I decided to read No Man’s Land by Kevin Major, because of its importance in Newfoundland history. It is about the disastrous attack on the first day of the Battle at Somme in World War I, when two-hundred and seventy-two young Newfoundland men lost their lives. When picking this historical novel, I knew I ran some risks. First, although it is studied by Newfoundland high school students as part of their curriculum, No Man’s Land is an adult novel. A second reason I ran a risk is that war stories generally don’t interest me. Unfortunately, I have to concur with the Newfoundland students who complain that nothing happens in No Man’s Land until chapter twenty-four. Actually, the book as a whole bored me.
There were scattered moments I did enjoy, such as the budding relationship between main character Haywood and French girl Marie Louise; 2nd Lieutenant Haywood is shy and so requires several encounters to muster the courage to stop and talk to her. During one walk, he stares indirectly at her, then smiles and looks away, before he finally steps forward and kisses her on the neck. There is another cute scene, where Haywood surprises Marie Louise at her home, but is himself surprised to find her mother there. After buying bread from Marie Louise’s mom he awkwardly smiles and waves at Marie Louise, before escaping back to his quarters. Some Newfoundland students couldn’t care less about the relationship, but I appreciated its gentle growth. Of course, truth be told, there is nothing exceptionally new about Major’s portrayal of this romantic relationship. For that reason, I needed No Man’s Land to have more to it than romance. You’d expect it would, given that at heart it’s a war story.
And it does. Major writes often about the camaraderie between other villagers and within the troops, but sadly here is where my interest waxed and waned. Eight-year-old Lucien takes a shine to Haywood and tries to learn English from him. He revels in the moment when Haywood allows him to examine an unloaded pistol. Light-hearted moments like these aside, I preferred the serious ones. The chatting and jesting which occurred in many chapters did so little to develop the characters that I often felt as if at an aimless social gathering where I knew no one. As for the serious moments, sometimes they’re depicted through Haywood’s memories of home: “He recalled his mother’s bread, and how he would cut it still warm and spread it with molasses.” Other times, they’re revealed through conversations. After a visit to the horse stables, Haywood and brash fellow-officer Clarke banter about their fears of the upcoming battle. The sentiment which ends the scene is particularly poignant. The sun pours down on the two and “For a long time they lay on their stomachs and gloried in it, putting off as long as possible the ride back to where they had to be.” Alas, these scenes are too infrequent. Because of how minimalistic Major is in what he shares about the backgrounds, desires, and conflicts of the young men of the Newfoundland Regiment, No Man’s Land often held only slightly more interest to me than a reference book.
Yet I enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac. What’s the difference? Well, both of these war novels featured strong characters about whose fates I cared. Now certainly authors of historical novels are more limited than other writers by facts; in that sense Vonnegut had it easier than Major and Bruchac in that, having served in World War II, he could draw on personal experiences. As for Bruchac, he combined the stories of several real people to create his opinionated Ned Begay. However, Haywood is too calm and collected. The characters in No Man’s Land are supposedly based on real soldiers who wrote letters home and so, perhaps, Major stuck more closely to the facts. While this might work for some readers, it ultimately did not work for me. Slaughterhouse Five and Code Talker are also about more than war itself, one being a satire and the other being about racism. No Man’s Land includes romance, friendship, and battles, but never goes beyond them to make a statement. Again, for some readers this straightforward approach might be enough. For me, a reason to pick a novel over a reference book is that the novel affords me an opportunity to step in someone else’s shoes. This did not happen with No Man’s Land. Consequently it was a disappointing read. And so I’ll return to Major’s books for young people.
My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.
How would you rate this book?