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Before there was post-traumatic stress disorder there was shell-shock, the principle cause of Allied desertion during both world wars, and an offence punishable by death. During World War I, 26 Canadian soldiers were put to death, most for "cowardice" or desertion; over the course of World War II only one faced a firing squad, a 23-year-old farmhand from central Ontario. And this solitary judgement, in the view of journalist Andrew Clark, author of A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle, was not only deeply flawed, but also politically motivated.
A Keen Soldier reads as part dark history lesson, part true-crime novel. Clark, through a series of veteran testimonials, family letters, court transcripts, and declassified service records, pieces together Pringle's war experience in Italy, his desertion, the murder he was charged with while a member of a theft ring in Rome, and his subsequent trial and execution. His research is extraordinary, given the dearth of information and a dwindling witness pool, as are the many eye-opening side trips into disgraceful Canadian military conduct overseas. Clark is as adept at bringing long-dead characters to life as he is at re-creating the political circumstances that made Pringle a public relations liability for then Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Throughout it all, he intersperses numerous heartbreaking letters written home by an increasingly despondent, largely abandoned Pringle. All the missives open and close identically: "Just a few lines again To say Im well and in the very best of health. I sure hope and pray this few lines find you all in the best of health.... From your lonesome Son Harold answer real soon." These phrases evolve into a morbid mantra as time runs out on Pringle's life, something Clark exploits to great effect.
Though the writing weakens when Clark's literary aspirations poke through the fabric of the narrative (especially in the book's final paragraphs, in which the author launches into a forced, mostly disingenuous symbolic reading of Pringle-as-Christ-figure, his death as absolution for war--blech), his journalistic instincts are grounded. In the end, he makes a compelling case for Pringle's innocence, a victim of a government that went to great lengths to sacrifice one of its own sons. --Jamie O'Meara --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“...meticulously researched... Instead of a straightforward black-and-white story, Clark offers a personal look at the kid from a small town in Ontario and the relatives and war veterans who were affected by [Pringle’s] troubled life and untimely death.”
—The National Post, 11 November 2002
“[A] powerful debut, written in a vivid but admirably controlled style, which only serves to intensify the passion for the truth, and compassion for the soldiers, that burns through its pages.”
—The Toronto Star, 10 November 2002
“Using personal correspondence, court documents and interviews with many of the principal characters, Clark masterfully tells the story of Pringle’s final days. …He does a wonderful job of putting the tragic story of this young soldier into a more complete historical context.”
—Globe and Mail
“In what may be one of the best biographies of the year, reporter Andrew Clark strips away the darkness around one of the sorriest episodes in Canada’s military history: the execution of a deserter accused of murder under dubious circumstances in the months following the Second World War. It’s a fine detective story, a tribute to the courage of the Canadians who fought in Italy, and a stirring indictment of political betrayal.”
—New Brunswick Reader
“Andrew Clark, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker from Toronto, has pieced together this troubled life through relentless detective work, strong investigative research, and sheer good luck….Clark has shed important and substantial light on [the] tragic episode [of Pringle’s sentence]….A Keen Soldier tells a disturbing story, and Pringle’s case may represent injustice at its absolute worst….By helping to reopen the Pringle file, A Keen Soldier may be a catalyst for the reassessment of a matter that represents an unfortunate footnote to Canada’s superb war effort in Italy.”
“Reading this book is no easy feat, knowing that within its pages a very real young man will die. He is not some fictional hero who lays down his life for his friends in a noble cause, or some diabolical villain who, in the end, gets his just deserts. This is the story of a young man who could easily be the father, brother, friend or husband of any of us. … The execution of Harold Pringle is truly one of the great tragedies of Canadian military history, and Andrew Clark is to be commended for allowing a shaft of light into this dark corner of our country’s past.”
—The Telegram (St. John’s)
“With this troubling tale of a Canadian soldier in World War II, Andrew Clark calls into question the ideals that are said to have motivated the Canadian effort in that war — of justice, decency, open-mindedness, and virtue. The enormously sad and sobering story of Harold Pringle is told here with grim panache and poetic flair.”
—Modris Eksteins, author of Walking since Daybreak and The Rites of Spring
“It’s precisely the slow pace and quiet language in this fascinating account of a bizarre Canadian military execution in Italy fifty-five years ago that so powerfully convey war's awfulness and absurdity.”
—Ernest Hillen, author of The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java and Small Mercies: A Boy after War
“Andrew Clark has written a heartbreaking book on the quality of mercy. A Keen Soldier gets to the essence of modern warfare — to the faceless, pitiless bureaucracies that wage such war and convey utter disregard for the qualities that make us human. The ‘keen soldier’ is the boy whose soul is lost in every war, no matter what his fate.”
—Jack Todd, author of The Taste of Metal