By the Ghost Light by R.H. Thomson

A memoir by R.H. Thomson.
Book cover

Growing up north of Toronto, R.H. Thomson's imagination was captured by romantic notions of war. He spent his days playing with toy soldiers on the carpet of his grandmother's house, recreating the Battle of Britain with model planes in his bedroom, or sitting at the local theatre watching World War II B movies—ones that offered a very clear perspective on who were the heroes and who the villains; which side were the victors and which the vanquished.

Yet Thomson's childhood was also shaped by the spirits of real-life warriors in his family, their fates a brutal and more complicated reminder of the true human cost of war. Eight of Robert's great uncles — George, Joe, Jack, Harold, Arthur, Warren, Wildy and Fred — fought in the First World War, while his great Aunt Margaret served as a wartime surgical nurse in Europe.

Five of the great uncles — George, Joe, Fred, Wildy and Warren — were killed in battle while two others— Jack and Harold — would return home greatly diminished, spending the rest of their lives in and out of sanitariums, their lungs scarred by disease and poison gas. Throughout their lives, the great uncles, as well as great aunts and cousins, were faithful letter writers, their correspondence offering profound insights into their experiences on the front lines to their loved ones back home, a somber record of the sacrifice the family paid.

In By the Ghost Light, R.H. Thomson offers an extraordinary look at his family's history while providing a powerful examination of how we understand war and its aftermath. Using his family letters as a starting point, Thomson roams through a century of folly, touching on areas of military history, art, literature, and science, to express the tragic human cost of war behind the order and calm of ceremonial parades, memorials, and monuments. In an urgent call for new ways to acknowledge the dead, R.H. has created "The World Remembers," an ambitious international project to individually name each of the millions killed in the First World War.

Epic in its scope and incredibly intimate in its exploration of lives touched by the tragedy of war, By the Ghost Light is a truly original book that will challenge the way we approach our history. (From Knopf Canada)

Robert Holmes Thomson, known as R. H. Thomson, is a Canadian television, film and stage actor. By the Ghost Light is his debut book.

From the book

You who are reading this should know that your family stories are probably more interesting than the ones I will tell here. Mine have been rolling through my family for over a century.

They are not of the … do you remember the time that Great Uncle Art … variety; rather, they are stories that disturb me when I burrow down into the world in which they occurred. Many of yours are most likely amazing. Perhaps you think that your family doesn't have great stories? But whether you have lived in Canada for two or twenty-two thousand years, you have only to dig into the memories of your family or yourself to find them.

A family's strength — and occasionally its curse — is the stories it remembers, stories that create a map by which to navigate the years ahead. They provide an architecture of purpose and meaning. The writer Thomas King went further by suggesting, "the truth about stories, is that that's all we are." 

My childhood in a 1950s Ontario town was filled with tales about two global conflicts—the First and Second World Wars. We won both of them, or, more accurately, Canada had been on the winning side. My father fought in World War II and returned home. His five uncles fought in World War I; two of them didn't return home and two died afterwards from lung problems brought on by the war. On my mother's side of the family, three great-uncles had lost their lives. Of the five on my father's side, only one grew old, and I have fond memories of him.

Great-Uncle Art's dentures clicked when he spoke, and it was said that he kept a palm-sized piece of sourdough starter in a pouch beneath his shirt, a habit from his postwar years of prospecting in northern Ontario. And when Art came south to visit at Christmas, he'd teach us about snake eyes and boxcars as we rolled the dice for the horse-racing board game we played in our basement. My family's many warriors were all casualties of Canada's fight for democracy and freedom — and I've come to see the rhetoric rather than the reality in that statement.

Memory owns no real estate, yet it holds a powerful place in our lives. It is like an empty theatre that comes to life only when someone walks onstage and begins to speak. Entering your memories, fragile as they may be at times, animates the past. In the chapters that follow, my relatives enter and exit as if characters in a play who have been waiting their turn in the shadows of the theatre's wings. 

There seems to be no limit as to how old "theatres" can be in which the past waits to be called. The Chauvet Cave in France, discovered in the 1990s, has wall paintings of animals that came to life when the first visitors brought burning torches into the cave thirty-thousand years ago, and more recently when explorers first crawled into the cave with their flashlights. Released from the still darkness by the light passing over them, the horses and bears appear to move. On the departure of both visitors and lamps, the darkness and stillness return, and once again time disappears. Without motion there is no time and that is just a fact. 

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. On my way home after a show, I've often lingered by the ghost light, the theatre now a dim cavern that an hour before was filled with life. I try to hear the echoes of the character's lives that had been played out that evening.

My memories are such a light by which I look at my family's First World War history.

Excerpted from By the Ghost Light by R.H. Thomson published by Knopf Canada. Copyright © 2023 R.H. Thomson. Reprinted courtesy of Knopf Canada. All rights reserved.


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