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Women in a World at War: Seven Dispatches from the Front
ISBN 0-88922-483-8
By Madeleine Gagnon
Review by: Rachael Hanel


Out of the 400-odd some books in my home library, one entire long bookshelf is devoted to creative non-fiction works -- memoirs, essays, travelogues, histories. The more I read about real stories, the more I believe the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction.” And if not stranger (think of the trippy works of Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley or Richard Brautigan), then definitely more compelling. That’s the case with the women of this book.

Madeleine Gagnon, a French-Canadian author of some thirty books in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, takes readers to seven regions in Women in a World at War. She traveled to the former Yugoslav republics of Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina; Israel and Palestine; Lebanon; Pakistan; and Sri Lanka in search of stories from women whose lives are torn apart by war.

They’ve endured horrors most of us raised in the Western world could only dream of – living in a rape “camp,” having a baby girl killed because she is not a boy, or seeing most male family members – fathers, brothers, sons -- brutally killed in war.

Gagnon records these stories, these true words, as no other author I’ve read. The creative non-fiction I’m familiar with includes a fair amount of detail and description. But none of those authors I so admire – Susan Orlean, Gay Talese – has a poet’s training. And that’s what sets this book apart.

The descriptions of the women and their environs are bold and vivid. The words describing the pain and suffering are strangely luxurious, like coming upon an oasis in an unforgiving desert. Do not read this book if you’re pressed for time. It will demand that you take care of it, nurture it, lavish it with the attention you would give a child. Gagnon’s prose is to be savored, like fine food, not gulped like a fast-food hamburger. You will be rewarded for reading about women in a way only a woman could describe.

Her Canadian citizenship allows her to not become swept up in the patriotic fervor that can grip Americans, especially now that we’re at war with Iraq. Gagnon is not afraid to give these women voices, even voices that cry out against America and American policies that have devastated so many regions. Americans should never ignore how the rest of the world views us.

Especially after reading the heart-wrenching description of pregnant women in a Kosovo clinic did I realize how we, especially those of us who grew up in the affluent Western world, could be any one of those women. How it could be us who says “I have no children,” when in reality we have four girls. How it could be us who looks so old and withered but really is just 34. How it could be us that is cast aside and accused of being sterile when really it’s our husband who cannot produce children.

What a better understanding our young people would have if they were to read this book while yet in high school. If not the entire book, at least excerpts to show our spoiled girls with pink bedspreads and designer jeans and cars so they can think of their sisters across the world.

A few times, Gagnon takes her creative license too far for my journalism-trained taste. She doesn’t hesitate to launch into page-long descriptions of dreams she’s had while traveling. Because her reporting is so well-done, I’d rather see more of that than of her introspections.

But thankfully, Gagnon does not leave readers in a state of despair. Humanity exists in all sorts of conditions. It’s impossible to kill all hope. The book’s most eloquent words come from a Palestinian woman, Samia, who never wanted kids (“Carry children to death, no, never, it was out of the question”) yet fell in love, married, and raised two children during the near-constant upheaval in the Holy Land. She had no choice: “The war is presented badly, they imagine us all with guns. But we live during war, we make love, we have babies, we mourn fallen fighters, we mourn people who die of disease or old age, we have our loves and hates, our domestic conflicts, and all the same problems as citizens of countries at peace, and we have our dreams, our drives, our desires, our seductions.”

Thank God for that, for dreams and desires and love. And those babies, those babies born during war, we can pin our hopes upon them that they will be the different generation, that they will be the ones to put aside differences and simply love. Maybe they will be girls who grow up to become sensible women who can talk the world out of war.

For as Samia also says, “If women ran the world, there would be no more war.”

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