12 November 2020

What to Do? What to Do?



The New Front Line
Hubert Evans
Toronto: Macmillan, 1927
291 pages

Hugh Henderson has returned from the Great War, but not to his Ontario home. During the conflict, his parents relocated to Vancouver, a city that seems nearly as foreign as those he encountered overseas. Now twenty-five, with four years of military service behind him, Hugh is expected to start in on a career. His parents have renewed their offer to "see him through" college, but Hugh doesn't think it's for him.

So, business it is! Or so thinks his father.

A higher up in a thriving plate glass company, Hugh's dad is in a good place to find his son a position. Over a lunch at a department store restaurant, he introduces Hugh to a builder named Canby, who happens to belong to a committee dedicated to finding employment for returning soldiers:
"I'm only too glad to do it, Mr. Henderson. I know what you boys went through—," the statement seemed to lose by over-emphasis— "but just the same it's a handful for a man that's got to hustle."He raised his glass of milk and drank deeply, his little finger sticking out like a frozen sausage.
     "Course most of the boys appreciate it," he went on. "But a few don't and that kinda makes me sore. You were over there, Mr. Henderson, and you know s'well's I do that some pretty useless tools got into the army. And some of them got shot up for us too. Mind I don't forget that, but it's these sort of men that's hard to place." 
As Canby rambles, Hugh gobbles up his meal, excuses himself, and makes for the crowded streets of Vancouver's downtown. Here he passes men, who like himself sport "FOR SERVICE AT THE FRONT" pins on their lapels, yet introspection lies closer to home: 
He thought of Canby trying to "place" the returned men. Canby was like a man with one of those puzzle boxes, getting impatient with the pellets that wouldn't let themselves be rolled into place. The rolling pellets annoyed him.
Fortunately – perhaps not – Hugh's father considers his son's prospects a personal project. Ignoring sausage-fingered Canby, he's set his sites on an imminent opening at hardware wholesalers Mogg & Binwell. What Henderson père doesn't know is that fate has already played its part in the form of a chance encounter between his son and happy-go-lucky Sandy Briggs, with whom Hugh served in France. A BC boy, Biggs' was taken out of the war by shrapnel that surgeons could not remove. He rejoined his wife at Cedar City, somewhere north of Vancouver, where the two run a small general store. Briggs' invitation to come up and see him sometime – the fishing is great – is soon followed by a letter sharing that Vancouver surgeons are looking to remove some of the resurfacing shrapnel. He wonders whether Hugh would do him a favour by filling in on a part-time delivery job he has with the local shingle mill.

Against his father's wishes – "You'll lose out with Mogg and Binwell if you go traipsing up there." –Hugh sets out to help his old brother in arms. He finds that Cedar City is no city, rather a small, haphazard collection of houses and cabins separated by a creek from a similarly-sized Indian reserve. Hugh takes to his new surroundings in a way he did not in Vancouver. Evans devotes pages describing the natural beauty of British Columbia:
The sweep of the side-hill was broken in places by outcrops of granite. The lichens on these rocks were grey and brown, and where the rocks overhung and protected their faces from the weather, there were patches of brilliant green. Around these the moss and the strewn needles of the conifers fitted snugly. The sun, low now over the upper valley, sent its rays through the plumbed evergreens at right angles to the hill. It laid yellow light in strokes and curves across the ground, changing some colours, intensifying others. Hugh thought of the side-hill as some colossal canvas propped against the great lump of the upper mountain, and of himself as a toiling insect too minute to see the picture as a whole.
Hugh's father admires the industriousness of previous Hendersons in making something of themselves, each generation building upon the accomplishments of the last, and so finds it hard to accept that his only child would be attracted to a hard, physical life like that of his great-grandfather.


The New Front Line is a first novel, and first novels are so often romans à clef. Certainly, it features something of the author's own story – Evans grew up in small town Ontario, served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and settled in rural British Columbia – but it has much more to do with his outlook on life, appreciation of nature, and affection for the people of the First Nations. My attraction to this novel had everything to do with the Great War and the treatment of returning veterans. Though these things feature in The New Front Line, they rank amongst the lesser elements; both all but disappear when Hugh leaves Vancouver for Cedar City. Looking over what I've written thus far, I see that I've placed too much emphasis on my own interests. To be frank, I'm still digesting this novel. The New Front Line is an unusual book. It is a remarkable book. There is no good reason it has been out of print these last nine decades. 

Hubert Reginald Evans
9 May 1892, Vankleek Hill, ON -
16 June 1986, Roberts Creek, BC
RIP

Object: Bulky in blue boards, my copy was a gift from my friend military historian James Calhoun. It would appear to have once been presented to a man named Charles Cameron.


Might that Charles Cameron have been one of the forty Charles Camerons who served in the CEF? I don't suppose we'll ever know.

Access: As of this writing, no copies are listed for sale online. The novel can be found at Library and Archives Canada and four of our universities.


1 comment: