by Terry Hong
The Great War implodes humanity in “No Man’s Land—a cratered landscape of ruin” in P.S. Duffy’s first novel. Published in October 2013 when Duffy was 65, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land could only have been imagined by a life-experienced world-wanderer mature enough to embody the nuances, the gray zones, the ambiguities of writing about war.
Born in China, brought up in New England and Baltimore, Duffy and her family spent 35 summers in Nova Scotia, Canada—where her ancestral roots go back to 1754—before she eventually settled in Rochester, Minnesota. PhD-ed (yes, that’s Dr. Duffy!) with a quarter-century-career focused on neurologically-based communication disorders, Duffy certainly honed her own communication skills before setting story to the page. Her debut fiction earned her multiple starred reviews, made numerous must-read/best-of lists, and received a finalist nod for the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize which “celebrate[s] the power of literature to promote peace.” The committee called Cartographer a “haunting meditation on family, friendship, and sacrifice,” commending it for “bridging the distance between past and present, duty and honor, obligation and love.”
The novel’s eponymous cartographer—Angus McGrath—is still young. He’s an artist at heart, although he supports his family laboring on the surrounding waters. The year is 1917, and he’s left his seaside Nova Scotia village where his family awaits his return: his distanced wife Hettie Ellen, their pride-filled teenage son Simon Peter, his cousin’s entrusted (abandoned) almost four-year-old Young Fred, the family’s stalwart housekeeper Ida, and his war-hating, severely angry father Duncan. Angus crosses the Atlantic from Canada on a two-fold mission: to learn what might have happened to his brother-in-law Ebbin, whose letters from the front stopped almost a year ago, and to fulfill the promise of “help[ing] to save lives by transforming [aerial photographs of enemy territory] into maps.”
What should have been a noncombatant cartographer’s post in London never materializes, and Angus is instead sent directly to the trenches of France. He meets decent, committed men, but what he witnesses challenges everything he ever knew about right and wrong. “I’ve heard only madmen survive,” he notes presciently, even as a rat invades his haversack and attacks his box of pastels. The hungry rat—streaked in lavender and yellow after its chalky feast—leaves only “browns and blacks and a single gray . . . intact.” The symbolism is certainly not lost: a chilling warning of the bleakness ahead.
Back in Canada—thousands of miles from combat—safety is hardly guaranteed. Angus’s son Simon Peter—just 13 when his father left—comes of age, mostly on his own. He gently falls in love. He stands up to his belligerently pacifist grandfather. He defends the downtrodden, even when their entire community succumbs to war hysteria and turns on one of their own—the classics-loving teacher Mr. Heist whose only crime is his German heritage. Most of all, Simon Peter believes in, waits for, and expects his father’s heroic return.
In spite of the unavoidable violence wrought by the machinations of war—Duffy meticulously renders the graphic details for maximum effect—The Cartographer is first a story about humanity and what happens to that humanity when confronted with the most inhuman circumstances. “[M]oral certainty is a luxury of the very young and the very old,” Angus warns Simon Peter just before he departs. When he returns, his body having survived when so many others did not, certainty—on so many levels—promises to elude Angus for a lifetime to come.
With an undergraduate degree in history, Duffy has been scrupulous in her research in order to recreate battles, weapons, locations. Numerous reviews are in awe of her ability to capture scenes in which, as a woman living in the 21st century (67 she may be, but that doesn’t even overlap with World War II), personal participation would have been utterly impossible.
And yet she writes of “the thick, hollow death tube of a massive Krupp howitzer, its long snout black and charred.”
She captures the small miracle that was a “comfort box”:“Clean handkerchiefs! A chocolate bar to share with my chums . . . pins to patch my uniform and string to tie my gloves to my belt. And a razor and soap to lather up with! A good razor was IMMEASURABLY APPRECIATED IN THE TRENCHES FOR THEIR SUPERIOR KEENNESS, the adverts in the Halifax Chronicle proclaimed.”
She mourns the comrades: “‘They kept at it, you know, long after he was gone. Kept him dancing, strafing him with bullets. Death should be . . .’ Sacred, holy, he wanted to say.”
What Duffy lacks in direct war experience, her decades of working in neuroscience have bridged any potential gaps in credibility. Long before attempting a novel, Duffy wrote a previous book more in line with the PhD she earned decades ago in Communication Disorders from the University of Minnesota, work that she’s continued at the Mayo Clinic in her Rochester hometown. That graduate textbook’s title alone—Right Brain Damage: Disorders of Communication and Cognition—might seem initially challenging to mass readers (that’s me), but it hints at the insight which would eventually permeate Duffy’s novel.
Without a doubt, Duffy’s scientific focus and work with patients honed and expanded her empathic abilities in creating her fictional characters: “Neuroscience seeks to understand not just the brain, but the mind,” she explains in a recent interview for Sun Sailor, a Minnesota newspaper. As the machines of war destroy bodies throughout Cartographer, Duffy records and recreates the collateral damage suffered by surviving brains and minds: “‘Thank God you made it,’ Angus addresses a group of men. But all eyes go to a soldier who “refused food and water, just huddled there all night . . . Angus saw that his tunic was rippling as if alive. Because the man seemed incapable, Angus avoided giving him a direct order and began to unbutton the jacket himself. . . . Three yellow chicks fell out of the tunic.” Discombobulated and disconnected, Angus knew “he’d be a liability on the line.”
Although Angus himself returns home without head injury, his mind is significantly changed: like so many war veterans throughout time (as if we never, ever learn!), he finds himself unable to connect with and relate to those very people he needs and loves most in the world. War affects all: even those who did not directly witness combat must come to terms (or not) with damage to their psyches, and yes, their souls. In exploring their loss, Duffy’s neuroscientific expertise permeates: “[T]he lines between fiction and neuroscience aren’t all that far apart,” she says. “Communication is a major means of expressing who we are (telling our stories) and connecting with and understanding others and the world around us. . . . Telling stories—on life, death and rebirth—is as old and as universal as language itself, and it’s a means of overcoming inner isolation by connecting us and engaging our empathy.”
Just as Duffy combines science and spirit in her work, so, too, her fiction combines precision and poetry to create ethereal, lyrical prose. Even as she unflinchingly confronts humanity’s greatest fears and tragedies, she soothes us again and again with moments of bursting joy and profound understanding. This is a story about a man who goes to war, yes, but war is not what defines him: “We cannot know the whole poem from a single word, [Angus] finally found the strength to say, nor a life from a single act.”
For eight years, Duffy researched, dreamed, created, changed, revised, and wrote some more. “The writing process was one of discovery,” she adds. “I always knew where the story was headed, but not how I’d get there.” Now that her Cartographer has laudably arrived, readers are surely welcome to join the transforming journey, as well.
Watch for the Q&A with P.S. Duffy on Wednesday, August 19.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
Homepage photo credit: The Great War Team via photopin (license)
Brain photo credit: MRI brain scan on Vimeo via photopin (license)
Click here to read Terry Hong’s previous features on Bloom