About the Author

Alan Cumyn

Alan Cumyn has written many highly acclaimed novels for both children and adults. His three Owen Skye books have won several major awards. The Secret Life of Owen Skye won the Mr. Christie's Award and was nominated for the Governor General's Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award and the Pacific Northwest Libraries Association Young Readers Choice Award. After Sylvia was nominated for the TD Children's Literature Award, and Dear Sylvia was shortlisted for the Canadian Library Association Children's Book of the Year Award. Alan is also a two-time winner of the Ottawa Book Award. Alan teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently chair of the Writers' Union of Canada.

Books by this Author
After Sylvia

After Sylvia

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Dear Sylvia

Dear Sylvia

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The Famished Lover

The Famished Lover

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The Secret Life of Owen Skye

The Secret Life of Owen Skye

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The Sojourn
Excerpt

Midnight now, and as I have no billet, but must report in the morning, I let my feet take me down the narrow, poplar­lined road back to perdition. It is dark and rutted, but hardly lonely: the road is clogged with a long, lumbering, mud-choked supply line of gear-grinding trucks, horse-drawn limbers and gun carriages, and slogging men on foot . . . most going in the wrong direction, away from the Salient.

“Heading for the Somme,” one lad says to me on his way by, when I ask. “I feel like a lucky bastard to be away from here.”

The arc of battle stretches ahead of me, with the dark, brooding ruins of Ypres smoking in the distance.

Better to keep my eyes down. I plod along, boots squelching in the roadside mud (and what fine boots these have become, now that my feet have adjusted through the pain). We are rank, sweating, filthy, unwashed men and beasts, silent except for the tired tramp of feet, the machinery of our breathing, the occasional fart or grunt or muttered curse aimed at nothing in particular. Silent, that is, compared to the explosions beyond, which are so constant they hardly count as noise.

The road is far too small to accommodate us. More and more I am squeezed to the side by passing trucks and field guns heading away from the line of fire. I expect the shaking, the cold, the fear of some hours ago to return and reclaim me. But step follows step, breath turns to breath, and while my pack and rifle grow heavier, my heart stays slow and calm.

Then for no reason at all I look up at just the right instant to glimpse a brilliant star flare illuminating the night sky. I watch for several more paces as shells explode across the horizon, and then I find myself standing in a field some steps off without being aware of having consciously decided to leave the road. I gaze dumbfounded at the distant splashes of deepest blues and scarlet reds and angry orange balls of flame, of yellow streaking flares and sudden riots of green, purple, blinding white, and then seconds of profound darkness broken again and again by more explosions of colour.

For the briefest moment I suffer the confusion that God is trying to get my attention by this awesome display. But of course there is no God, no God anywhere, unless the darkness itself is God, the unmarked palette of the night sky. The rest of the work is ours completely, our damnation increasing with every blast.

I stand rooted, almost, in the face of this demonstration, suddenly weakened with hunger and despair. How can I go on? How can anyone? Why not be done with it, lie down here and sink peacefully back into the earth? ­Wouldn’t that be better than walking, fully conscious, into the blast?

I stand staring, shaken, an unnoticed scarecrow in a deserted field not far from the true fields of agony and death.

But in the end it is only a moment in a loose collection of moments, a sliding to the side in order to move forward. Soon enough, and under my own steam, I am walking again towards my doom, part of the huge, slogging effort which seems to be moving in two directions at once, like a great slithering beast that cannot make up its mind.

A shell lands screaming in the field, hitting perhaps the exact spot where I’d been standing a few minutes ago. It causes a ripple in the body of the beast, nothing more. I glance back anxiously, try to see what, if anything, was obliterated.

It occurs to me that that was the shell with my name on it. I was supposed to die in that blast, standing alone in the field marvelling at the great bloody buggered universe.

But here I am instead, my feet still moving forward, leaving my ghost to haunt at the shell-hole meant for me.

“Sure is pretty if you don’t think about it too much,” I say to the guy next to me, who doesn’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

From the Hardcover edition.

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