In the year 2030, an ambitious reporter named Jason Rapier discovers Cecil Farmer, a spry 134-year-old veteran of the Great War (1914-18) who has been living as a hermit in rural Oxford County.
That's the setting for Robin Barker-James' 360-page self-published book, The Last Trench Fighter, which went on sale Sept. 7, 2014. It's the story of life in the First World War trenches. A story of Ypres, Somme, Vimy, Passchendaele, Amiens.
"I haven't had a lot of time to promote it but people who have bought it – a lot of people bought it at the play (The Last Trench Fighter: 1914) – are saying 'I love your book!' It's really neat to talk to people firsthand, and they think it's cool too because you don't often get a chance to do that with an author. They can actually get direct feedback.
"The thing that's come forward is that everybody likes different parts of the book. Some people say, 'Oh, love the ending,' or 'I cried when I read 'that' part.' And it's always been different. To me, that's an indication that I hit different buttons on several levels. It's gratifying."
It's not about romanticizing war, he stressed. It's about 'ghastly struggles' to survive, 'brutal combat', and 'impossible odds.'
In addition to publishing the book, Barker-James transformed The Last Trench Fighter into a five-part play, each coinciding with a 100th anniversary World War I year, which began with 1914. The book concludes in the year 1918, however.
"The difference is this," said Barker-James. "Each part of the play deals with a different year. Next year, it's 1915, and I'll deal with what happens to the Canadians in 1915, not necessarily what's in the book. There's extra material (in the play) that's not covered in the book. The medium of paper and books is not the same as live drama. I can explain and do in drama what would take hundreds of pages.
"For example, 1915 is going to include the gas attack. It (Ypres) is in the book, but the play is also going to include John McCrae writing In Flanders Fields, and John McCrae is not in the book. I add different things that happened to Canadians during that period of time."
In his play, 1915, the Belgian village set from his successful 1914 play becomes 'Oxfordville' which will represent things going on back at the homefront – posters, mothers, mail, knitting for the soldiers – so people will get an idea what was going in Canada, and what the important issues were.
"The book goes right to 1918, the last 100 days of the war," Barker-James noted. "In 1918, the biggest surprise happens in the book."
The Last Trench Fighter is available for sale in Tillsonburg at The Station Arts Centre on Bridge Street, and Annandale National Historic Site on Tillson Ave. Online purchases can be made at www.volumesdirect.com ($17.95).
A first-time author, Barker-James said that while working on The Last Trench Fighter project his life was saved.
"I did the first draft of it over a three-week period, three years ago, when I was basically a terminal patient. I lost 110 pounds, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. It was almost, I guess, my death wish to complete it. And then Bill Findley saved my life. He said, 'you have post traumatic stress disorder – I know because I've had it since 1944.' He connected me with a wonderful nurse-therapist at Parkwood Veterans Hospital, who also counseled people in her off-hours. Nancy Cameron, a really wonderful lady.
"It took about six sessions with her to realize. My mother had died recently... and it showcased the complete... the complete falsehood of my family that I was adopted into. And I stopped wanting to live – it was depression. I was so deeply depressed by the loss of my mother, and what I discovered coming from it, that I gave up the will to live. And as soon as it was pointed out to me that I had this stress disorder from the trauma I had in my family, by Bill, I started getting better. I could eat again, I could sleep again, and the book was finished.
"So, obviously, it's gratifying," he nodded.
"I had wanted to be a writer since 1977, at least, and I did a few manuscripts, but I left it because I didn't think I knew enough about life to write effectively. And I think it was a good decision. I'm getting a lot positive response from people that the characters are helping people with their own problems. I've also started a manuscript about my family. It's called Among the Walking Wounded, a true story about a family from hell. And what made it that was war.
"You have to be unpack all the dirty stuff to be able to heal yourself, so it's been an interesting year-and-a-half because I've been able to understand the wounds that I've had inflicted on me in life much better. In each case... the source of the poison is war, which makes me feel even more vindicated to spend a lifetime, and the energy I put into fighting war. Because we've got to stop it."
Barker-James is also doing research for a second novel which will be based on the Pacific theatre of the Second World War.
"In particular, it will examine the Japanese Canadians and what they went through, and what it was like to be in Japan during the war. It will be inspired by actual events.
"In fact, everything that's in this book (The Last Trench Fighter), except the age of Cecil Farmer, is factual. I have not invented. In fact, the Military Medal he wins is based on a soldier in Waterford. And the Distinguished Conduct Medal is based on a soldier in Ingersoll winning that medal in almost the exact same circumstances."
Barker-James suggests, if people want to read one book about World War I during the centennial, "they can get an incredible overview of it from this book. And a grimly honest view of combat. Of life in the trenches. And in particular the wounded and what they went through. It's unbelievable. Just the one fact that wounded soldiers had hydrochloric acid poured on their wounds is enough to make you think about what kind of guts these guys had."
WEEK OF REMEMBRANCE
In addition to viewing the Tillsonburg Military Club displays for the Week of Remembrance at the Station Arts Centre (until Saturday, Nov. 15) and the Tillsonburg Town Centre (until Monday, Nov. 10), visitors are encouraged to share war-time stories – their own or their relatives.
"We welcome people bringing in paper documents and artifacts if they want to have them interpreted," said Barker-James. "If we aren't there, we will be back shortly. We'll try to leave a note as to when someone's going to be there. It's designed, however, so that a person can look at the exhibit without a (military history club) person being there. But we will be there most of the time.
"We also had people adding to the display," Barker-James noted. "That was very neat."
If you would like to see another Remembrance display, Barker-James has set up a 'trench display' in Delhi (next to Sears on the main street), which will be open Nov. 11.
"It has hundreds and hundreds of artifacts – both pictorial and physical," he said. "That's being done in conjunction with the Legion in Delhi and people are welcome to attend that too."
Barker-James' last high school visit to the outdoor historical site on his farm happened earlier this week.
"I've had 2,500 kids from Toronto do World War I field trips in the last month. It's a turning point for the site, really, because we're almost having to turn people away. It's the 100th anniversary and people are taking advantage of it."