The main subject of Hugh MacLennan’s novel is the return of Neil Macrae from France to Halifax in order to clear his name. His uncle, Colonel Geoffrey Wain, had ordered an ill-planned advance on the Germans; Wain tried to blame the resulting debacle on Neil, ordering his arrest and court-martial for cowardice. When a shell hit the dugout in which he was being held prisoner, Neil was reported missing, believed killed. It is revealed, however, that he was picked up, badly wounded and amnesiac, and sent to the hospital. His rescuers believed him to be a private in the British North Country regiment that had relieved the Canadians. He gradually recovered his memory but retained his British identity until he returned to Canada. This is the situation when the novel opens, and MacLennan leads gradually into his theme by not naming the shabby man wandering through the streets of Halifax in search of the man who can clear him. The reader learns only later who the wanderer is and how he got there, through flashbacks, one of the main narrative techniques of the novel. Probably influenced by the classical ideals of unity of time, place, and action, MacLennan has limited the action of his novel to eight days, between December 2, 1917, and December 10, 1917, to one place, Halifax, and to the action of Neil returning to claim his good name. The classical aspect is reinforced by the name of the heroine, Penelope (usually called Penny). Neil is the Odysseus figure returning from his travels to unite with Penelope, with whom he has long been in love and who has borne his daughter. Neil does not know about the child, however, since he embarked for France shortly after spending a night with Penny at a hotel. Neil is searching for Alex Mackenzie, the corporal whom he had sent back to headquarters with a message that would have cleared him of the charge of cowardice. Penny catches a glimpse of Neil on a streetcar and, although she fails to catch up with this man whom she believed dead, she is convinced of his identity and tells her father, Colonel Wain. Wain is back in Halifax because he has been suspected of incompetence. He is now a transport officer, which allows him to carry on his lucrative wharfing business. He is also scheming to get back to France in a higher command position. Wain has long hated Neil because his beloved sister died giving birth to him and because Neil is completely opposite to Wain in temperament. Whereas Wain is controlled, conservative, and calculating, Neil is impulsive, generous, and quixotic. When informed by Penny that Neil is back in Halifax, Wain realizes that he is in danger of being exposed as a failure and determines to get Neil out of the country. He tries to enlist his former medical officer, Angus Murray, to help him, for he knows that Murray is in love with Penny and should be eager to get rid of this embarrassing intruder. Like everyone else, Murray had believed that Neil was responsible for the failure of the attack ordered by Colonel Wain, but he now begins to suspect that Wain wants Neil out of the way for stronger reasons than the mere embarrassment that his nephew’s return would cause him. He decides not to prejudge the issue and meets Neil when the latter finally visits Penny at the Wain family home. Neil and Murray go to see Alex Mackenzie who, although he is employed by Wain, agrees to reveal the truth about how his colonel panicked at the failure of the attack he so badly planned. At this point the deus ex machina steps in and resolves many of the difficulties of the characters. The busy harbor of Halifax, gathering place of the huge convoys destined for Europe, has never been far from the focus of the developing story. It takes center stage when the French munitions vessel Mont Blanc, inbound to await escort, collides with an outward bound Norwegian freighter. The Mont Blanc catches fire and explodes. Here history intersects with the private lives of the characters. The 1917 Halifax...
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