Shovels Not Rifles offers new frontline view of WW1
Delving deep into the tales of our shared Black history in the Atlantic region, Shovels Not Rifles emerges as a standout narrative. In this fiction based on real events, Gloria Ann Wesley weaves a tale of sacrifice, determination, and hope, bringing to life the stories of No. 2 Construction Battalion veterans. It’s a compelling read for both avid students of war, World War I, and of the Black experience during that era.
The story follows our protagonist, Wilbur “Will” Coleman, driven by a promise to fight for change. His battles against discrimination are a reflection of an era. While racism has evolved since the 1910s to be less overt, the essence of the narrative resonates with many of us: the enduring fight for acceptance, validation, and a place in history. Evolving through the challenges of war and prejudice, Will’s story makes him a symbol of the Black Atlantic experience, back then, and today.
Raised in Toronto, but having called New Brunswick home these last 14 years, I’ve grown deeply connected with the challenges and beauty of Black existence in Atlantic Canada. Our region’s rich history, often overshadowed, finds light in Wesley’s work, offering a focused lens on the often obscured Black history of Atlantic Canada.
Wesley’s narrative shines in its depth and authenticity. She masterfully brings characters to life, drawing readers into the experience of their aspirations, fears, frustrations, and what it feels like to be considered “less.” While the backdrop is war, the real battle is for identity, recognition, and respect. The pages drip with emotion – everywhere, but especially on the harrowing battlefields of France, where Coleman’s journey is, at its core, a coming-of-age story shaped by the harsh realities of war and societal prejudice.
In many ways, Coleman’s youth and naïveté cast a deceptive veil over his perceptions. He fervently believes that fighting for his country will secure a rightful place for him and his community in society. He especially wishes this for his mother, and for the love of his life, Althea. This idealism, while heart-wrenching, showcases his indomitable spirit. Although some modern readers might perceive Coleman as attempting to appease white society, his resilience paints a picture of a young man with an unwavering belief that he can influence a future where equality is attainable.
As a Black man, the weight of reading Coleman’s story was overwhelming at times. It mirrors the complex duality many of us face: external battles in tumultuous times and internal ones against racial prejudices. This duality intensifies the reading experience, as one realizes that the adversities faced by Coleman remain challenges for many even today.
Witnessing the culmination of the protagonist’s journey in the epilogue, it’s clear that the obstacles faced during the war had lasting implications for him and his comrades. Wesley’s portrayal of the protagonist’s reunion with old comrades, especially Derek Jones, emphasizes the passage of time and the strength of bonds formed in adversity.
The events in the story echo the contemporary challenges faced by Black communities across the Atlantic region. Our ongoing battle against systemic prejudice and bias underscores the importance of recognizing our shared history. Yet, amid these challenges lies an unwavering hope, a belief in a brighter future – a sentiment that Wesley captures with remarkable finesse.
Gloria Ann Wesley doesn’t just tell a story; she offers a reflection — a mirror that compels Black readers to confront the realities of our shared past and present. Shovels Not Rifles is a tribute to our shared legacy, to the unyielding spirit that has been passed down generations. Through her intricate storytelling, Wesley has gifted the Atlantic Black community, and the nation, from any culture, a story that is as much ours as it is of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Immerse yourself in this tale.