Dunkirk

Dunkirk, Christopher NolanIt would have been a shame if this film about one of the most inspiring episodes of World War II had fallen prey to Hollywood cheesiness, a far-fetched romance, or a surfeit of special effects. This movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (trailer) is really not about the fate of individuals. (In the lack of dismembered and disemboweled bodies, it’s the antithesis of, say, Hacksaw Ridge.) It’s about the fate and movements of the group, much like the Dunkirk rescue itself, and it strikes the right balance between emotion and action, with just enough special effects (well, quite a lot, really) to convey the extreme peril and disarray in which the rescue was carried out.

The backstory is familiar, and Nolan shows us no strutting Nazi officers or steely-eyed German soldiers. Nor do we need to see them. By late May 1940, the German advance had stranded some 400,000 mostly British personnel on the French coast. Especially at low tide, the water was too shallow and the docking facilities too damaged for the British Navy ships to get in to pick them up. Not to mention that those big ships were sitting ducks for bombs from land and air. Meanwhile, the soldiers lined up on the mole (the sea wall) and the sand to board ships that weren’t coming, couldn’t come. Exposed on the beaches, they were being bombed and strafed too. When a rare hospital ship became available, there was every effort to board the wounded—a compassionate but consequential choice, one stretcher case taking the place of several standing men.

England was less than 40 nautical miles away by the shortest, though not the safest, route across the Channel. As the operation commander says, “You can almost see it.” “What?” asks the Army man. “Home.”

In the words of the film’s promotion, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” The story is so well known, I’ll risk a spoiler here and remind you that an armada of almost a thousand vessels of the British Navy, augmented by private citizens’ fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, motor launches, and car ferries made repeated crossings, over several days, loaded with as many men as they could carry. Overhead, British Spitfires battled German bombers and their fighter plane escorts.

Despite the lack of in-depth personal stories, Nolan uses a number of techniques to bring this complex action to life. He never lets you forget the daunting scope of what must be accomplished. He minimizes the dialog and concentrates on an accumulation of physical details, snippets of chance and courage, moments of terror and random death. He simultaneously compresses and stretches time: the aerial battle shown took place over an hour and is intercut with actions on the beach that took place over a week. And, he provides some of the most exciting air footage I’ve seen in ages. These accumulating details symbolize the whole.

With his approach, individual stories become “less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be,” said Matt Zoller Seitz for RogerEbert.com. However, some critics have complained about these very features: the lack of backstory about the war and German decision-making, only three Spitfires, the paucity of character detail. They wanted a different movie.

In choosing the actors who do play identifiable roles, Nolan selected fine ones. Kenneth Branagh, as the operation commander, marches up and down the mole in a handsome greatcoat, while the ever-appealing James D’Arcy is the Army colonel with whom he’s coordinating. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are two ordinary soldiers caught up in multiple attempts to devise their own escape. Tom Hardy is lead pilot of the Spitfire squadron. And one of the small rescue boats is captained by Mark Rylance, who can do more by doing less than any actor going. Tough decisions have to be made. You sense these men could make them.

Hans Zimmer’s score, which conjures the racing heartbeats of the men in peril, was effective up until the end, when he tried for a more exalted mood.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%;  Audiences: 83%.

Spy Fic: “Freshly Relevant”

Spy

photo: Joshua Rappeneker, creative commons license

The old saw “truth is stranger than fiction” was never more apt than when applied to the Trump Administration. Back in February, its bull-in-the-China-shop approach to national security inspired me to create a recommended reading list—as a public service [!]—comprising a few thrillers that would illustrate how espionage works and how to behave in order to protect our country and its secrets. The books on that list provide a much more exciting and vivid curriculum than tedious daily briefings, for sure. Apparently, my post came too late for Don Jr. Ah, well, authors keep trying. And the parallels keep emerging.

Last Friday Dwyer Murphy in LitHub said he also finds spy literature “freshly relevant.” And apparently, Senator Tom Cotton agrees. Murphy’s essay, “10 Great Spy Thrillers That Could be New York Times Headlines” starts like this:

The cast of characters is almost too much to believe: a Russian pop star, a British tabloid veteran, an attorney with mysterious ties to the Kremlin, a Moscow-funded lobbyist running a White House campaign, a real estate scion married into political power, and the son of the soon-to-be President of the United States.

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Murphy contends that you can get “uncannily close” to the strategies and schemes filling 2017 newspapers—and understand how the U.S.-Russia relationship got to be what it was and is—all while lounging in your beach chair with some pretty exciting novels. I remember wondering what John le Carré would do after the Cold War ended. Now we know. Trot out his backlist.

