I want to be happy fuck you. Low-rider magazine easy-load for the AK in a Black Liberation Army birthday type o’ way. First thing Imma do is grow my movement beard, feel some type o’ way. But you must live in the Midwest, be so inside these landscaped
It’s not that they haven’t diagnosed a real problem. Canadians, after all, aren’t convinced that we are exceptional. We aren’t romantics. We don’t have many capital- H heroes. Our instinct is often to puncture rather than to revere. And perhaps that’s why a reader like me can’t help but look at Winter’s reverence for Wolfe and wonder: Is there really something so unqualifiedly heroic about him? Is it a good idea to pretend that there was? Wolfe’s triumph at the Plains of Abraham was not a victory for divine justice; at best, it ushered in some 200 years of argument about how the English ought to manage the French who already lived here. You don’t have to be glib about the sacrifices of young men to wonder if, indeed, the cause that they sacrificed themselves for was, ultimately, worth it.
But this question of larger political importance is given only the most cursory of glances in Lost in September. There is no geopolitical context for war in the world of this book — the French are French, the English are English, and Indigenous peoples get barely a mention. The focus is squarely on the individual soldier’s experience of war, denuded of any specificity whatsoever. The experience of all soldiers is simply presented as universal, right down through the ages. When we are finally given Jimmy’s real backstory, for example, we learn that he served as a solder in a modern-day conflict. He wonders if he shares with Wolfe “that yearning all soldiers like me feel to act, to matter, to make even a tiny bit of difference in this world?” But soldiers often have little control over what they are fighting for. And is the “difference” that Wolfe himself can be said to have made in Canada — making it “English not French” as we are told in the opening of the book (in italics, so we won’t miss it) — really so satisfying?
Another sort of book might have carefully considered such questions. Specifically, a true historical novel could have been up to the task. In Lost in September, however, there is something of a cop-out in the way it gives us James Wolfe only through the lens of Jimmy. Granted, it isn’t trying to be Wolf Hall or Lincoln in the Bardo. But, as a result, everything that Lost in September does tell you about Wolfe is delivered through a haze of prose, and no actual figure ever comes into clear focus. The romanticization of war and soldierhood is given primacy over the depiction of real human experience. Of course, even the most detail-oriented, wonky sort of historical novel can be accused of anachronism, but Lost in September seems to go beyond that. It seems to say that since getting to know the so-long-dead Wolfe is impossible, the only thing to be done is elevate him to hero status and revere him accordingly.
This latter problem is an issue that Winter seems to acknowledge. In a somewhat too-direct metaphor toward the end of the book, Genevieve Waugh recounts her visit to a handwriting expert, who starts to tell her how it might look to compose in someone else’s hand. “If you try to forge, you write more slowly,” he tells her, “like following in someone’s footsteps. There are, therefore, tremblings, or breaking-points.” Which raises the question of whether all the pages of Lost in September, about the fields and the battles and the rampages and the stiff red coats, were really much more than Winter drafting a borrowed story with different colours of ink. The final result may be aesthetically pleasing to its author, but it lacks the heft of an original creation.