Green Books Campaign: Sunray: The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

When fellow blogger Tom Murphy suggested I participate in the Green Books campaign, I was drawn in by the idea of promoting books printed on sustainable material. As an avid reader, I tend to buy – instead of borrow – the books I read. At the same time, my eco-conscious self realizes that, in this day and age, conservation is important. The book I selected is printed on a mixture of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified material, recycled material, and controlled material – a small (too small, IMO) FSC Mixed Sources label in the front pages of the book identifies it as such. When I heard of the campaign, I didn’t really care what book I was going to review – I was just happy to participate in what I believe is a timely and important initiative. But my selection proved to be a wise one: Sunray – The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Captain Nichola Goddard

I’m new(ish) to Canada. I moved here in 2008, two years after twenty-six year old Captain Nichola Goddard lost her life as the first Canadian female soldier to die in combat. Valerie Fortney’s account was my first exposure to this exceptional woman’s story. In addition to bearing the infamous honor of being the first woman to perish during combat operations, Nichola was also the first Canadian officer to call artillery fire against enemy combatants since the Korean War – quite an accomplishment for such a young woman, whose experience in the battlefield only lasted a few months. But above and beyond these facts, Nichola’s story is not about being the “first”. It’s not merely about how she conquered gender barriers, or served her country with genuine commitment and enthusiasm. Her story is about idealism and dedication, searching and finding a path in life. Mostly, though, her story, as told by Fortney, is an intensely personal and intimate one; the portrait of a young, thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan woman whose life was cut short because a piece of shrapnel hit the base of her skull.

Nichola was born in Papua New Guinea, where her parents were working as educators, helping strengthen the local school system. Her parents’ work took their family to various places across Canada, and, as a child, Nichola lived in First Nations communities, learning new languages and discovering cultures most Canadian children only ever hear of in passing. Fortney interviewed over 80 people to paint this picture of Nichola, and it shows: from family friends in Papua New Guinea to teachers in the various towns she lived in and friends she made over the years, the author delivers an incredibly detailed and vivid portrait. Nichola’s parents were humanistic; her background and education, liberal. Her decision to attend Canada’s Royal Military College (RMC), and later, pursue a military career, was not an obvious one.

Through Fortney’s account, though, we understand how this intelligent, open-minded and caring young woman rationalized this decision. Over the course of the book, the reader comes to know Nichola almost as a friend. Some of the details – such as how she  met her husband on the first day of training at RMC, and how their courtship unfolded – could have been found in a diary. Her reflections on her education at RMC, her first posting as an officer in Manitoba, her constant efforts to overcome gender barriers are told in an intimate and engaging way. Sunray, though, never feels voyeuristic or prying, in spite of this level of detail. Instead, you come to know and appreciate Nichola, the “warrior poet who could dance, sing, write, fight, run and jump.” (p.282)

Reading this book in early November, as Remembrance Day activities are taking place and every person I see on the subway is wearing the red poppy, made it even more significant. It reminded me of all the young women and men that our governments send to the frontlines of wars we’re not sure we should be fighting. Regardless of one feels about war, we need to acknowledge and pay tribute to the people who are out there, like Nichola, trying to do the right thing and putting their life on the line in the process. We don’t live in a perfect world, and not every soldier is as exemplary as Captain Goddard was. If, like me, you feel disillusioned by the politics of war, Sunray is a book for you. It’s a powerful reminder of the human dimension of war, as well as an exceptionally intimate glimpse into the life of a fascinating woman.

2 thoughts on “Green Books Campaign: Sunray: The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard

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