History remembers some people, but typically just for one thing. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly a plane across the Atlantic, but surely there was more to her than a feat of aviation?
In Kathleen Winter’s funny, new, and strikingly innovative novel, Lost in September, she turns this train of thought to a real life figure, James Wolfe.
Canadians know him as the militant soldier who ensured the Brits, not the French, came to own Canada after a battle in Quebec in 1759. As a result, we think of Wolfe as a fierce man, whom historians nicknamed “The Conqueror of Canada.” But those historians failed to relay his love of dance, music, and poetry, or his concern about the toll taken on soldiers by the savage violence of war.
In chapter 1, we come to realize our main character is either the haunted ghost of James Wolfe (somehow alive and well in Montreal in 2017), or a shell-shocked homeless solider who thinks he’s Wolfe. The first few pages can be a little disorienting, but the strangeness of the scenario gives way to a truly enjoyable read with a solid narrative hook. And whoever the narrator is, he has a good sense of humour about his circumstance, especially when it comes to modern food and drink. “This sachet of dust floating upon its lukewarm pool is not tea!” he decries.
If he is Wolfe, transplanted into 2017, he is naturally having cultural jet lag, not to mention a hard time getting anyone to take his claims seriously, except for a quirky character in Sophie Cotterill, who is essentially his roommate (or tentmate rather: they live together in a park).
Winter was initially asked by Random House editor Lynn Henry to write a work of serious non-fiction about James Woolfe, because 230 letters had surfaced, wherein Wolfe wrote to his mother, from battlefields, over the course of decades.
“There were intimate things in the letters that are not apparent in the iconic military persona we normally associate with Wolfe,” Winter says.
“He was writing as a son, not a soldier. He had fears, and melancholia, and seasickness. There were other things. Intimacies, hints, inner conflicts. It quickly became apparent to me that this would not be a history assignment, not even a historical novel, really, but more of a psychological novel.”
Interestingly, in 1752, the British Empire abandoned the Julian calendar for the Gregorian, and every citizen of England lost eleven days because September 2nd was suddenly followed by September 14th.
This calendar quirk deflated Wolfe, because the missing days were same days he had been cleared for military leave, to study his three passions in Paris: music, dance, and poetry. He was robbed of that experience, and never getting over it is a big part of the novel.
If the book sounds a little wild, that’s part of the fun here. Sorting out what’s going on with these characters’ identities is part of what will keep you turning the pages, through this elegantly written prose, in this utterly original book, that asks a few big questions about the complexities of life, time, and desire.
The real literary feat here is the character himself; few writers craft characters as well-rendered and memorable as Kathleen Winter. She has dug deeply into the life and letters of James Wolfe, unearthing a human side to the man that no one’s paused to consider until now.