Denis “Dee” Dauphinee’s fascination with a place called Vimy Ridge began back in 1988, when he stood at a World War I memorial site in Belgium and saw his own last name etched among the thousands of those who died on the site.
A thoughtful local asked if he knew what had taken place on that sacred ground. Dauphinee didn’t. And the old man began to tell the tale.
He told a story of a battlefield covered with bones, and the brave Canadians — young Dauphinee among them — who had finally done what no one else could.
That started Dee Dauphinee, who now lives in Bradley, on a journey of discovery that culminated earlier this year with his latest book, “Highlanders Without Kilts.”
“When I started researching who the kid was, the research led me to great ideas for a story, or at least the story became obvious to me,” Dauphinee said. “The story was there. I just had to write it.”
“Highlanders Without Kilts,” which was released in May, tells the story of a Canadian work battalion — they hadn’t even been issued the standard uniform kilts — and their heroics during World War I.
That battalion, historians say, helped turn the tide of the war during a battle at Vimy Ridge, a seemingly impenetrable German stronghold where a series of offensives had failed. The 85th Battalion’s efforts are a matter of great Canadian and Nova Scotia pride.
But rather than treat the Battle of Vimy Ridge as a straight history text — others have done that — Dauphinee decided to take some liberties and treat the event as a launching point for some powerful fiction.
Dauphinee introduces readers to a family in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the boys it sends to war. And he spends time exploring how that deployment affects the family left behind, as well as the sons who learn that war is, in fact, hell. Or worse.
In researching the book, he ended up talking to all the living descendants of the Dauphinees, and learned that despite the nearly 100 years that has passed since the battle, the stories and emotions are still fresh in Nova Scotia.
“They still remember [their ancestors]. And they still talk about their uncles and their boys, and losing Stanley [Dauphinee] and how hard it was [on the family],” Dauphinee said. “Listening to these grandchildren, who are much older than me, with tears in their eyes telling me about their losses kind of puts you there. It kind of puts you in the family’s story.”
So although the book is technically fictitious — Dauphinee invented some characters and renamed others — “Highlanders” still ends up reflecting the shared experience of a city and province that suffered during the war.
And the more he learned during his interviews, the more powerful the book became. During conversations, he said, there were “carrots in front of my nose” that led him to other scenes in the book.
“They’d say, ‘You know, that month that Halifax blew up and these guys were over there and their cousins and wives were in Halifax …” Dauphinee said, referring to the Halifax harbor disaster during which a ship blew up, killing more than 2,000 Haligonians and injuring nearly 9,000 while battle raged thousands of miles away.
Dauphinee added the Halifax explosion to the book, showing that tragic circumstances could exist on both sides of the sea, affecting families in equal measure.
“This is going to sound melodramatic, but this is the truth,” Dauphinee said. “I wanted to hit some people in the gut [with the book]. I wanted them to feel what it was like to either be a member of that family, or be in the battle, or to feel like what it was like for those to go through that.”
Dauphinee said he has heard from plenty of readers in Nova Scotia, and his worst fears have been alleviated.
“[I thought some might say] ‘What does this American think he’s doing? Who does he think he is?’” Dauphinee said.
Instead, many have called in tears, and have thanked him for his efforts. One descendant of the Dauphinees bought 17 copies of his book, he learned.
“It’s been pretty humbling,” he said. “I’m glad it has touched a nerve with some people. As a writer, you want to be read.”
And he said he’s glad he’s been able to shed a little bit more light on a sometimes overlooked battle in a long-ago war.
“D-Day was a defining moment of [World War II],” Dauphinee said. “And Vimy Ridge was a defining moment of World War I.”
“Highlanders Without Kilts” is available through Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. In the coming weeks it will also be on the shelves at Bookmarc’s and Books-A-Million in Bangor. It will also be available as an audiobook on Audible in about three weeks.