GENTLEMAN AIR ACE: THE DUNCAN BELL-IRVING STORY
Volume 21 Number 4
Gentleman Air Ace is a collection of family letters and photographs of Duncan Bell-Irving and his relatives during World War I, supplemented by explanatory commentary provided by his daughter, the author.
Gentleman Air Ace: The Duncan Bell-truing Story recounts the experiences of a wealthy Canadian, Duncan Bell-Irving of Vancouver during World War 1. He piloted techniques for aerial combat during the early stages of the war and later directed a school for training pilots, Gosport. As well as being a contributor to the Canadian aviation industry, he was related to a largo family including four brothers and one sister, who were active during the war. The letters and pictures of these individuals form the basis of this account.
The family plunged from a series of social gatherings, which included British "public" schools, weekends hunting on Scottish and British estates and coming-out parties, into the drama of World War I. The men wanted to be part of the air force and found ways of joining the Royal Air Force, as Canada did not have such an organization, while their sister volunteered as a nurse. In mastering the art of flying, these men faced many dangers, both from the engineering design of the early aircraft and from the enemy, who included the "Red Baron," Count Manfred von Richthofen.
The book is based on the letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and photographs of the Bell-Irvings, explained by commentary from Elizabeth O'Kiely, a daughter of Duncan Bell-Irving. While mention is made of the mechanics of the early aircraft and some of the well-known pilots, most of the book is a biography of a family, beautifully assembled. From the multitude of family pictures one can glean a sense of the life-style of the wealthy during this era.
Unlike the novel The Wars (Clarke, Irwin, 1977), which also deals with the experiences of a wealthy Canadian during World War 1, Gentleman Air Ace does not agonize over the hardships and horrors of the war. Accidents, deaths and life in the trenches are reviewed in the letters and, where appropriate, additional comments are included. However, the description is clinical as opposed to sentimental or psychological.
The book is well indexed in terms of the names of individuals described but historic items associated with the war, while mentioned in the text, such as the battle of La Somme, are not included in the index. The table of contents refers to significant events in Duncan Bell-Irving's life during this time.
As this book is primarily a recounting of the experiences of a family, its use in the usual Canadian history course is limited. Where teachers focus on family histories or a review of a social class during World War I, this book will serve as an excellent source of information. The writing style is very readable and the pictures clear and well labelled. The apparent care of the author would set an impressive example for students wishing to learn how a family story could be organized.
Meredith MacKeen is a teacher-librarian at Souris Regional High School in Souris, Prince Edward Island.
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