Friday, February 26, 2016

After The Dancing by Margaret I. Rostkowski

After The Dancing Days is a sensitive exploration of war and its aftermath through the eyes of a young girl.

In April 1919, Annie Metcalf's father returns home from the Great War. She and her mother meet her father at the Kansas City train station. He had been stationed in New York caring for wounded soldiers returning from Europe. Annie's family has been directly touched by the effects of the war with the death of her beloved Uncle Paul who was killed in action in June of 1918.

After the regular passengers and soldiers leave the train, Annie and her mother witness the wounded soldiers leaving. Many have bandages and are missing limbs. Some are blind while others are in wheelchairs. A few have to be taken from the train on stretchers. This completely takes Annie by surprise. She is horrified to see one man whose face has been ruined by severe burns, yet she is unable to turn away. Eventually her father gets off the train, but the joy of seeing her father again is marred by the tragedy of the wounded soldiers.

Annie is unable to get the wounded soldiers she saw at the station out of her mind. She remembers the day they received the telegram informing them that her mother's brother, her Uncle Paul, had died. The sound her mother made after reading the telegram. How Grandfather chopped wood for an hour afterwards while grandmother lay for three days in her bedroom and cried.

Annie's family has a party to welcome home her father. Grandfather, grandmother, her Uncle John who is Paul's younger brother, her cousins Francis and Charlie, her Uncle Mark and Aunt Felicia are all in attendance. The next day Annie mentions the wounded men to her mother who assures her they will be fine. Her father tells Annie that the wounded including Timothy Lewis, a promising baseball player who is now blind, are being cared for out at St. Johns, a Catholic hospital run by nuns. Grandfather has been going out to St. John's to read  Ivanhoe to Timothy but he has not mentioned it to his daughter Katherine, Annie's mother, because she wouldn't approve. That night Annie talks to her father about the wounded soldiers and mentions that she never thought about whether or not her Uncle Paul suffered before he died. When she asks her father what has happened to the soldiers he tells her that the worst is over for them now as they are healing. Annie does not believe him.

While her father begins his work at St. John's, her mother writes music for songs and for piano. Before the war Annie's mother had a group of musicians who came to their house. These young men were friends with her brother Paul who studied at the Music Academy. Annie's Uncle Paul wrote music and he often came to their house to talk to Annie's mom because Grandfather wanted him to get a real job. Before Paul enlisted he took Annie for a ride on his new motorcycle and he also took her to see an opera. This made him special to Annie because unlike her parents, he listened to what she had to say.

In June, Annie goes to the library to search for books to read. Her mother's friend, Ruth Sylvester works in the library and before the war had stoked Annie's interest in other countries and travel. Now she takes out atlases and books about foreign countries. One afternoon she questions her grandfather about Timothy Lewis and the other wounded men. He tells her there are "a lot of badly hurt boys." Annie's father also talks about his work at St. John's, something Annie's mother doesn't approve of. Annie asks her father if she can visit the hospital and he agrees. Her father is unaware that Annie's mom doesn't approve.

On her very first visit, Annie meets with her father and her grandfather for lunch. Afterwards she notes how quiet the hospital is and on her walk around the grounds she meets the soldier with the badly burned face. First she runs away, leaving her book bag on the bench. Deeply embarrassed about how she has behaved, Annie returns to the bench to retrieve her bag and apologizes but the soldier is brusque towards her. That night Annie asked her father how the man was burned and he tells her it was probably from mustard gas which was used by both side in the war.

Annie and her friends, Emily and Darby, accompany their Sunday school class to the theatre in Kansas City to see a new Lillian Gish movie. The Sunday school teacher, Miss Peterson is critical of Annie's father working with Catholics and tells her so. She also tells Annie that it would have been better for the wounded men to have died. This horrifies Annie decides and she decides she does not want to attend Bible School this summer. At the Fourth of July celebrations, the mayor announces the building of a monument to honour those who died in the Great War.

