Books·First Look

Celebrated stage and screen actor R.H. Thomson explores family and the legacy of war in upcoming memoir

The celebrated Road to Avonlea and Anne with an E star makes his book debut. By the Ghost Light will be published on Oct. 31, 2023. See the cover and read an excerpt now.

By the Ghost Light will be published on Oct. 31, 2023

Headshot of R.H. Thomson
R.H. Thomson is a Canadian actor and author. (Knopf Canada)

Canadian stage and screen actor R.H. Thomson — best known for playing Jasper Dale in Road to Avonlea and as Matthew Cuthbert in Anne with an E — is making his author debut with a new memoir.

By the Ghost Light is a personal look at the wonder of youth, the power of art and how the First and Second World Wars forever changed his family. 

In By the Ghost Light, Thomson explores a childhood playing toy soldiers on the carpet of his grandmother's house and being enamoured by romantic notions of war. 

His younger days were also shaped by the "real-life warriors" in his family: eight of Robert's great uncles fought in the First World War, while his great Aunt Margaret served as a wartime surgical nurse in Europe. What his surviving relatives experienced in the aftermath of war, however, left them physically and emotionally scarred. 

Book cover

"The stories of my father, my uncles and my great uncles in the two world wars became part of my imaginative universe in my early years," Thomson told CBC Books via email.

"When I considered how we remember those who never returned from wars, I was shocked when I realized how many Canadians from so many cultural backgrounds have been omitted from those remembrances. That led to the writing of the book."

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Using his family letters as a starting point, Thomson highlights 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. 

According to Thomson, the memoir is intended as a call-to-action in challenging the way we approach our history. In recent years, Thomson has also established The World Remembers, an ambitious international project to individually name each of the millions killed in the First World War.

LISTEN | R.H. Thomson discusses The World Remembers:

"I hope readers can hear some of their own family within the stories that I tell about mine. I hope readers listen to stories being told about wars with independent ears. I hope they will wonder how to reimagine the monuments we build to those who have fought in our name, whatever the war," said Thomson.

"As Canada strengthens its embrace of all cultures, and Canadians explore a renewed sense of who they are, despite the vicious vitriol on social media, I feel that much is changing for the better. As we rethink our justice systems, our museums, our education systems, as we rethought our flag, so I believe it is time to reconsider how we remember wars." 

Amybeth McNulty plays Anne and  R.H. Thomson, who starred in Road to Avonlea, plays Matthew in the new series, simply called Anne.
In Anne with an E, Amybeth McNulty plays Anne and R.H. Thomson, who also starred in Road to Avonlea, plays Matthew. (Anne The Series/Facebook)

Thomson is regarded as one of Canada's most distinguished actors. In a career that has spanned almost fifty years, he has appeared on stages across the country and has starred in a number of iconic Canada film and television projects, including Ticket to Heaven and Glory Enough For All where he played Frederick Banting.

He has been a longtime supporter and advocate for the arts and has played an active role in speaking about the importance of the arts within the fabric of Canadian life.

By the Ghost Light will be available on Oct. 31, 2023. 

Read an excerpt from By the Ghost Light below.

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.

Memory owns no real estate, yet it holds a powerful place in our lives.

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.

Soldiers leaving for war
Soldiers leaving for war. The multimedia memorial project "The World Remembers," produced by Canadian actor R. H. Thomson honours the dead from dozens of nations around the world. (Submitted by R.H. Thomson)

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. 

The theatres I've worked in banish complete darkness primarily for reasons of safety, but also from superstition.

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.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now