FOREVER 33: A NOVEL
Volume 10 Number 4.
Forever 33, the title of Jacques By-field's first novel, comes from a war song, "A soldier knows that he will die, and buried deep he'll be. The digger may live to ninety-nine, but he'll stay thirty-three." The digger is the grave-digger and the "he" who'll stay thirty-three is the dead soldier, assuming that he was thirty-three when he died.
In this novel the digger and the soldier are one and the same person. The time is 1938; the setting a town of 500 close to the U.S. border in the Badlands of Alberta. The digger comes mysteriously and stays until he is certain there will be a second European war. He has lost his leg in the First World War, and before the second breaks out, he has returned to his British homeland to take part in it. Between these two events we get to know a great deal about the townspeople and almost nothing about our hero, John Evans, except that the townspeople come to view him as uncannily prescient. There is a dollop of condescension here as if our British-born novelist sees remittance men essentially romantically.
The strength of the novel is in the characterization of the townspeople of Brerry, Alberta. We get inside and outside views of several people who matter a great deal to the author, and so they matter to us. John Evans' only friend in Brerry is Ewart Pitt, a young man who runs a hardware store inherited from his father and grandfather. The Anglican rector Raymond Clough hired John Evans to dig the grave of the previous grave-digger of Brerry. That grave-digger's widow, Gladys Mallory, is a friend to Raymond Clough. Matt Carlson, the final major character, brutalizes his wife and sons and keeps up his end of a feud with Ewart Pitt. It is the problems of these people that John Evans sets himself to solve.
If the strength of the novel is characterization, its major weakness is in its setting. There are many inaccuracies in describing a small, pre-war, prairie community. In 1938, this reviewer was a grade 6 student in a prairie community of 350 people. Fireplaces did not heat our homes, indoor plumbing did not exist, townspeople did not read the Globe, a cowman needed many acres to support cattle not Matt's "few," towns did not employ grave-diggers, nor house them in shacks at one end of a cemetery. The flyleaf of Forever 33 applauds Jacques for his ability to write about the Prairies in 1938. If the novel is a success, it is not because of a realistic setting.
The major complaint of this reviewer, however, is the author's wavering on the issue of killing. Sometimes it is right; sometimes it is wrong. Jacques Byfield has not decided.
The volume is an easy-to-read 175 pages. It is a public library acquisition.
Margaret MacLean, Central T. S., Toronto, ON.
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