Three days later Annie returns to St. John's with her grandfather. Timothy introduces her to his friend Andrew Crayton, who is the man with the severely burned face. Andrew is unfriendly but he does show an interest in the atlases that Annie has brought, especially the one of France. Andrew tells her what it was really like in France - that there were few people, no animals and the villages had all been bombed out. He tells her about the mud, the rats and the gas. When Annie's mother comes to pick up Grandfather because he hasn't been feeling well, she sees Andrew and ignores him and rushes Grandfather and Annie to the car. Annie is furious at how her mother behaved towards Andrew. Annie's mother is angry that she's been with a man "with the horrible face." Annie explains to her mother how she met Andrew, that he is better once you know him and that they looked at atlases. Annie's mother insists that she not return to St. John's, causing Annie be become very upset. Her mother says they've done their part for the war by "giving" Paul.

That night Grandfather takes a turn for the worse and has to be taken to the hospital. Ruth stays with Annie and they talk about what happened at St. John's that day. Ruth reminds Annie that her mother has been deeply affected by the deaths of the young men from the music group as well as the death of her brother Paul and encourages her to try to understand. The next day Annie's mom returns home and tells Annie that Grandfather is doing much better but must stay in hospital for a week. She also tells her that she and Grandmother will be taking him to Estes, Colorado. At first the plan is for Annie to accompany them, but her father intervenes and Annie is allowed to stay home. In defiance of her mother's reminder that she not go to the hospital, Annie promises Grandfather that she will continue to see Timothy at St. John's and read to him. In an attempt to quiet her conscience about disobeying her mother, Annie asks her father for permission to go to St. John's. Not knowing about Annie's mother's opposition he agrees.

Annie returns to read to Timothy and she also meets with Andrew again. Andrew asks Annie about her Uncle Paul and if  she knows where he died in France. She tells him that her family was told by Frederick McFarland a soldier who came to their home that he died in a woods in France. He told her grandparents that Paul died a hero. Andrew believes that Paul probably died at Belleau Wood based on what Annie has told him. He also shows her his Purple Heart which everyone who's been wounded or killed in battle receives. However Annie is quite certain that her Uncle Paul never received such a medal. When she checks her Uncle Paul's medals that evening Annie does not find a Purple Heart. Puzzled, she decides to write Grandfather and ask him and his letter reveals that Paul never received a Purple Heart. Annie tells her father about the medal leading them to reread the telegram they received informing them of Paul's death. As Annie begins to confront the realities of the war through her friendship with Andrew, she also uncovers the truth about her Uncle Paul's death.


Margaret Rostkowski has crafted an engaging story that explores the myths perpetrated by society about war at the turn of the last century. No war dispelled these myths more than the conflict that engulfed Europe in 1914 and came to be known as the Great War. Unlike the Second World War in which the liberation of Europe from Hitler and the Nazis was paramount, the First World War came about because of a complex set of reasons and missteps; treaties that required countries to side with allies, the formation of the German Empire by Bismarck, the war in the Balkans in the early 1900's and the complicated relationships between the monarchs of Europe and Britain who were all inter-related. The Great War was to be "the war to end all wars" and it was to be short - over by Christmas of 1914 by most predictions. However, this war was the first fought with the full use of modern industrial technology; machine guns, tanks, aircraft, artillery and chemical poison. When war was declared, most men expressed exhilaration at enlisting to fight for their country. Enlisting was viewed as honourable and an expression of patriotism. In Canada, seventy percent of those who enlisted were of British heritage, indicating these men believed they were helping defend their mother country. Men who died in the conflict were labelled heroes. Few people at home knew the appalling conditions soldiers on both sides experienced. But as the casualty lists grew opposition to the war grew as well.  By the end of the war, people wanted to forget. Few families remained untouched having lost husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers. After The Dancing is an exploration of the aftermath of the Great War in a small town in Kansas and how the war forever changed the lives of those it touched.

After the Dancing, begins with the war over and trainloads of soldiers returning. Annie accompanies her mother to the train station to welcome home her beloved father. She is completely unprepared for what she witnesses - the return of terribly wounded  and disfigured soldiers.  Deeply affected by the wounded men at the train station, Annie questions her mother the next morning as to whether they will ever be whole again. "That man on the stretcher, with the face...and all the others. Do you think they'll ever be normal again? Will they be all right?" Her mother assures her that they will be fine because the war is now over.

