The unforgettable Capt. Nichola Goddard

Plus, Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant new novel, a chilling page-turner about a vengeful tiger, and new biographies of Ted Kennedy, Caravaggio and the mystery man of the Franklin expedition
Murray Brewster/CP

Valerie Fortney
Canadian soldiers stationed at Kandahar Airfield sleep in huge white structures known as BATs (big-ass tents). Each one boasts dozens of bunk beds—and zero privacy. Which is why, in February 2006, Lt.-Col. Ian Hope issued an order that seemed reasonable enough: hang up some tarps to create a “women’s only” section for the few females inside each tent. Nichola Goddard was livid. An artillery captain serving her first tour of duty, she had spent months undergoing the same gruelling training as the men under her watch—and sleeping in the same trenches. “We’ve taken a benign situation and created a fantasy,” Goddard complained to her fellow troops. She even worked up the nerve to write a memo to Hope, reminding the boss that the days of “objecting to mixing genders in combat is over.” Her words weren’t enough to change the commander’s mind; the tarps were staying. But Hope would never forget the name Nichola Goddard.

“This is an officer with guts,” he thought to himself.

Three months after sending that memo, the 26-year-old captain was killed by Taliban insurgents—the first female Canadian soldier to perish in combat. Not surprisingly, that tragic fact became the focus of every news report. But what most Canadians don’t know is that a few hours before she was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade on May 17, 2006, Goddard was at the centre of another historic first: she was the first army officer—male or female—to direct artillery fire against an enemy force since the Korean War.

As Fortney makes abundantly clear, Goddard would be horrified to know that her gender became the focus of her obituaries. Charismatic, tough and forever loyal, she was such a standout officer that the men under her command had long forgotten that they were answering to a ma’am, not a sir. “First female, first female,” says Sgt. Dave Redford, Goddard’s second-in-command during their Afghanistan tour. “That would have driven her absolutely berserk.”
Thankfully, Fortney uses dozens of detailed interviews—and, most importantly, Goddard’s own dispatches from the front lines—to tell the complete story of a woman who was so much more than that.

– Michael Friscolanti

Jonathan Franzen
Nine years after The Corrections, Franzen is back with another supersized tome on the rise and fall of an American family, this time the Berglunds of St. Paul, Minn. “Greener than Greenpeace” Walter is renowned for his niceness, while his wife, Patty, is “a sunny carrier of socio-cultural pollen,” who even remembers the neighbours’ birthdays. They seem, in other words, too good to be true, and by the end of the novel’s dazzling and very funny opening chapter, have already received the ultimate comeuppance for liberal helicopter parents: their doted-upon son Joey has moved in with the white-trash girl next door.

There are some false notes: Patty’s “autobiography,” for instance, which comprises nearly 200 pages, is written in precisely the same voice as the rest of the book. But Franzen is a brilliant stylist, blessedly free of postmodern hocus-pocus, and in Freedom, for the first time, he seems to care about the interior lives of his characters as much as he does about his prose. Patty, in particular, seems to step off the page as she careens, for decades, between Walter and his bad-boy best friend like a Chardonnay-swilling version of her favourite literary heroine—Natasha in War and Peace. This love triangle plays out against a panoramic yet minutely detailed backdrop of American life post-9/11, complete with ethically compromised environmentalists and acutely observed asides on everything from cloth diapers to alternative rock.

While some of this social commentary crosses the line between satire and slapstick farce, the Berglunds’ fraught attempts to figure out “how to live” both apart and together ring true. As they struggle and bungle, they are revealed as increasingly complex characters: Patty is brittle and depressive, Walter is less of a lapdog and more of a weasel than he initially seemed. And there’s redemption, of a sort, amidst the dysfunctional ruins, once they recognize that freedom, in Franzen’s world, is just another word for impending disaster. Each intoxicating blast of liberty seems to be followed by a devastating blow—a surprisingly old-fashioned, even romantic, message made new when surrounded by such a richly drawn tapestry of contemporary life.

– Kate Fillon

John Vaillant
The territory of Primorye, Russia’s wild, wild Far East, is one of the most exotic ecosystems on Earth. Much of the fauna resembles that of the Pacific Northwest, except there aren’t as many wolves—the tigers eat them. That a Russian region’s apex predator should be a tiger, a 300-kg, three-metre-long beast that flourishes in temperatures of -30° C, is hard enough to fit into our mental picture of how the world works; that it should be as malevolent, intelligent and human-like as the angry animal in Vaillant’s chilling page-turner is even harder.

The human history of Primorye, at least in modern times, is almost uniformly depressing. Harsh Communist-era conditions, followed by post-Soviet economic chaos, drove much of the two-million-strong population into sustenance living, including tiger poaching for the insatiable Chinese market. In 1997, a poacher wounded a tiger and stole part of its kill, starting the enraged tiger on a three-day stalk of the poacher. The tiger got his revenge, killing and consuming the man almost entirely; then, too injured for its normal game, it took to human-hunting with terrifying efficiency. In a classic man vs. nature narrative—complete with an astonishing denouement—a team of men and dogs took to the frozen woods to track it down.

