, gave them no pause" writes Kevin Major. The history of the Newfoundland regiment and the devastating losses it experienced during the First World War is also at the centre of David MacFarlane’s book The Danger Tree. This book won the Canadian Authors' Association Award for Non-fiction in 1992. David MacFarlane is the recipient of 11 National Magazine awards, and the author of the novel, Summer Gone, set on Georgian Bay, which won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was short-listed for the Giller Prize in 2000. We know he is an excellent writer, and the story he tells in The Danger Tree is riveting.
The Danger Tree is David MacFarlane’s own family story. What a gift he has given his family and their descendants. It begins with Josiah and Louisa Goodyear - MacFarlane's maternal great-grandparents. They were the parents of seven children, six boys and one girl. They were people determined to make a name for themselves, and moved their family, in 1907, from a fishing village to the inland city of Grand Falls, a paper town. Louisa wanted to ensure that her sons would make something of themselves - not live the hard lives of the fisherman.
When the First World War begins five of the six Goodyear boys join the Newfoundland regiment. Their story brings to life the fate of the regiment as we follow the true experiences of Ray, Stan and Hedley - none of them return from the war. Ray was the youngest son and it seems that his death was the hardest to bear for the family. Even in her old age, MacFarlane’s great-aunt Kate cannot speak of Ray without tears. MacFarlane describes the Newfoundland homes with photographs of dead sons, in uniform, on the walls and mantles, and the special place these dead boys held in the family story. I remember always the photograph of my own Uncle Vaughan, killed in the Second World War in Italy, hanging in the living room of my grandparent’s home. Uncle Vaughan died before I was born, but in some ways his short life held more importance in my mother's large maritime family than the lives of the many living brothers. Ray Goodyear had the same lasting reverence in his own family.
David MacFarlane does a masterful job of telling not only the story of the World War One experiences of his great uncles, but also the history of a couple of generations of his ancestors. It is rich with Newfoundland lore, and anecdotes.
Boyhood meals that MacFarlane ate at the home of his Newfoundland relatives complete with the bread and molasses that followed every meal - such a maritime tradition. The childhood memories, as MacFarlane listened to the conversations of the adults - the misunderstandings - the interpretation of events seen through the eyes of a child, are a pleasure to read. There are of course, questions that cannot be answered about some family events.
By the time MacFarlane was old enough to ask the questions, in the summer of 1973, when his Aunt Kate and Uncle Roland were still alive, he didn’t know he had to do it. I suspect this is true of many of us; it is certainly the case in my own family, much to my regret.
When we are in our early adult years we do not realize how much we do not know, and by the time we are somewhere around middle age ourselves; when we know we should have obtained the oral history of our family, it is often too late.
MacFarlane had one bit of great good luck though, because his Uncle Roland had kept things - and had left a trunk full of papers. To the facts of the family, MacFarlane has added the lore, and produced a wonderful family story, at the same time it is an excellent history of the Newfoundland regiment and a vivid portrait of Newfoundland during the time of his grandparents.