Friday, November 29, 2013

"The Cartographer of No Man’s Land"

P.S. Duffy is the author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, a debut novel that takes place during the First World War in Nova Scotia and the Western Front in France. She lives in Rochester, MN, had a long career in neurologic communication disorders, and now splits her time between writing fiction, reading history, fiction, and essays, and writing in the neurosciences for Mayo Clinic. She says that at her age she is happy to have the word “debut” applied to anything she does.

Duffy applied the Page 69 Test to The Cartographer of No Man’s Land and reported the following:
The Cartographer of No Man’s Land takes place during the First World War and is told through the eyes of Angus MacGrath, a lieutenant on the Western Front in France, and his 13-year-old son back home in a fishing village in Nova Scotia. When Angus’s best friend and brother-in-law goes missing at the front, Angus defies his pacifist upbringing and enlists to find him. Hoping to be a military cartographer in London, he is instead sent directly to the infantry. An initially reluctant soldier, he continues his search, but now for some greater purpose. What he eventually discovers about Ebbin makes sense only in the context of war. At home, his young son is coming of age without him and, like all the characters in the book, must navigate the shifting ground of war’s uncertainties and lasting effects.

Page 69, in full:
Chapter Five
February 18th
Arras Sector, France

“February 18th, 1917,” Angus wrote at the top of the tablet in his lap. He ran a filthy hand through his filthy hair. The sack of censored letters slumped beside him on the frozen ground of the dugout. Some he’d censored himself, as was required of junior officers—a task he found embarrassing, and one which Publicover sailed through on the winds of duty. I get through mine in ten minutes flat, he told Angus. Just scan for anything that reveals location or tactics and for grievances against King and country, the CEF, or the top brass. No need to get bogged down with memories of apple blossoms or hopes for Aunt Bertie’s recovery.

In the process Angus had learned a few things about his men—that some, like Boudrey, could barely write; that Katz, McNeil, and Wertz could turn a phrase with ease; and that some wrote no letters at all. Many were homesick, some heartsick, but they generally refrained from self-pity. Survival demanded that someone, somewhere had it worse.

There was about an hour of daylight left, Angus figured, maybe twenty minutes of it to himself. By midnight, he’d be gone. His men …
Page 69. Hmm … wasn’t there a “Page 99 Test” awhile back? Because that page is good. It’s great, in fact. It contains all a reader needs to be intrigued, moved, astounded. I actually haven’t looked at it, but I’m sure that’s true. Page 69, on the other hand, is an interlude (sigh) between action on the home front and the Western Front. In a trench in the last hours of daylight, Angus has finished censoring letters and struggles to write his own. It presages a moment later in the book when Angus will again censor letters, but under very different circumstances. Why not? “Who better to blot out truth?” he’ll say to himself.

But here we learn merely that he’s survived his first two weeks on the front line and that despite being the reluctant soldier, he takes his duty to his men seriously. There’s a passing reference to their stoicism and to Publicover, the good-looking19-year old lieutenant, who is a stronger officer than Angus at this point, and whose boyish enthusiasm belies the ice in his veins. I happen to love him so I’m glad he’s on page 69.

By the midnight hour alluded to at the bottom of the page, this quiet moment and Angus’s world will be rocked by a young private who runs amok, then straight into No Man’s Land toward the German line. The previous page has Angus’s son, Simon Peter, also in fading daylight, staring in wonder at a painting by Angus—strange and more alive than any his father had painted before—of a boy and his father in a rowboat. That thread of connection is there in the boat, in Simon Peter, and in Angus sitting on his crate trying to write home. It is the love story of the book.
Learn more about the book and author at P. S. Duffy's website.

Writers Read: P. S. Duffy.

--Marshal Zeringue