To begin By the Ghost Light, R. H. Thomson writes, “You who are reading this should know that your family stories are probably more interesting than the ones I will tell here.” This second-person address is a sincere attempt at involving the reader as Thomson journeys through his family’s history in the First and Second World Wars.
Detailed stories about one’s relatives can bore outsiders, so the actor known for his roles in Road to Avonlea, Anne with an E, and Chloe takes great care to avoid solipsism and navel-gazing. Building on a play he wrote more than twenty years ago, The Lost Boys: Letters from the Sons in Two Acts, 1914–1923, Thomson takes an approach that’s reverent but matter-of-fact as he reconstructs and reimagines the lives of his family members through their correspondence and travels.
By the Ghost Light also builds upon another of the author’s projects: The World Remembers is an international effort to recover and project in light the names of those who died in the Great War. Begun in 2014 and later hosted by the Canadian War Museum, it now recognizes some 4.2 million people from both sides of the conflict. By the Ghost Light continues Thomson’s work of commemoration and historicization, but it also exceeds the earlier efforts, thanks to his gift for storytelling.
The book’s title is borrowed from the stage: “The theatres I’ve worked in banish complete darkness primarily for reasons of safety, but also from superstition. After each performance, before the cast and crew depart, a single lamp, called the ghost light, is placed onstage and left to burn all night.” Thomson admits to lingering in that light and hearing “the echoes of the character’s lives that were played out that evening.” This sense of receptivity surfaced during and after the staging of The Lost Boys, which was based on 700 letters that his great-uncles had sent home from the front. After many performances, as Thomson removed his makeup, people would share with him their own family’s experiences with war. “Why had those stories tumbled out?” Thomson asks here. “Because people want to be heard. Because generations afterwards, their families still carried the after-shocks from past wars.” Now Thomson hopes to switch roles: “As a visitor to your dressing room, I will tell you stories about my family.”
The sense of exchange with the reader is generous, but it also betrays an anxiety about the relevance of commemoration. It is widely acknowledged that the history of the world wars is Eurocentric, but historians like David Olusoga and Yasmin Khan have done solid work to remind us of the more sprawling afterlives of those events, in works such as The World’s War and The Raj at War, respectively. Thomson likewise criticizes dominant historical narratives: “Today’s remembrance rituals are honourable but repetitive, and they perpetuate the previous century’s world view. However respectful our Canadian memorials, they are embedded in a view from the past.” On Remembrance Day, Thomson wonders, “Do we only address the (mainly) white descendants of those who fought?” His frank reflections differentiate By the Ghost Light, which is grounded in a “dramatis personae” of ancestors on all sides, listed in the final pages.
In one chapter, Thomson builds on his great-aunt Mayden Stratford’s family history, which she compiled meticulously, collecting letters in separate ring binders: “booklets for each of her five brothers.” He explains that The Lost Boys would never have been written were it not for her, nor would he have attempted to launch The World Remembers. A fascinating arc emerges in the Stratford correspondence, because everything sent east to France and Belgium, by mothers, sisters, and friends, was lost. “Only the words that travelled west have survived,” Thomson writes. “Reading them, it’s as if I’m deaf in one ear.”
Despite the silences, haunting details emerge in the mail that Stratford collected and that Thomson interprets with the help of a family photograph taken the summer after the war. Reflecting on his great-aunt transcribing her brothers’ handwriting, he notes that “a sentence can sit on the surface of a letter like the tip of an iceberg.” Jack mentioned the death of their sibling north of Passchendaele, Belgium, where he had been buried by the “Minnie” fired by a German trench mortar. “I only wish I could have got it instead of Geordie,” Jack wrote. At her typewriter, Mayden keyed in something different, though: “I only wish I could have for ir instead of Geordie.” Thomson counts the “three times in five key strokes her fingers slipped to the left” and wonders if it was “merely the speed of her typing” or if she was “distracted by the thought of her tall brother George who’d been killed and her other brother Jack who wished he had been instead.” Rather than drawing conclusions about the rare typo, Thomson simply observes that in “the 1919 tableau,” Jack and Mayden “sit the closest, their shoulders overlapping.” Archival work can be harrowing and here it is triply so: begun by Jack, saved by Mayden, and revisited by Thomson, the correspondence draws out threads of history that reach the present with the lasting affective power of secrets and intimacies.
In several places, Thomson describes his trips to various countries and his collaborations with local institutions to build The World Remembers. One such visit was to Belgrade, Serbia, where legacies of commemoration are made all the more complex by the Balkan wars and the destruction of archives. “Their remembrance was of yet another Balkan war of tragedy and ethnic cleansing that meant no one’s past could be entirely clean,” he writes. “And yet they cried.” These tours also reveal the insurmountable complexities of remembrance and Thomson’s own efforts at commemoration beyond the winner/loser binary embedded in so many narratives. He foregrounds grief as a great equalizer, which may strike some as a platitude, but the impact of the sentiment is deeply felt, particularly when he discusses his father, who appears throughout the book.
In a chapter focused on Woodburn Thomson, who served in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in the Second World War, sailing on such vessels as HMCS Sackville, the author reflects on another archival engagement: a tribute that continues work his father began. Well into his seventies, Woodburn searched for the names of airmen who had flown from Iceland on September 20, 1943, to “come to the aid of the combined convoys ON 202 and ONS 18” as they made their way westward across the Atlantic. “When he told me of his search,” Thomson writes, “I thought it odd, since I didn’t yet understand the power that comes from ‘naming’ someone, or how speaking a name from a neglected past can both respect and somehow ‘create’ a life. Yet my father’s search affected me, since I would later make my own odyssey to find the names of the estimated nine and a half million dead from the First World War.” Thomson recalls in detail a day spent at the British Public Records Office, where he searched for files his father had sought. Just as the office was about to close, he realized he was looking at the very document he needed, meaning he could now name the names of the crew. (As someone who works with archives regularly, I have learned, like Thomson, that coincidences become an essential part of research.)
By the Ghost Light is unstuffy and inviting, even as Thomson writes with remarkable candour about his own problematic re-enactments of wartime battles as a kid, and of the racism within his community and family as he grew up in Richmond Hill, Ontario. With the help of archival resources, he looks back further still, by drawing connections between the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the Second World War. He concedes that the term “genocide” was coined in 1944, but he believes that the practice “had long been a tool of race wars.” In striking detail, he recounts the complicity of his ancestors in spreading smallpox among First Nations in nineteenth-century British Columbia.
Throughout, Thomson contends with questions that are impossible to answer: Why remember? What is the point of making memory and making marks? “History’s headlines make no space for the details,” he writes. “But our lives are only specifics and details. Grieving and graves are specifics. How do we reconcile the tension between needing to know the broad strokes of history, which help us navigate the road ahead, and knowing the details about how the road may have been lethal to humans in the past?”
By the Ghost Light grapples with these big questions. It is an immense, wholehearted book that is also unexpectedly about grief and the ability of language to “contain the sorrow,” to close wounds, and to help us avoid repeating mistakes.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji divides her time between Vancouver, Calgary, and London, where she’s working on a novel.