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William Allister

Toronto, Stoddart, 1989. 245pp, cloth, $28.95
ISBN 0-7737-2268-8. CIP

Grades 10 and up/Ages 15 and up
Reviewed by Marc Shaw.

Volume 17 Number 5
1989 September

In 1983, sixty-four-year-old artist and writer William Allister spent two months in Japan. For him, this was no ordinary vacation, as he had spent two-and-a-half gruelling years there as a prisoner during the Second World War, and the journey back to that country represented the opportunity to confront the demons that had plagued him since the time of his imprisonment forty years before.

Most of Where Life and Death Hold Hands details the period of Allister's captivity in Hong Kong and Japan. He was a member of the Canadian force sent to bolster the British defences in Hong Kong late in 1941 and a survivor of the hapless defence of that outpost. The twenty-two-year-old signalman was captured and went on to endure almost four years of horrific living conditions as a POW, as cold, starvation, disease, and brutality took their toll on him and his comrades. Transported to Japan as slave labour in the Nippon Kokan Shipyard, Allister survived the savagery of his ordeal and returned to Canada in 1945. Over the next four decades, he was plagued by his inability to reconcile his Japanese memories with his knowl­edge of the peaceful and serene qualities that he, as an artist, knew to be characteristic of the Japanese people. This reconciliation finally took place in 1983, when he discovered a people who felt remorse and responsibility; this enabled him to forgive, and enriched his life and work.

This is a well-written, fascinating and horrific account of a particularly tragic episode in Canadian history. It will appeal to anyone with an interest in Canada's role in the war, but its greater value may lie in its demonstration of the curative powers of understanding and forgiveness. Highly recommended.

Marc Shaw, Kingston, Ont.
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