||July 26, 2004
An extraordinary experience in my youth which just had to be penned to paper -- an ageless story for all ages with no geographical or cultural boundaries.
Barnes & Noble.com
Is there and experience as profound, as indefinable, as cherished, as savored as fresh love, that sweet love in youth? As if on cue, we are wrenched away from the frivolities of childhood and launched into a new awakening of soul and self. The mere touch of a gentle hand, the soft gaze of dewy bright eyes, the gait, the strength of voice, the flick of a lock of hair stirs within us urgent passions and yearnings that Nature had set aside for us, latent and dormant. But what recollection of youth can be held more dear than that first kiss of a first love? This is a story for all those who have known love, real love! This is also a story of "memories," safeguarded and cherished. But then, there is much more ...
Warren W. Evans
"Memories are very much what life is all about. Safeguard the good ones and learn from the others."
Susan M. Omilian
Corky, Peggy And The Goldfinch by Warren W. Evans
Reviewed by Susan M. Omilian
Although more than 60 years have passed since World War II began with Germany’s unprovoked attack on Poland in 1939, stories about the war and its enormous impact on the people who lived through it are still being told today with vivid detail and unbridled courage. So much was lost, so much will never be retrieved, but the stories live on. “Corky, Peggy And The Goldfinch,” by Warren W. Evans of Toronto, Canada, is one such story. It is written in the clear, authentic voice of Corky, a 12-year-old boy on the brink of adolescence, who moves with his family in 1946, a year after the war ended, from Toronto to Geco (pronounced Gee-ko). “A scary sounding place,” he admits in the novel’s opening chapters, with a strange name somewhere out in the “middle of nowhere.”
This well-spun tale of coming of age and first love set in post-war Canada is rich in detail, full of energy and thoroughly entertaining. Based on a true story and actual events and people, author Warren Evans’ uncanny ability to remember the sights, sounds and emotions that sway a young boy at such a critical juncture in his life provide remarkable insight into the drama and traumas of adolescence. Growing up is hard enough for Corky but doing so in the lingering shadow of a world war that has ended but has hardly been forgotten only adds color, life and great human interest to the story.
Even Geco, the place where Corky comes to live, has risen from the ashes of a World War II munitions plant. A vast complex of 177 buildings, the plant was constructed in a remarkably short period of time in 1940 on 357 acres of farmland near rural Scarborough, Ontario, by the American-owned General Engineering Company (hence, the name “Geco”). With 6,000 employees at its peak, the plant’s major contribution to Canada’s war effort, between July 1941 and 1945, was assembling over 256 million fuses and igniting devices and filling large shells with gun powder. Without this work, the guns and cannons of the Allied military forces overseas would not have fired and their anti-tank mines would not have exploded. After the war, the munitions plant was hastily reconstructed as a post-war emergency housing complex. “It was for the floundering,” as Corky refers to the people who came to populate Geco. But its citizens quickly and efficiently changed it into a busy, thriving and autonomous community within two years after the war
Although apprehensive at first about living in such an isolated place, Corky, a whimsical boy, quickly makes the best of it and soon finds living in Geco more of an adventure than he thought. On his first day there, Corky meets Peggy Wilkins, a pretty girl with long pigtails, big brown eyes, a little taller and a year old than he, who offers to show him around. As she leads him through the maze of old munitions plant buildings that have been converted into apartment units, a makeshift schoolhouse and a vast recreational hall, she asks him if he’d like to take her hand. He recoils at the suggestion since it is clear in his mind that he doesn’t like girls yet, except maybe tomboys, but Peggy doesn’t take “no” for an answer. To get him interested in her, she dangles the possibility of telling him how to get into the secret passageway that leads to “miles and miles of tunnels” built under the complex while it was still a munitions plant.
The idea of exploring these tunnels fuels Corky’s boyish curiosity and vivid imagination while his relationship with Peggy grows. She is a precocious, single-minded girl, who at thirteen-and-a-half, plants a kiss full on Corky’s lips within days of their meeting. When she tells him that she’s very interested in him, he can only say that he likes her “pigtails a lot!” Undaunted, Peggy becomes Corky’s self-appointed guide into the complicated adult world of sex, romance and lasting relationships.
But Corky also has a thing or two to teach Peggy. When she asks him why the Goldfinches flying over Geco (which she argues at first are wild canaries) are his favorite birds, he says, “because they are happy … the happiest bird of them all!” “And if people were as happy as the Goldfinches,” he adds, “there’d never be any more wars, ever again!”
