De­pres­sion-era tale rich with character, but lack­ing his­tory

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Chris­tine Mazur

FRUS­TRAT­ING is a word to de­scribe Jo­hanna Sk­ib­srud’s sopho­more novel, which fol­lows her Sco­tia­bank Giller Prize-win­ning de­but, The Sen­ti­men­tal­ists. Quar­tet for the End of Time is frus­trat­ing be­cause it is too long, yet barely scratches the sur­face of the for­got­ten his­tory of Amer­ica’s pre-Sec­ond World War po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. The story fo­cuses on the lives of sev­eral main char­ac­ters who di­rectly ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent as­pects of the 1932 Bonus Army, a move­ment com­posed of First World War vet­er­ans who oc­cu­pied Wash­ing­ton dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion in an ef­fort to get early re­demp­tion of their bonus com­pen­sa­tion cer­tifi­cates. The bond formed by the char­ac­ters in­flu­ences them for the rest of their lives. Brother and sis­ter Alden and Sut­ton Kelly, the in­quis­i­tive ac­tivist chil­dren of con­ser­va­tive anti-Bonus Judge Kelly, grow up to work in the diplo­matic ser­vice (Alden gets stuck in Paris through­out the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion) and jour­nal­ism (Sut­ton fights with sex­ist ed­i­tors to be sent to the front lines to cover the Sec­ond World War) re­spec­tively. Arthur Sinclair is a First World War vet who more than earned his bonus in the hor­rors he ex­pe­ri­enced, and his son Dou­glas be­comes one of the thou­sands of des­ti­tute Americans rid­ing the rails through­out the ‘30s look­ing for work. While Sk­ib­srud gives some back­ground in­for­ma­tion about the Bonus Army, the nar­ra­tive’s pri­mary fo­cus is on de­liv­er­ing a very rich and de­tailed story of the char­ac­ters, their fam­ily back­grounds and per­sonal per­spec­tives of the sit­u­a­tion. As a re­sult, read­ers must seek out other sources to get the full story of the Bonus sit­u­a­tion, as well as in­for­ma­tion about what ex­actly the Dies Com­mit­tee was (the pre­cur­sor of the House Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee). Sk­ib­srud, for ex­am­ple, hints at but does not fully ex­plain that Congress had ap­proved the vet­er­ans’ com­pen­sa­tion cer­tifi­cates in 1924, but that they were not sched­uled for pay­ment un­til 1945. The vet­er­ans, led by Wal­ter W. Wa­ters, oc­cu­pied Wash­ing­ton seek­ing ear­lier pay­ment, but the bill was de­feated by Congress. Sk­ib­srud’s back­ground as a poet is clear in her writ­ing style, which flows in an almost dream-like nar­ra­tive. The story un­folds beau­ti­fully, but leaves read­ers want­ing more facts to ex­plain the largescale events hap­pen­ing beyond the main char­ac­ters’ per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences. The novel’s first half is in­tensely en­gross­ing, es­pe­cially Arthur Sinclair’s tale of his ex­pe­ri­ences in Siberia. Any­one who has ever known a veteran of the First World War will know that those who came back rarely spoke of their ex­pe­ri­ences. Arthur’s story gives com­pelling in­sight to that part of his­tory. Young Dou­glas’s ex­pe­ri­ences sur­viv­ing on the rails look­ing for work is also com­pellingly told, but the novel’s end has a raw, un­fin­ished qual­ity — almost as if Sk­ib­srud ran out of pages or time. The book’s ti­tle de­lib­er­ately con­nects the nar­ra­tive to the work of cham­ber mu­sic of the same name by French com­poser Olivier Mes­si­aen, who fin­ished and pre­mièred the piece with fel­low cap­tured French sol­diers in a pris­oner-of-war camp in Ger­many in 1941. Mes­si­aen’s story is re­lated to Alden through another character also im­pris­oned at the same camp, who wit­nessed the quar­tet’s première. The piece could eas­ily form a sound­track for the con­fu­sion, des­per­a­tion, dark­ness and hard­ship of that pe­riod of his­tory, and still not do it jus­tice. Quar­tet for the End of Time at­tempts to re­lay an over­whelm­ing story of hu­man con­flict and sur­vival, and though a heavy read, still barely scratches the sur­face.

Win­nipeg writer and mu­si­cian Chris­tine Mazur’s grand­fa­ther did not re­turn

from the Sec­ond World War.

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