Keys to 1914 and today: humanity, humility

  • January 17, 2024

Hold on to your humanity and sense of humility.

This is the appreciated message I took away from Brooks, Alta., author Ben Galeski’s splendid new novel, The Good Heart, which chronicles a young Canadian infantryman who turns to God and his inner strength to survive the hellish crucible of the First World War.

Galeski has been an educator for over 23 years, specializing in history and social studies. His considerable body of knowledge shines through in his descriptive prose. He strings together passages that vividly bring to life the horror and futility of the trench warfare and the unrelenting hygienic and sanitary repulsions such as flesh-eating rats and lice.

He also effectively uses the flashback storytelling device to organically weave in passages about Fr. Albert Lacombe establishing relations with the Blackfoot as a missionary, and former American slave John Ware venturing north and playing a pivotal role in establishing Alberta’s ranch industry. The author’s passion for historical events and figures is evident on each of The Good Heart’s 230 pages, but none of the references are distracting or out of place. Each is germane in shaping the overall narrative.

The Calgary product also created a compelling main character that you hope overcomes the tragic arc of many young enlistees during The Great War: beginning wide-eyed, enthusiastic and patriotic but ending hollow-eyed, hopeless and deeply psychologically wounded.

We meet Joseph Benson — sharing a first name with Galeski’s oldest son — in 1918. He is a young man in his early 20s who hails from a big ranching family who settled in the valley of the Red Deer River. He and his family’s devout Roman Catholic values dissuade him from lying on an enlistment form so he can get into the action earlier. He’s a man of faith, he has a love of animals and it is clear that he is a loyal friend. Benson asks everyone he encounters along the road from the Canal du Nord to Bourlon Wood and beyond if they have seen one of his best mates from whom he has been separated.

Early in the novel, Benson’s father William expresses worry before his son departs for battle about war potentially damaging Benson psychologically and spiritually.

“Well, you are a good man, Joseph,” said William. “You have a big heart and strong faith. You will experience a lot of terrible things over there. I’m worried that it will hammer away at who you are, change you permanently.”

These words prove to be prophetic as Benson ultimately and inescapably engages in actions that test and torment his soul.

Though Galeski’s accounts of the fighting are indeed gripping, this reader was especially touched by two of the quieter moments in The Good Heart.  

During his unit’s travels, Benson encounters a French woman and two toddlers living on the side of the road — everything they owned in life fit into a small shopping cart. At first, the young man decided to pray a Hail Mary for this family. During his prayer, his mind flashed back to when the Bensons took a Polish woman and her two daughters into their home to help this family haunted by tragedy heal. Recalling his family’s support of this Polish clan was a sign that he is meant to do something else for this French family. He wanders back, gives them food and just offers pure human decency by taking an interest in the lives of this woman, her daughters, their dog and a bird. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people in real life had these instincts for kindness and empathy?

I was also struck by Benson’s visit to a modest church in Cambrai, France. Even though the Mass is delivered in Latin, the parts of the liturgy are the same as the services Benson attended in Tide Lake. A German soldier enters the house of worship near the end of the ceremony. Congregants begin to panic about a potential confrontation. But the German utters the name of Christ in his dialect and genuflects to pray. Everyone relaxes and the service continues. At the end of the service, the Canadian and German soldier — fierce enemies in any other arena — exit together. They shake hands and go their separate ways.

Even though Benson served King George V’s British Empire and the German was allegiant to Kaiser Wilhelm II, both humbled themselves to recognize that a man named Jesus Christ is truly on the throne.

Galeski articulates on how the most egregious calamities ever inflicted in this world are borne when man and woman at large discount the importance of humanity, and when they rebel against God by feeding their hubris instead of kneeling in humility and truth.

Nothing is new under the sun. The human folly exhibited in the 1910s is fully evident in the 2020s. Wars, religious persecution, moral decay and rampant corruption everywhere you look.

The 47-year-old author, a father of five, features Isaiah 11:6-9 in The Good Heart. Galeski, like all Christians, desires for the time when the “wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child will lead them.”

We don’t know when that time will come, but we do have an answer on how to bid God to restore our world contained in 2 Chronicles 7:14 — one of the most searched and shared Bible verses in recent years.

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

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