A note from someone who has read the book
Hi Paul - I read the book. While his aunt may have meant this book as a tribute, it is full of inaccuracies and a hurtful mix of guessing and quick internet searches to make it appear as if she knew intimate details or even knew our guys. It is especially hurtful to some of us families whose soldiers' deaths are included in the book. Not only has she mixed pure fiction with facts, she has taken many liberties with the actual incidents that killed our guys. I have written a letter of complaint to the publisher who obviously saw the book as a quick way to make a buck - off the backs and blood of our soldiers. I feel so bad for Jeff - she has done a huge injustice to all the soldiers who served on that tour and certainly to our 9 who lost their lives 20 and 4 July 2007. May they all RIP."
To call Captain Jeff Francis an unlikely soldier is a bit like calling one of the Kennedy grandchildren an unlikely politician.
A Forward Observation Officer killed in Kandahar in 2007, Francis was the son and grandson of career military men. As his aunt and biographer, Melanie Murray, points out in this often moving tribute, he was also descended from the Dukes of Atholl, the current one of whom “maintains the only legal private army in the United Kingdom.”
On the other hand, Francis never gave any hints that he wanted to be a soldier when he grew up. As a youngster he resented the Canadian Forces. That’s understandable, given that he was toted around the country as the family followed his father from one posting to the next. He was an indifferent and often lousy student who attended his Winnipeg high school sporadically, dropping out a month before graduation.
Even when he did get his life on track, moving to Ottawa with his family and earning a high school diploma at night school, there was no sign that the military was in his future. He seemed destined for an academic career, enrolling at Carleton University and earning an honours bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and a master’s degree in Canadian studies.
It was while working on his PhD that he began leaning toward joining up. His beloved grandmother had died. Francis was nearly 30, the stereotypical starving graduate student, and he was struggling to revive the passion for academia that had sustained him through his first two degrees. Initially it was the promise of a decent salary that appealed to him. But on a trip to Virginia with his father, who was co-ordinating the Canadian military for a NATO exercise, he realized he wanted a career that would stimulate his mind and his body — and that the Canadian Forces offered that.
It’s always a little surprising when people are shocked that soldiers die. After all, the military exists because of war, and people die in wars. But Murray isn’t too far off base when she concludes that “the Canadian military still felt like a safe place to be, as it had been for Jeff’s father and his grandfathers for the past 50 years,” when Francis was sworn in on Sept. 7, 2001.
Four days later, of course, everything changed. Or, in Murray’s words, “It was the collapse of an old world order. Out of the ashes, a new Canadian military was born — a phoenix more in the guise of a hawk than a dove.”
If that strikes you as hokey, be warned: Murray loves drama and sentiment, the more overwrought the better. She particularly enjoys stretching for analogies. Early on she informs readers that her nephew’s “birth under a constellation ruled by Mars, the eponymous planet of the Roman God of war, seems like one more synchronous piece of the puzzle of his destiny.”
She compares him with St. Martin, the patron saint of soldiers, on whose Feast Day he was born.
Rarely does she pass on the opportunity to invoke the idea of myth and destiny.
Francis was born on Remembrance Day and died on July 4, American Independence Day. His grandmother, “a mother of three daughters,” died at exactly the same time as Pierre Trudeau, “a father of three sons, each leaving a legacy of love and service in their diverse yet common ways.”
Francis’s son is born at 8:38 a.m., the exact same time Francis was born. Little Ry is “also born on a day of remembrance — All Soul’s Day, the day for remembering the souls of departed loved ones.”
Get past the hokey stuff, though, and there is a worthwhile story of a young man determined to make a positive difference in the world, a man blessed with a loving and supportive family, a woman who adored him, and a baby son who will never know him.
When Murray quotes letters Francis wrote to his mother and grandmother, it’s impossible not to feel broken-hearted for his family’s loss. Of course, he’s not the only Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan. Five others died with him that day, and more than 150 have died there since 2002.
All were loved. All had stories. But Francis was especially fortunate to have an aunt who is a writing instructor and a writer herself, a woman who turned her grief into a touching memorial to a fallen soldier.
Debby Waldman’s next books, Room Enough for Daisy (written with Rita Feutl) and Addy’s Race, will be published by Orca in the fall.
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