Kevin Major,
No Man's Land
(Doubleday, 1995)

Set in France during World War I, No Man's Land shows the final days of the Newfoundland Regiment, or Blue Puttees, as they get ready to head to the front lines. In the few days in which the story takes place, the soldiers go through a striking mix of emotions. At first there is a sense of denial that there is a war going on at all, since the regiment is so far from the action; the allied soldiers even have friendly games of football between regiments. Upon beginning the march to battle, they feel pride and confidence. The mood changes drastically when they reach the trenches and then, finally, the terrible battle itself.

The story has a foreboding atmosphere throughout because we know that the regiment is doomed. Like most good war novel characters, they are heroes in an unheroic situation. The characters (some as young as 15) are portrayed so realistically that we really become attached and begin to turn each page reluctantly, hoping against fate that they will emerge victorious. The rustic charm of the French village in which the Blue Puttees take residence is well depicted, and yet the sense of doom hangs thick in the trenches, with the soldiers overcrowded and the artillery guns booming overhead.

Kevin Major's descriptive writing is crisp and realistic, and no details are omitted during the graphic and powerful battle scene. Even more powerful is the suspense he builds throughout the novel -- the waiting becomes unbearable as the minutes tick by in the cold, dark morning as troops ready themselves to go over the walls of the trenches. Even though it is written in third-person, the reader is left in the dark (just like the soldiers) about the happenings on the battlefield, as the regiment is not permitted to look over the wall. The power of authority is called into question, but unfortunately remains no more than an unspoken doubt in the soldiers' minds as the tragedy plays out.

In World War I, the Newfoundland regiment suffered more casualties than any other. This compelling novel tells their appalling story and shows how abuse of authority can lead to disaster for those who trust in it.

- Rambles
written by Patrick Derksen
published 29 March 2003

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