Unlike her mother and the rest of the town who want to forget the wounded soldiers, Annie cannot. She questions her father about how the soldiers came to be wounded. "Different things. Some were burned, hit with phosphorus shells. Some were shot, some hit with mortar shells or shrapnel...But Annie, understand, we are trying to make them as well as we can. The worst is over for them. They are no longer in great pain. They're the lucky ones."  Annie is shocked by his response as she would not consider these men to be lucky. "The slow parade of wounded passed in front of me again. Lucky? My father had never lied to me before. But knew he was now." 

Like Annie's mother, many do not want to see the wounded men. At a movie outing Annie's friend Emily suggests that Annie's father is wasting his time treating the wounded soldiers at St. John's and that what happened during the war should be forgotten. "Now the war is over. We can forget all those horrible things now. He could be helping normal people who can get better. Mama says those men out there will never get any better. Besides, it's true, those men are scary to look at, aren't they?"

Annie decides she needs to see for herself and so she asks to go to the hospital. Annie quickly learns from Andrew Crayton, the soldier with the badly burned face, what the war was really like. He tells her "I was there only two months. I didn't see anything beautiful in France." When she apologizes he says, "You couldn't know. Nobody knows!"

While her mother takes Grandfather away to recuperate in Colorado, Annie confronts her father about the lies he has told her. He acknowledges that he lied in an attempt to hide the the reality of war from her."I was a fool to tell you such nonsense. I guess...I wanted to protect you somehow from all that I had seen. When I left for the war, you were still a child." Annie admits to him that she allowed herself to be deceived and her father tells her that he too is struggling with what has happened.

When her mother learns Annie's been visiting the hospital she is furious. She tells her husband that "I just want to forget all of this. It must end sometime. All the pain and hurt. Isn't it enough that we lost Paul?" Her inability to deal with Paul's death makes her unable to confront the reality of the wounded soldiers. But Annie challenges this view.
"That's what Miss Peterson said. They should have died in Europe so we wouldn't have to look at them. Would you like that better? So we wouldn't have to be upset. I can't believe you feel that way too."

Annie reveals to her mother that they were lied to by the soldier who visited them. Paul did not die a hero's death in battle but from measles. Heavy casualties from the battle prevented the doctors from caring properly for him. At first to Annie this makes his death seem worthless. But Andrew tells her Paul's death from measles is not what makes his death senseless, but the fact that he had to die in a conflict that itself didn't make sense. When Annie's mother learns how her brother died, she is overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all. But Annie tells her that what is really unfair is not to remember the wounded men who survived the conflict. By discovering the truth of Paul's death and talking about it, Annie helps her mother come to terms with it and to begin to heal. Only then can she begin to reach out to the wounded soldiers.

Annie also helps Andrew face life again as a seriously wounded veteran. He tells her, "Before I met you, I just sat around feeling sorry for myself. You know how I was. Mean to you, always angry, keeping away from everyone. Because...I knew what I looked like and I knew people were scared of me...And you talked to me, reminded me that I wasn't the only one the war had hurt." Andrew tells her that she made him take control of his life again by making her own choices in her life. By making the decision to return to St. John's to help the soldiers Annie grows up. Andrew points this out to her. "You came anyway. Decided for yourself what was right for you...That's what being an adult is -- making decisions for yourself."

Ruth helps Annie put everything in perspective when they talk about war. She tells Annie that people want to forget the war and the injured veterans because by keeping them as memories they do not have to think deeper about what happened. Remembering the wounded soldiers means they must confront the war and the possibility that it was not the glorious enterprise they first envisioned. The wounded men are a reminder of the brutality of war and their own losses.

All this makes Annie Metcalf a remarkable, strong, female character in the novel, ready and willing to confront realities the adults  are carefully avoiding. She forces her mother to face the reality of life after the war and Andrew to face life again. She considers what defines a hero, confronts society's negative view of wounded soldiers and reminds those around her of their duty to remember.

Rostkowski paints a snapshot of life in small-town America post World War I and conveys to her readers a sense of innocence lost. Annie, her mother and father and her mother's friend Ruth all reflect that loss as they struggle to come to terms with the war.

After The Dancing is a poignant novel that encourages readers to consider the themes of war, how our society defines a "war hero"  and how we treat our returning soldiers who remind us of the price to be paid in any conflict. This novel is a brilliant piece of historical fiction, well written and offering the reader many themes to be more deeply explored.

Book Details:

After The Dancing by Margaret I. Rostkowski
New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.    1986
217 pp.

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