I first read The Violet Dots after finishing Prof. Donald Emerson’s course on the First World War as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. My research for that course had led me to my first neglected discovery, W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks, and I had kept on reading about the experience of combat on the Western Front, snatching up whatever new titles came out, such as John Ellis’ remarkable Eye-Deep in Hell.
Michael Kernan, a reporter with the Washington Post, was inspired by Martin Middlebrook’s 1972 book, The First Day on the Somme, which followed about ten different British soldiers through the lead-up, attack, and aftermath of one of the war’s greatest battles. Kernan wanted to focus in on the life of one veteran of the Somme and asked Middlebrook for a reference. Middlebrook happily suggested Tom Easton, a private with the 1st Tyneside Scottish, 34th Division who’d kept a diary throughout his time on the Front. Middlebrook had interviewed Easton and collected material on his wartime experiences, but had been forced to drop his story from the book for the sake of space.
Kernan travelled to meet Easton, who was now retired and living in a former mining town in Northumberland. As the reader quickly sees, Tom Easton was quite a remarkable man even without considering his experiences in the war. Born into a large and poor miner’s family, he followed his father and brothers into the pit. Perhaps he would have become just another working man had he not joined the Army in November 1914. But when he returned, he proved a natural leader, playing a large role in trade union and Labour Party organizing in his community. He married, raised a family, played in a local amateur orchestra, served on his local council, and in dozens of ways helped better the lives of the people in his town. Although soft-spoken, good-humored and humble, he was also a man of granite-hard strength and character.
While Kernan first saw in Tom Easton just a way to connect to a time over sixty years in the past, he soon comes to view him as a model of integrity and commitment, and it almost seems that the story is being pulled away from the war and transformed into a portrait of Tom. But Kernan gently insists on returning with Tom to the scene of the battle, and what follows is a stunning lesson in just how deep and long the scars of combat can run. As the pair walk through cemeteries and fields, retracing the events of the Somme, the calm, self-assured man of eighty is transformed into a fearful, shaking teenager sobbing with uncontrollable grief, remembering a friend last seen running toward the German line shouting, “Mother! Mother! Help me!”
Tom Easton died in 1980. Kernan retired from the Post in 1989 and published one other book, a novel titled The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals (which, from the looks of the reviews on Amazon, I will have to add to my list). He died in 2005. “He was a glorious writer who could make anything interesting,” recalled Mary Hadar, a colleague, for his obituary.
The Violet Dots, by Michael Kernan
New York: George Braziller, 1978