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Last Updated on July 2, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

John Wellfleet is an elderly man living in Metro (formerly Montreal), Canada in 2039. As transformed in the aftermath of nuclear war, society is now a totalitarian dystopia. Facing his waning years in a depressed state, John lives in a community for elderly residents. John’s life is completely altered when...

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John Wellfleet is an elderly man living in Metro (formerly Montreal), Canada in 2039. As transformed in the aftermath of nuclear war, society is now a totalitarian dystopia. Facing his waning years in a depressed state, John lives in a community for elderly residents. John’s life is completely altered when a young historian, André Gervais, unearths a trove of family documents from the Wellfleets and the Dehmels, to whom he is connected by marriage. This takes him back six decades and across the ocean to World War II Germany, into the thick of Nazi intrigue and a plot on Hitler’s life. From the papers, John learns his cousin Timothy, a journalist, played a key role in bringing these war issues to light, but a fundamental flaw in Timothy's investigative method—and perhaps in his motivations—turned what was supposed to be an exposé into a tragedy.

John learns that a man named Conrad Dehmel and his father had been involved in a plan to assassinate Hitler, though his brother had remained a committed Nazi. Cousin Timothy had been an activist journalist in the 1960s–1970s, even hosting a current events television show. In his zeal to expose wartime atrocities, he erroneously concluded that Conrad Dehmel had remained a Nazi. His false accusations destroyed not only the reputation of Conrad, who had since become a respected scholar of Egyptology, but ultimately cost him his life (Conrad was assassinated by a man who lost his family in a concentration camp).

As John sorts through the pieces of these two historical eras, he is disturbed to learn of such behavior within his own family. Trying to find meaning in such misfortunes, he is surprised to gain strength from the examples of the sacrifices others made before him and to find optimism in the possibility of future changes in his own society. He grows closer to André, who has written a book about the events. John decides to leave his grim elderly residence compound and live in the younger man’s community, where he finds that his music recordings and other treasures from the past, including his own memories, are welcomed by its members.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 929

The novel begins with John Wellfleet, a resident of an old people’s compound, receiving a telephone call from a young man, Andre Gervais. The year is 2039, fifty years after a nuclear holocaust, known as the Destructions, has ended civilization, leaving only a few survivors. Gervais has discovered an old box in the ruins of Montreal. The box is full of papers and tapes of the Wellfleet family. Although Gervais knows that the repressive government, known as the Bureaucracy, would prohibit such an act, he wants John to come to the city to look at the box. When John recovers from the shock of finding records of a past long since dead and gone, he agrees to reconstruct the family history. That history, as told through John, or narrated directly from the journals, letters, and tapes of members of the family, constitutes Hugh MacLennan’s novel.

The first story that John reconstructs is that of Timothy Wellfleet, a well-known television journalist during the 1960’s. His speciality is exposing fools and liars. He prides himself on being aware of current events, but he misses the whole point of the Front de Liberation de Quebec (FLQ) movement while preoccupied with the Vietnam War. In 1970, the eminent historian Conrad Dehmel goes on Timothy’s program in order to explain the dangers inherent in the FLQ and the October Crisis of 1970, precipitated by the kidnaping of two public figures. Timothy has, however, obtained some information from a student radical to the effect that Conrad was once a Nazi Party member and a member of the Gestapo. Seizing the opportunity for sensationalism, Timothy accuses Conrad of these associations in the middle of the show. Conrad stalks off the set and is soon afterward assassinated by a man whose entire family has been wiped out in a Nazi death camp.

Timothy does not find out until after the show that his stepmother was married to Conrad. He also finds out later that Conrad joined the Gestapo to save the lives of his Jewish fiancee and her father, a distinguished psychiatrist. Conrad was also a member of the group plotting to kill Adolf Hitler. In the end, all of his covert efforts against the Nazis resulted in failure. His Jewish fiancee and her father were killed in a concentration camp, and Conrad himself narrowly escaped death in Belsen. The information that Conrad was a Nazi and Gestapo member came from a document stolen by a student radical from Conrad’s university office. This information hid the terrible and heroic reality of Conrad’s life, and its publication is responsible for the death of an innocent man and the ruin of the life of the only woman whom Timothy has ever really loved—his stepmother.

The reader learns all this from the central and longest section of the novel. This section combines the account of Conrad’s life with the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis following Germany’s defeat and ruin in World War I. Conrad’s own father was a high-ranking naval officer whose patriotism and desire for revenge for defeat in the war made him an eager servant of renewed German militarism.

Conrad himself becomes the director of the Historical Institute in Berlin, replacing the dismissed Jewish director under whom he had returned to work after completing his research in London. Although revolted by Nazism, he determines to stay within the system and undermine it as best he can. His father, later revolted by Nazi excesses, also joins the plot against Hitler. He, too, along with Conrad’s mother and thousands of other innocent people, is murdered when that plot fails. A few months later, with the Wehrmacht fighting to the bitter end, Germany goes down to defeat, leaving half of Europe in ruins.

The last two sections of the novel wrap up the loose ends. John briefly narrates the story of Conrad’s career after he leaves Germany and comes to teach in a university in the United States and then in Canada. Timothy’s career as a sensational television journalist has so alienated him from the other members of his family that he does not hear that his stepmother has married Conrad. The false exposure of Conrad and his assassination finish Timothy’s career. In an attempt to atone for his actions, Timothy helps Conrad’s widow collect the documents relating to the dead man and the rest of the Wellfleet family. All these documents make up the collection found in the Montreal ruins on which John Wellfleet’s narrative is based.

John’s story is concluded by Gervais, the young man who found the documents. His book completed, John leaves the old people’s compound and moves to the small town near Montreal where Gervais lives. He brings with him a collection of records that he salvaged from the devastation—records of Scarlatti, Bach, Handel, and Mozart as well as some jazz and rock. A friend of Gervais manages to repair the machine on which they can be played and the young people enter a world of musical experience previously closed to them. Gervais does not like the rock records, but he says that listening to them makes it easier to understand why Timothy Wellfleet was the man he was. The book that tells the story of the Wellfleet family is passed around among Gervais’ friends, as they know that the Bureaucracy would not allow its general circulation. Within ten years, Gervais predicts, it could be published and widely read. Gervais finally records that, soon afterward, John dies peacefully.

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