The story of that tiger (and Yuri Trush, the tracker on its tail) is riveting enough, but Vaillant, who won a 2005 Governor General’s award for The Golden Spruce, expands on it marvellously. He explores theories of how humans and tigers may have evolved together, with us as scavengers of predators’ kills rather than as hunters. The role played in human evolution by large killers like tigers explains our fascination with them, Vaillant argues, and foretells how bereft we will feel if we let them slide into extinction.

– Brian Bethune

Burton Hersh
When Ted Kennedy succumbed to brain cancer a year ago, he was rightly eulogized as “the lion” of the U.S. Senate. Over a 47-year career he introduced 2,500 bills, authored 550 pieces of legislation, and helped shape generations of American domestic and foreign policy. But it was always his dark side that made him compelling. Burton Hersh was a Harvard contemporary of Ted’s, and has long made a living writing about the family. This detailed examination of Kennedy’s life and career (largely a reworking of the author’s earlier books) lives up to the “intimate” tag line. The unstinting portrayal has little of the Camelot mythology that surrounded his tragic older brothers. And what it captures is often more promise wasted than kept.

The truth is that “the last of the Kennedys” succeeded despite his family and himself. Perhaps a more gifted politician—and certainly a better senator—than either of his brothers, Ted too often sought to banish the past, and avoid the future, by living large in the present. A “rampant Minotaur,” he had an enormous appetite for drink, female company and, strangely, work. His presidential ambitions were more a reflection of family expectations and public nostalgia than deep-seated desire. And after his troubling actions at Chappaquiddick—Hersh offers the definitive insider account—it didn’t much matter.

Still, even at his worst, there was something good about Ted Kennedy, qualities the public never lost sight of. “His importance did not depend, in the last analysis, on his momentary popularity with the press, or the accidents of his episodic personal life, or his drinking, or even his repute among the colleagues,” Hersh writes. “Kennedy’s career was buoyed up early and late by the depth of his political commitment. Ordinary people picked that up, they responded to that. They weren’t angels either.”

– Jonathan Gatehouse

Andrew Graham-Dixon
In the chicken-and-egg world of historical reputations, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio has been more fortunate in death than in life. Yes, it’s the 400th anniversary of the painter’s death at age 38, but the art world wouldn’t be so celebratory if scholars had not recently reassessed his genius. Lately they’ve been busy making up for centuries of neglect, trying to give the artist his due: in June, genetic researchers finally identified his bones in an unmarked grave; there are new, glossy fine art books and critical studies; and there’s Graham-Dixon’s lucid, beautifully written and downright thrilling account of his life.

The author is very good at decoding the iconography of Caravaggio’s works, even better at sifting rumour from fact in accounts of his subject’s career and death, and best of all at setting him in historical context. The painter, essentially self-taught, was brought up in an era of intense Catholic piety, when influential preachers tried to align their church more closely with the poor, a position Caravaggio took to heart. His work is populated with people from society’s margins: his saints are aged and bent; his Virgin Marys (modelled by prostitutes) are far from idealized figures. It was also an era obsessed with personal honour, and there, too, Caravaggio was a man of his time.

He behaved, as Graham-Dixon gracefully puts it, as though all of life was either Carnaval or Lent; his paintings came from his Lenten days, and the story of his Carnaval times can be read in Rome’s judicial archives. Touchy, quarrelsome and usually armed, Caravaggio was forever prowling about at night, welcoming—even seeking—trouble. He killed a man in a duel and was himself disfigured in an unrelated revenge attack. He was the original mad, bad and dangerous-to-know artist, and also, as Graham-Dixon so compellingly shows, one of the most influential of all time. His profound humanity and brilliant handling of light and dark wormed itself into the DNA of Western art, influencing everyone from Rubens and Velazquez to filmmakers like Martin Scorsese.

– Brian Bethune

William Battersby
The disappearance of the Franklin expedition in 1845 continues to fascinate us with mysteries both large and small. What happened to the 129 crew members? Was it lead poisoning that did them in? Who ate whom? Now, with the first full biography of Cmdr. James Fitzjames, third in command of the voyage and captain of HMS Erebus, historian William Battersby offers up a brand-new mystery. What do we really know about Fitzjames himself?

Until now, Fitzjames has been remembered in various histories as the fast-rising, adventurous glamour boy of the British navy. He participated in the first steamer trip down the Euphrates River and fought in China during the first Opium War. Then, at the relatively young age of 29, he vaulted from lieutenant to commander and soon after won a coveted position in Sir John Franklin’s search for the Northwest Passage. This rapid ascent has been ascribed to Fitzjames’s family, good breeding and “friends in high places.”

Yet prior to departing England in 1845, required by the British navy to fill out a lengthy biographical questionnaire, he left questions pertaining to his birth and family blank. Why would he do that? If family was so important to his career, this deliberate omission is a conundrum to the curious Battersby. More digging by the author reveals that the father and mother listed on Fitzjames’s baptismal certificate never existed. His alleged sister is actually the wife of his best friend. And his “uncle” is not a blood relation either. On closer inspection, his meteoric rise through the ranks seems to defy logic as well. To his credit, Battersby provides convincing answers to nearly all these puzzlements. Those he can’t solve receive plausible explanations. In the process, he uncovers the true and compelling story of a very remarkable self-made adventurer who found success in a rigidly class-oriented society, and then died on the top of the world.

– Peter Shawn Taylor