Here are Murphy’s picks that I’ve read too:

  • The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton – “cynical, paranoid, and savvy”; and the 1965 Michael Caine movie was a winner too
  • Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst – The hero of this novel is caught up in the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, “a work on a grand scale”—I’m a big Furst fan.
  • The Human Factor, by Graham Greene – Like many of Furst’s books, Greene’s classic starts with the protagonist, an MI6 operative near retirement, taking a few slight actions to aid the Communists and, when he’s in too deep, finding out they have an altogether different game on. The film version had an all-star cast and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré – Murphy calls this the ne plus ultra of the Russian spy game. Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy is the favorite of other writers, including Philip Roth.
  • The English Girl, by Daniel Silva – Silva has cited this novel when discussing the Russian interference in the U.S. election. “KGB playbook 101,” he reportedly said.

If you still have room in your vacation suitcase, the other books on his list (which I have not read) are: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, David Downing’s Zoo Station, Mesmerized by Gayle Lynds, Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov, and JFK’s favorite, From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming. Read all these and you will be every bit as well prepared to manage our country’s security services as some of the people actually doing so.

****The Incarnations

Chinese Dragon - Hong Kong

photo: Arthur Chapman, creative commons license

By Susan Barker — “A thousand years of obsession and betrayal,” says author Adam Johnson about this intricately plotted tale, a finalist for the 2015 Kirkus prize for fiction. Author Barker has managed to create a multitude of compelling plots, drawing inspiration from the convoluted and violent history of China, all within one overarching framework.

The premise is that present-day Beijing taxi driver Wang is being watched by a first-person observer, who refers to the two of them as “you” and “I.” The narrator writes him a series of letters that purport to recount the driver’s previous lives—thus, the book’s title.

“As biographer of our past lives, I recount the ways we have known each other. The times we were friends and the times we were enemies.” Sometimes they were men, sometimes women, sometimes related, sometimes not, first one was older, then the other. They circle each other through time like dragons.

After each foray into the past, the narration returns briefly to the present and the insightful, often humorous portrayals of the puzzled driver, his wife and young daughter Echo, his stubborn father and seductive stepmother, and an old flame he’s reluctantly rekindled. The letters are too bizarre and at times too shameful to share, and they contribute in some part to deteriorating relations between Wang and his current contemporaries. So consumed by the past, he’s unable to see the present clearly.

Some of these past lives were plenty brutal too, especially the one where “you” were a beautiful young concubine in the court of a cruel and debauched emperor, and “I” an older concubine who thought she’d earned a place of respect. Perhaps because it was closest to our own time and can be viewed through a modern lens, the section that takes place during the Cultural Revolution was especially poignant.

Fascinated by historical China as I am, I enjoyed the novel’s subject and setting, as well as the high quality of its writing and its clever plot and subject matter. Even at the end, it had surprises in store.

Two Good Movies: Their Finest & The Zookeeper’s Wife

It turned out that these two weekend movies had more in common than their World War II settings, strong female protagonists, and top-notch acting. Both were marred by trailers that told too much, so no trailers today. Avoid the previews if you can, but not the movies. (Or, order the books these films were based on. Affiliate links below.)

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Their Finest

While this drama, adapted by Gabby Chiappe Directed by Lone Scherfig, is too serious to be a comedy, it offers many laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a few tears along the way. The conceit is that the British government has commissioned a feature film that will inspire Britons and, with luck, the Americans too, to support the war effort. The subject: the inspiring evacuation of Dunkirk.

The filmmakers realize they need to appeal to women in the audience, so they hire a young woman (Gemma Arterton) for the writing team to create “the slop”—that is, the female dialog. She turns out to more than fill the bill and has the chance to find her own voice along the way.

In addition to Arterton, fine performances from Sam Claflin as the cynical head writer, Bill Nighy as an over-the-hill actor who’s never fully convinced he shouldn’t be the romantic lead, Rachael Stirling as a spy for the foreign office with a soft heart, and Helen McCrory as Nighy’s no-nonsense agent. You’ll love the Jeremy Irons cameo, in which he gets carried away delivering Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 87%; audiences 77%.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

On the very positive side, this drama about Jews hidden in the wreckage of the Warsaw Zoo is based on a true story. Right now, when meanness seems to trump acts of charity and compassion, that’s an important message.

At the same time, there’s quite a bit of déjà vu here, as director Niki Caro fails to plow new ground or to “capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors,” said Sheila O’Malley on Rogerebert.com, and a contrived and unpersuasive relationship between the main character and “Hitler’s zookeeper.”

Antonina and Jan Zabiński really did save more than three hundred Jews after German bombs and stormtroopers destroyed their zoo. They hid the refugees in their own home, changed their appearance, gave them false papers, and spirited them away, under the enemy’s noses.

