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History World War I

By the Ghost Light

Wars, Memory, and Families

by (author) R.H. Thomson

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2023
World War I, Personal Memoirs, Historical
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2023
    List Price

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From one of Canada’s most beloved performing artists comes an audacious work of non-fiction that explores the stories that shape us and the reach that the past can have across generations.

Growing up north of Toronto, R.H. Thomson’s imagination was captured by romantic notions of war. He spent his days playing with toy soldiers on the carpet of his grandmother’s house, recreating the Battle of Britain with model planes in his bedroom, or sitting at the local theatre watching World War II B movies—ones that offered a very clear perspective on who were the heroes and who the villains; which side were the victors and which the vanquished.
Yet Thomson’s childhood was also shaped by the spirits of real-life warriors in his family, their fates a brutal and more complicated reminder of the true human cost of war. Eight of Robert’s great uncles—George, Joe, Jack, Harold, Arthur, Warren, Wildy, and Fred—fought in the First World War, while his great Aunt Margaret served as a wartime surgical nurse in Europe. Five of the great uncles—George, Joe, Fred, Wildy, and Warren—were killed in battle while two others—Jack and Harold—would return home greatly diminished, spending the rest of their lives in and out of sanitariums, their lungs scarred by disease and poison gas. Throughout their lives, the great uncles, as well as great aunts and cousins, were faithful letter writers, their correspondence offering profound insights into their experiences on the front lines to their loved ones back home, a somber record of the sacrifice the family paid.
In By the Ghost Light, R.H. Thomson offers an extraordinary look at his family’s history while providing a powerful examination of how we understand war and its aftermath. Using his family letters as a starting point, Thomson roams through a century of folly, touching on areas of military history, art, literature, and science, to express the tragic human cost of war behind the order and calm of ceremonial parades, memorials, and monuments. In an urgent call for new ways to acknowledge the dead, R.H. has created “The World Remembers,” an ambitious international project to individually name each of the millions killed in the First World War.
Epic in its scope and incredibly intimate in its exploration of lives touched by the tragedy of war, By the Ghost Light is a truly original book that will challenge the way we approach our history.

About the author

Actor/director R.H. Thomson has been working for almost thirty years in theatre, film, and television. Winner of a Gemini, a Genie, and a Dora Mavor Moore Award, Thomson has achieved recognition through a series of diverse and memorable roles in all three mediums.

Born in Toronto, Thomson graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Science and then went on to theatrical training at the National Theatre School in Montreal, and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in England. His interests have led him to host CBCâ??s Man Alive series as well as advocating for cultural sovereignty and diversity on both national and international levels.

R.H. Thomson's profile page

Editorial Reviews

“Generous . . . unstuffy and inviting. . . . By the Ghost Light continues Thomson’s work of commemoration and historicization, but it also exceeds the earlier efforts, thanks to his gift for storytelling. . . . An immense wholehearted book that is also unexpectedly about grief and the ability of language to ‘contain the sorrow,’ to close wounds, and to help us avoid repeating mistakes.” The Literary Review of Canada
“Ambitious . . . astute. . . . Out of a resolve to unlearn our assumptions about war, Thomson tells a more nuanced narrative.” Quill and Quire
“Thought-provoking. . . . [By the Ghost Light is] a multi-layered book, which draws heavily on letters about the war experience, written by the author’s relatives, as well as his own research. . . . A complex, fascinating, and passionate book that . . . never strays from the main theme of wars, memory, and families.” Times Colonist

“Part memoir, part history and part thoughtful exploration of the stories we tell to make sense of violent conflict, By the Ghost Light is an enlightening tour through the convolutions of history and the fickle nature of memory, both personal and cultural.” —Stephen R. Bown
“A searing exploration of how war haunts families, communities, and countries. Thomson makes visible the ghosts of the Great War, untangling themes of loss and longing, service, and grief. Millions of Canadians have a family link to the war that raged from 1914 to 1918, and this literary meditation will provide new insight into the way that war bites to the bone from generation to generation.” —Tim Cook

“Many of us of R.H.'s generation, grew up romanticizing war. That is until we were confronted with the sharp images, the gripping narratives, and the heartbreaking letters left behind by our parents and grandparents. But those touchstones of the past are only the beginning of the journey one travels in By the Ghost Light.” —Peter Mansbridge

“By the Ghost Light is the perfect companion to R.H. Thomson's epic and inspired The World Remembers. Thomson weaves a moving family story with a global history that has shaped us all in deeply personal and vastly political ways.” —Ann-Marie MacDonald

“As Ukraine burns and we face possibly the most dangerous decade since WW2, R.H. Thomson reminds us that every casualty in war is a human being with a life unfinished. And each loss becomes a precious story passed on through the ages, resonating through generations and shaping who we become. This book is a beautiful tribute to a family that suffered tremendous losses, but it's subtext warns of the consequences of war. And why enduring peace is imperative.” —Carol Off

“This is a deeply moving meditation on war and how we live with the terrible scars it imposes upon us.” —John Ralston Saul

“R.H. Thomson poses questions about how we remember the war-dead and how the stories we tell about them shape the possibility or impossibility of future peace. He has written a deeply personal and moving book, a profound work that helps us rethink our relationship with the past and points us to a better future.” —Guy Vanderhaeghe

"By the Ghost Light reminds us that behind the numbers of dead we associate with war (4,000 Canadians at Passchendaele, 391 on D-Day, 158 in Afghanistan and 70+ suicides thereafter), there are brothers, fathers, daughters, grandmothers. Behind every single casualty of war there is a story, as well as a family who live the rest of their lives affected by what happened to the warrior, one way or another." —Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire

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