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Teaching Strategies

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Critical Summary

This Time a Better Earth follows the young Canadian Bob Curtis and his comrades as they arrive in Spain to fight Franco’s fascists.

Key Terms

  • Fascism: “An authoritarian and nationalistic system of government and social organization which emerge after the end of the First World War in 1918, and became a prominent force in European politics during the 1920s and 1930s, most notably in Italy and Germany, […] an extreme right-wing political ideology based on the principles underlying this system” (Oxford English Dictionary).
  • Anti-fascism: Opposition to fascist ideologies, parties, groups and individuals, often intersecting with opposition to racism and capitalism.
  • Internationalism: “The principle of cooperation and understanding between different nations; belief in or advocacy of this principle […] A movement or doctrine advocating international proletarian revolution” (Oxford English Dictionary).
  • Socialist realism: A theory or style of art and literature that realistically depicts life from a socialist perspective. It emerged from the First Congress of Soviet Writers. Georg Lukács described it as “using [a concrete socialist] perspective to describe the forces working towards socialism from the inside. Socialist society is seen as an independent entity, not simply a foil to capitalist society, or as a refuge from its dilemmas” (93).
  • Bildungsroman: A novel that primarily depicts a protagonist’s formative years and (emotional, moral, sexual, intellectual, etc) education. A coming-of-age story.

Methodology and Approaches

  • Biocultural: Bob carries his Canadian identity into an international–and internationalist–conflict. His comrades each bring their own unique national, racial, and cultural contexts to the narrative. The novel can be read alongside historical accounts of Canada, the United States, Germany, etc., during the 1930s. It is useful to think about the personal and national contexts that brought people like Bob, Lisa, Doug, or Milton to Spain, and how these contexts are represented in the novel.
  • Biographical: This novel has many resonances with Ted Allan’s life: he also travelled to Spain, worked as broadcaster in Madrid, and became friends with the German photographer Gerda Taro. He was with her when she died. This novel can be read biographically, alongside biographies of Allan and Taro.
  • Bildungsroman: There are many references in the novel to Bob’s youth and innocence. Over the course of the novel, he undergoes formative experiences, including the bombardment, his relationship with Lisa, and returning to the front lines to visit his comrades.
  • Canadian war literature: This novel can be read and taught in conversation with canonical Canadian war novels, including Timothy Findley’s The Wars, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, and Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed.
  • Technology and witnessing/technologies of witnessing: Due to the rapid advance of technology in the first part of the 20th century, the Spanish Civil War was technologically innovative in compelling and horrific ways. It was the first war to be broadcast across the ocean via short-wave radio. It was the first time civilian populations were subject to aerial bombardment. War photographers were closer to the action than ever before, and more in danger. All of these technologies of war and witnessing are at work in This Time a Better Earth.

Discussion Questions

  • Biocultural
    • Why, in section 4, do the characters discuss their family ancestries? What is the significance of their personal pasts' to the narrative? 
    • Why did Canadians volunteer to fight in Spain? Does the novel offer a narrative to explain this?
    • Discuss constructions of race–Judaism, Blackness, Whiteness–in the novel, and in the anti-fascist community it imagines.
    • How does music and poetry function as a marker of identity, or as form cultural exchange?
  • Biographical
    • Is this an autobiographical novel, and how does this affect our reading?
  • Bildungsroman
    • Is this novel a bildungsroman? Why or why not?
    • In what sense does Bob develop over the course of This Time a Better Earth? Is the Bob at the end of the novel significantly more mature than the Bob of the first chapters?
  • Canadian war literature
    • Does the unique context of the Spanish Civil War distinguish this book from other war novels, particularly those that represent wars that involved the Canadian state (ie: World War I and II)?
    • Does This Time a Better Earth endorse violence as a method of change? Is it critical of the mechanizations of war?
    • How do nationalism and internationalism play out in this novel?
  • Technology and witnessing/technologies of witnessing
    • In Part II, the chapters become shorter with many more references to media, the geography of the novel narrows to Madrid, and there's a lot more noise–what is the significance of this shift alongside Bob's new job? (multimodal storytelling through letters, reports...)
    • What does the novel have to say about the value of witnessing and media in war? How does the novel itself function as witness?
    • How does gender intersect with practices of witnessing, media and censorship? Is the novel's conclusion a happy one?

Assignments

  • Group work
    • Character sketch: In a group, prepare a character sketch. The sketch will include the character's family history as far back as possible, and some good quotations by and about the character. Each group will be asked to present their character sketch to the class.
  • Individual work
    • Art-based research: Sketch or draw a possible cover for This Time a Better Earth. Submit alongside a short introduction (200-250 words) that explains what your drawing highlighted and why you consider it representative of or relevant to the novel. Suggested Learning Outcomes Students will recognize how genre shapes a text’s meaning. They will recognize how writers can transgress or subvert generic expectations, as well as fulfill them. Students will read complex texts actively, recognize key passages, raise questions. Students will develop an ability to read texts in relation to their historical and cultural contexts, in order to gain a richer understanding of both text and context, and to become more aware of themselves as situated historically and culturally.

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