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Walker, David.

London (Eng.), collins, c1984. 304pp, cloth, $19.95, ISBN 0-00-217-235-6. Distributed by Collins Canada. CIP

Grades 10 and up
Reviewed by James Kingstone

Volume 13 Number 3
1985 May

David Walker's memoir Lean, Wind, Lean is a sensitive, unsentimental, and modest offering (it is subtitled simply A Few Times Remembered) that invests the extraordinary and the commonplace events of one man's life with meaning. The unvarnished style and the manner in which Walker has structured his remembrances are the book's chief features.

Walker delivers to the reader his pleasant and warmly eventful childhood ("an idyllic boyhood"), the excitement and occasional frustration of his duties as aide-de-camp to Baron Tweedsmuir, Governor-General of Canada before World War II, the drama of many escape attempts while confined in a variety of POW camps, and a whole host of other fascinating experiences stretching to the present day. Walker has lived a full and varied and crowded life, and much of it is contained in this recounting; but his style is occasionally so understated that the imaginative reader will discover that he has to fill in some of the gaps if the texture of this man's life is to be absorbed. (One wonders if a biography is being prepared: it would certainly be fascinating.) This writer's natural modesty lends to many passages the ring of authority, so that from the beginning the reader trusts his perspective implicitly. But the work deserves to be read carefully, otherwise important details or revelations may be passed over. For example, the confession that follows, given almost in an aside, suggests depths to the writer that one may only have guessed at:

In my four years and ten months and a few days extra as a prisoner—that life within a life which was nevertheless the truest time of my life — I knew kindness from Germans three times only: a soldier's sliver of Wurst, a slice of angel cake from the Burgomaster's wife, and a biscuit or two from the Waffen SS. Take it or leave it.

Suddenly, the experience of incarceration takes on a different dimension, and one begins to read more carefully for the unexpected glimpse of a different kind of personal truth.

In Lean, Wind, Lean, Walker demonstrates the properties of selective memory: time is collapsed, suspended, and inflated, his organizing principle arguing that the dramatic in life is often eclipsed by the ordinary and prosaic. The most compelling and dramatic chapters for this reader, those dealing with his experiences in the POW camp, and his several escape attempts, are not strung together consecutively; rather the story of his confinement unfolds leisurely, punctuated as it is by accounts of his pre-war duties. The middle chapters are entitled simply, "1936 to 1938," "1938 to 1939," "1943," "1943," "1939," "1939 to 1940," " 1943, and On, and Back." This is an interesting method, though some of the drama is drained away, and I think in a rereading one might deliberately reshuffle the chapters so that the dramatic telling of war experiences can be read seamlessly.

Through this series of chapters, Walker suggests that often the most exciting and memorable experiences of one's life, those events in which we see clearly into ourselves, occur in the blink of an eye. Such an experience was the author's involvement in the famous Warburg Wire Escape, after which he feels that never again will he do anything with such heroic certainty. He is captured, in fact, all his escape attempts end in recapture, but he never loses his spirit, explaining that "escape was the insubstantial dream beneath the nightmare…”

Another feature distinguishes the structure of this book. Walker quotes, sometimes at considerable length, from his published fiction and in this way introduced this reader to some of his work. Towards the end of Lean, Wind, Lean he discusses his early struggles as a writer and we see some of the painful settings out before he enjoyed success. He has a sizable body of work of which he can be proud, and I suspect that readers of this particular work will want to hunt up his novels and short stories. He seems to handle plot extremely well and have a sure sense of characterization.

Finally, the book probably deserves a second reading. Only at the end does the reader perhaps feel that Walker's modesty and inclination to understatement have led him to underestimate the achievements chronicled in Lean, Wind, Lean. Walker has lived a full life, and one does not want to miss sharing in it.

James Kingstone, Ridley College, St. Catherines, Ont.
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