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Letters from the Lost Boys: R.H. Thomson’s Personal Journey to WWI and Back

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The play The Lost Boys: Letters from the Sons in Two Acts recounts the lives of five of R.H. Thomson’s great-uncles who were sent off to fight in the first world war. The material for the play came from the Thomson family’s collection of over seven hundred letters sent by the uncles, who, it is apparent, are the “lost boys” in the title.

In the play (which Thomson gets to act as the lead character and narrator), the protagonist tries to reconstruct his uncle’s war experiences using the content of the aforementioned letters. The letter themselves are not as interesting at first glance, containing trivial information such as an uncle’s need for new socks, the muddy terrain in Belgium, and the vexing pests in the trenches (“The mud is awful, can you send me some socks?”).

This quality, however, is what lends relevance to the narrative of the five soldiers: one can almost feel the agony of being in a foreign and hostile situation where the only means to communicate with loved ones back home is through letters and yet one is not allowed to tell the truth. Thomson points out in Act 2, in an attempt to explain the narrative, that Anglo-Canadian soldiers were trained to suppress their emotions so as not to depress the people back home.

This then, becomes the protagonist’s source of misery. His five uncle’s alienation from his family and friends borne out from the horrors of war becomes the protagonist’s own alienation from his uncles. Intrigued by the happy countenance that the letters often put forward, Thomson/the protagonist makes it his personal dedication to see beneath the jovial and seemingly disinterested face of the ongoing war, which his uncles wrote of. This confusion shows through in one of his statements on the vigil he attends as a tribute for those who died during the war: “standing there in the light of stars, I did not get it…and of all the teenagers there I should have been the one to get it.”

Thus, it is ironic how the title of the play, The Lost Boys, may not only refer to the five uncles who went to the war but also includes the protagonist himself, who, like his uncles, did not fully understand the relevance of the cause they were fighting for. As such the protagonist’s voice is somehow resonant with those of the uncles’; he is ambivalent and uninformed about his uncles in the first parts of the story, which in part is caused by the fact that he never really knew them personally, and indeed, even the uncle’s letters, trivial that they were, could not provide him with a concrete picture of what they experienced and how they felt about these. It is therefore by reading between the lines, by uncovering the sugarcoated lies contained in the letter, that the protagonist is able to fully grasp the extent of unhappiness and alienation that these men felt at that time.

The inability to be honest enough to admit their feelings and the growing alienation with the causes of war is therefore the reason why Thomson calls his uncles the lost boys. Unable to come to terms with their growing discontent and disillusionment with the war, the uncles concoct fairytale stories of how they have adapted to the war and how their concern is limited to the physical discomfort—never the emotional and psychological burden—of the war.

Therefore, Thomson/Man’s journey does not end with being able to read his uncle’s accounts on the war but merely begins his impassioned search for the pieces of lives and memories of the five men. It is this need to discover what happened to his uncles, of piecing together a single, coherent story about their lives and experiences in the war that fuels Thomson’s struggles and quests. Towards the end, for instance, he narrates how, as a child, he once obsessed on finding the physical spot where his father died in a car accident.

While this part about finding his father’s death spot may seem incongruous or even unimportant to the narrative, it is Thomson’s way of showing his readers/audiences how people can often neglect the small albeit important things, how sometimes people are content with being kept in ignorance, how unearthing the truth is an end in itself, and how, despite the pain it will conjure, it is important to remember.

In a sense Thomson’s account of the war, despite the jolly tones taken by his uncle, becomes truer than its portrayal from the letters. It is from this rereading of the letters that Thomson is able to uncover the real and tangible aspects of their experiences that they were either taught to refrain from writing or they themselves were to afraid to write about. Indeed, how does one write to his mother about the deaths and the loss he encountered on a daily basis in the battlefield? Being men at that time also entailed the need to stand up to societal expectations of emotional strength and courage: Boys don’t cry, they are not allowed to even in letters sent home.

The images of war we see in the letters, while being clichéd, is therefore the exact opposite of what it is in the battlefronts: when the uncles speak about pests in the trenches, they actually speak of the nightmares that prevent them from going to sleep, or of the fear that they might be overrun by “pests” or enemy attacks. An uncle speaks about the mud because the mud brings to mind the subhuman conditions that they go through. Yes, there are a thousand ways to interpret what the uncles really wanted to convey in their letters, and, as Thomson tells us, the sad truth is that we really have no way of knowing and the dead have no way of telling.

It is perhaps this last point, of the loss of the story that prevents people from remembering how it was and what it was like to be in the war, that is the most powerful message of the play. The fact that the uncle’s stories were buried with them brings a sense of loss, a ghost to haunt the collective psyche.

The play is therefore not about the stories or the accounts of the uncles that were told in the letters but of the stories they could not tell and the images they were not allowed to describe in their letters. To this end Thomson/the protagonist succeeds in his objective of shaping the narrative, not of the war per se but of their being restrained—by expectations and by their personal pride—from telling the truth about it. This is why the play is aptly titled the lost boys, it is about the hardship of trying to find them and the truths they have to tell.

Thomson’s account therefore, based on his discovery of the real war experiences from army records and history books, is what his uncles would have written—and would have told their nephew—if they had the chance. In this sense his narrative in the lost boys, where Thomson assumes the character and personality of uncles that he never knew except in their letters, could be said to be the true account of war. It is in this piece that he gives voice to the things that were happening but they had to pretend were not.

In the end it is this ability to confront the confounding messages of his long dead uncles, of being able to give them the voice and the courage, that proves the author’s catharsis and defining moment; it is by telling their story that he is able to come to terms with the reason of his uncle’s premature death, and the waste of lives that is often demanded and exacted by war.

And in the same way that he was unfazed in searching for the exact spot where his father died, he will remain unfazed in his quest for his uncles’ stories and the stories of a million others who have gone to war as long as necessary: “for Joe and George and Art and Jack and Harold, the dance will go on till the rains put the fires out for good.” Thomson’s/the protagonist’s journey for the truth, for the lost boys, has therefore just begun.

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