A Gradual Ruin by Robert Hilles (Doubleday 2004), reviewed by Debra Martens
When the Second World War ended in 1945, serving soldiers got to go home and live happily ever after, right? Well, not so much. In A Gradual Ruin by Robert Hilles (Doubleday 2004), we see Tommy Armstrong have his war extended to 1948. Dropped into Germany (by glider) in March 1945, in Operation Plunder, Tommy quickly becomes separated from his unit of paratroopers, and starts walking towards the Elbe River, to cross it onto the American side. But there are complications, and he is still in German territory when Soviet soldiers wake him from an outdoor sleep. They take him as a prisoner, first to Berlin, then to Ukraine, and then to a prison near the Volga River. He is accused of being a spy.
Tommy’s story, however, does not open A Gradual Ruin. Instead, we read about a family farming near Dryden. Sisters Alice and Shirley leave home and move to Winnipeg in 1948, where Rudy impregnates each of them. Alice finds a father for her child in Peter, who moves his new and growing family to Burnt Lake, near Kenora.
Kenora is where Tommy grew up, but by 1948, both of his parents are dead. Pause here, to find parallels in the stories. Yes, there are some brief scenes of mud in Tommy’s war, but there is also some nasty mud in Finn Lake, where Alice and Shirley take their brother Robbie swimming. There are two teen deaths, and Tommy feels responsible for the death of the teen he was helping, while Alice witnessed the death of her sister from polio — but that is not the death she feels responsible for. And there are runaways in both sections, through generations and through countries. Finally, like Shirley, Tommy also finds refuge in Winnipeg (but no, he doesn’t meet her).
Braiding two stories together, through the points of view mainly of Alice and Tommy, adding in others, and jumping around in time with flashbacks starting from 1938, then moving forward in the last portion from 1963, Hilles does his best to keep us from confusion with such time-pegging phrasing as “the following Monday” and “several evenings later” and “through the remaining two weeks of August.”Much appreciated, but I did find some flipping back and forth required to keep track. Hilles deploys the two-narrative device again in his recently published Don’t Hang Your Soul on That (Guernica Editions 2021).
To find out how the stories intersect, you have to read right to the end. Suffice it to say that Tommy’s experiences in the last days of the war, and afterwards, make him exactly the right person to help a runaway in the 1960s. There were moments, reading about Tommy’s prison experiences, when I wondered where this was all going, but I can report that the book’s ending is very satisfying.
Robert Hilles divides his time between Nanaimo BC and Thailand.
See also Poems for a Summer’s Day.