The Next Chapter

Why Jane Urquhart is interested in Canada's past

The Stone Carvers is about war, loss and art honours Canadian soldiers and a sculptor's stunning architectural achievement.
Jane Urquhart's World War One love story, The Stone Carvers, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Man Booker Prize and and Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction in 2001. (Elsa Trillat/Penguin Random House)

The rugged battlefields of the First World War serve as the primary backdrop of Jane Urquhart's 2001 novel, The Stone Carvers. The award-winning book tells the tale of two reunited siblings who travel to France to help sculptor Walter Allward build a Canadian war memorial to commemorate the thousands of fallen soldiers at Vimy Ridge. Urquhart visited the memorial herself and was deeply moved by the massive architectural wonder. This interview originally aired in 2001.

Landscape as a metaphor

It is just staggeringly beautiful and quite surprising in a way because one doesn't expect to come across a work of art — especially a Canadian work of art — in this scale, in a foreign land. It's also very moving because the landscape around it is like a metaphor. The battlefield that it's on is still very scarred and pockmarked. One is not permitted to visit vast sections of it because there are still live grenades that go off quite regularly. There are the tunnels underneath that were carved by the very soldiers that ran out of them eventually into the battle, which was quite a large and bloody battle but a great victory for Canada.

Loss of youthful innocence

I'm very interested in our own past. My mother has always been extremely interested in the First World War and collects memorabilia. She was a very small child at the time of the First World War, so she hasn't a very serious connection. But I've also always been interested in the stories that are attached to those small war memorials that you see in various villages all over Canada. I think about the innocence of the young people who left these villages — many of whom would never have probably left their home villages or seen a city — getting up and being shipped across the ocean, engaging in what I consider to be a kind of armageddon.

Guilty of presentism

We, as Canadians, have a tendency to overlook our cultural past. We're involved in something that I think was what Richard Gwyn called "presentism". If it's not happening right now, then who cares? On the whole, people haven't heard of Walter Allward. I think it's important that we remember that it's important as a monument but also as a work of art, so that it will be restored as a work of art and not as an architectural project.

Jane Urquhart's comments have been edited and condensed.