And it is war that confounds Corky the most. After reading the poignant but disturbing letters that Peggy’s family received posthumously from her Uncle Jack, who was killed while serving as an army chaplain in the Canadian forces stationed in Cassino, Italy, Corky finds the idea of war a confusing thing. While Uncle Jack writes of the suffering caused by the persistent shelling of the Allied troops by the Germans, he also tells of kneeling, rosary in hand, beside a dying German soldier who laments that he’ll never see his wife and children again. When Uncle Jack’s letters open up “touchy” questions about God, war, conflict and death, Corky finds he would rather discuss them with someone other than a family member. So he turns to Miss Birk, an affable woman whom he and Peggy met at the dog race track north of the community. And his questions to her are relentless. Was Germany really a country of monstrous, murderous, “rotten” people as portrayed in the newsreels he had seen at the cinema every Saturday afternoon? And if Canada’s young men were fighting to keep their country free and strong, were the Germans fighting for something different?
Corky reasons that we all strive for nothing short of happiness, happy just like his beloved Goldfinches in the skies above Geco. Yet, he wonders, was the average German citizen thinking on a far different plane than the rest of the world? And if what he had learned earlier at church was true that God created man in His image, did another god create the Germans? But kind and wise Miss Birk assures Corky, even after her own husband was killed in action during the war and her young son died soon thereafter from polio, that not all Germans are “rotten” people. “Never judge the behavior of a group by the acts of only a few,” she insists. The Germans were fighting for an ideal too, a belief in a far better world, a happier world, she further explains, and one which Hitler had convinced them was possible to get, and worth going to war over. Hitler was just a “rotten leader,” she bemoans.
By the end of the story, which spans three years of Corky’s life, the boy is most consumed with his deepening relationship with Peggy. He calls her “Peg O’ My Heart” and sees her as a shining star in the constellation of his future life.
But just as he and Peggy grow closer, Corky learns the hardest lesson of all. This one is about memories and how to safeguard the good ones while learning from the others. Corky finds that his best memories, like his first kiss and the big adventure he has in the underground tunnels of Geco with Peggy are his happiest. And as he looks back, he learns how to honor and cherish these memories with the eternally happy Goldfinch as his symbolic torch for life.
And in telling Corky’s story with love and great passion, author Warren Evans creates in “Corky, Peggy And The Goldfinch” a book to read, remember and cherish as well.
* * * *
Susan Omilian is an attorney and a published fiction and non-fiction writer who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She works as an editor, writing coach and teacher of creative writing.
Corky, Peggy and the Goldfinch
This book is a romping, highly-entertaining adventure story set in the immediate post WWII era 1946-49. In the summer of 1946, a rather intense and curious twelve-year-old boy named “Corky” reluctantly moves with his family and five siblings to an emergency housing complex – a converted wartime sprawling munitions plant in the boondocks of Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, on the eastern fringes of Toronto.
The two main protagonists are the narrator – Corky – and his first true-love “Peggy.” Girl-shy Corky is caught off guard on his first day in the community when precocious and bold Peggy tries to take his hand while giving him a guided tour of the buildings. With her hair braided in pigtails, and flashing big brown eyes, she is very pretty, and a full year older than Corky.
They soon bond a friendship with three others: Corky’s tomboy sister “Neeney” (younger by two years); rather squeamish, prim and proper “Marlene,” and tough-as-nails “Wilf” who would cement a lifelong friendship with Corky in a gory blood brother ritual. Collectively, they come to be known as the “group of five.”
Their personalities are quite disparate and each has his/her own way of dealing with the day-to-day problems of adolescence, as they may arise.
This is manifest when the intrepid group clandestinely sets out on a dangerous and hair-raising adventure to explore the subterranean labyrinth of the forbidden and mysterious Geco tunnels. To be sure, many of us during our teen years were involved in similar pranks and escapades with varying degrees of danger. We were often bold experimenters. But the Geco tunnels are inherently lethal.
My character of choice is Corky because he narrates the story and sounds just as I or any other reader of similar age might. I have several favourite parts, but for me the highlight is in Chapter 24 when Corky shows such intense tenderness and understanding toward Peggy as she unabashedly weeps while sharing with him a very sad and personal family matter. They hold hands, hug and long to be as happy as the flocks of Goldfinches, twittering and flitting overhead and across the community of Geco. [Hence the title.]
Aside from the sweet pathos in the book, there is an immense amount of humour, and of the sort which causes one to erupt into spontaneous, explosive belly laughs. This humour emanates from young and deep-thinking Corky as he often tries to strike a balance between mundane day-to-day issues and his perceived relationship to the Cosmos as a whole.
I love the story. The prose is topnotch, vocabulary excellent, and the nudge for us to magically re-live our childhood is palpable throughout. The author, Warren W. Evans, has written this book in a wholly uninhibited and delightful manner.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I put this book off the scale with a 10+!
Janet McDonough, Scarborough, Ont. Canada
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