Cité St Pierre, December 3, 1917

 Monday        The weather today was fair cold & clear Heinie was comparitively [sic] quiet, but there was much air craft activity, at 7 p.m. we fired a light barrage for gas, nothing much doing for the rest of the night I sat up reading Jack London’s “Valley of the Moon”

Headquarters reported the action as follows: “In the evening gas was projected into LENS and the Right and Centre Groups laid down a covering barrage. There was a slight retaliation on the part of the enemy but their fire soon quietened down.” (1)

In the pages of his book, Percy was transported to California. London’s novel was published in 1913 (a film was made in 1914), and tells the story of Billy, a union teamster and amateur prize fighter, and Saxon, a laundress. In the first part of the novel, they meet and marry in Oakland. What follows is a bleak account of their estrangement in the aftermath of terrible labour riots; then they take to the road to find their own fortune and a place to farm, stopping in the artists’ community in Carmel, before finally settling in the eponymous valley where the novel ends with Saxon’s announcement of a coming baby.

It is hard to know which parts of the novel appealed to Percy the most: it might well have been the mouth-watering descriptions of food.

valley of the moon picnic.jpgThere’s a lavish picnic during their courtship “an amazing array of ham and chicken sandwiches, crab salad, hard-boiled eggs, pickled pigs’ feet, ripe olives and dill pickles, Swiss cheese, salted almonds, oranges and bananas, and several pint bottles of beer.” (Book I, Chapter 11).

When they are married, Billy discovers that Saxon knows how to cook a steak, whether over a  conventional stove or over a fire on the road:

“When the coffee was boiled, she settled the grounds with a part-cup of cold water and placed the pot on the edge of the coals where it would keep hot and yet not boil. She fried potato dollars and onions in the same pan, but separately, and set them on top of the coffee pot in the tin plate she was to eat from, covering it with Billy’s inverted plate. On the dry hot pan, in the way that delighted Billy, she fried the steak. This completed, and while Billy poured the coffee, she served the steak, putting the dollars and onions back into the frying pan for a moment to make them piping hot again.
‘What more d’ye want than this?’ Billy challenged with deep-toned satisfaction, in the pause after his final cup of coffee, while he rolled a cigarette.” (Book III, Chapter 2).

It’s a long way from a gunpost in the French countryside in November.

(1) War Diary of the 13th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery. Vol. 11: 5. December 3, 1917. Library and Archives of Canada.

The photograph is a still from the 1914 film.

Copyright 2017. See “More about this project.”

 

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