See it for the animals, the fine performance by Jessica Chastain as Antonina, and for the reminder that even in extreme circumstances there are people who believe, as Jan Zabiński said many years later, “If you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.” Supporting performances are strong as well. Written by Angela Workman.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 60%; audiences, 81%.

Land of Mine (Under Sandet)

Land of Mine, DenmarkThis multiply-honored Danish-German movie from Martin Zandvliet (trailer) also could have been titled Land of Mines, since it is based on Denmark’s real post-World War II program that used POWs to clear the mines the Germans laid up and down the Danes’ western seacoast. Apparently, someone in Hitler’s command believed the Allied invasion might take place there, and when the war was over, the mines had to go.

In real life, we’re told, some 2,000 prisoners were given the task of clearing the beaches of 1.5 million mines—a task New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott terms “intuitively fair and obviously cruel.” About half of these former soldiers, many of whom were mere teenagers, died or were seriously injured in the process.

This movie, which has subtitles, is about 14 such prisoners and not easy to watch. Lacking the Hollywood cues that typically signal when disaster’s coming and who will be next to die, every moment of training, every defusing of a mine, every run on the beach is tension-filled. Hardass Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (played by Roland Møller) doesn’t think these prisoners should get by with a thing, and he works them hard. The story, then, is about how he gradually comes to see them as the young boys they are.

The Danes are justly praised for saving the vast majority of their Jews in World War II, despite the country’s occupation by the German army, but this almost forgotten episode shows a darker side. Not everyone is capable of compassion or of easy forgiveness. And where should the Sergeant’s loyalties lie? With his countrymen (and the rest of humanity) who have suffered at the hands of the Nazis or with the boys now under his absolute command?

The boys condemned to this excruciating duty, with its meager diet and the receding possibility they will ever return home, are portrayed by a fourteen young actors—including a pair of twins—who are utterly believable. Is their deadly task necessity or punishment? How much bravery is required just to persevere?

A recent Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Land of Mine was shot on location on the Danish coast. A real mine—one missed by the young searchers more than 70 years ago—was discovered during filming.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics rating 89%; audiences 89%.

Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Documentaries

Watani, Syria

Farah, in Watani: My Homeland

Last night’s Oscar ceremony (though I wouldn’t have wished it longer and it couldn’t have been more dramatic) gave such short shrift to the short film nominees, it must have been hard for viewers to get any sense of them. Today’s post, the short documentaries; tomorrow, the live action shorts!

Watching a short film (technically, anything less than 40 minutes, including credits) is like reading a short story: the best ones crystallize the essence of a person or situation, sometimes more memorably than a novel, with all the distractions of backstory, secondary characters, side plots and the like.

Five films were nominated for the documentary shorts, and if you weren’t comfortable with the gritty realities of the war in Syria, you were really out of luck. Three of the films, including the two longest, dwelt with the consequences of that war, made by some very brave filmmakers. The role of “documentaries” in documenting what most of us are protected from came home sharply. Winner in bold.

  • Joe’s Violin, directed by award-winning producer of Kahane Cooperman (24 minutes), which told the story of Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold’s decision to donate his unused violin to a public radio drive. In partnership with the Holland’s Opus Foundation, New York City’s WQXR collected no-longer-used instruments for schools. Joe’s violin went to Brianna Perez, a student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (fascinating in its own right) in the nation’s poorest congressional district. When Joe and Brianna meet, the social, cultural, and generational gulfs between them are dissolved by their love of music and this instrument. One hanky. (See it here.)
  • Extremis, a 24-minute Netflix documentary directed by Dan Krauss (interview about the filming). The wrenching decisions family members must make for critically ill patients are explored here. The medical team’s lack of a crystal ball is clear. Perhaps it will motivate viewers to have conversations with family before a medical catastrophe occurs, and not to leave them struggling with impossible choices. If you’ve avoided thinking about these issues, see it here.
  • 4.1 Miles, directed by Daphne Matziaraki (26 minutes), is the story of a Greek Coast Guard captain and crew sent out from the island of Lesbos, day after day, sometimes multiple times a day, in all kinds of weather, to rescue desperate, terrified, and sometimes half-drowned refugees (mostly Syrian) trying to cross the 4.1 miles from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Through an accident of geography, the physically and emotionally exhausted Coast Guarders must deal with this enormous humanitarian crisis, unaided by the world’s wealthier countries. (I can think of one. Has a big navy too.) (See it here.)
  • Watani: My Homeland was filmed over three years by director Marcel Mettelsiefen (40 minutes). As Aleppo explodes all around them, four young children live in an abandoned home next to an army outpost. Their mother had taken them away from the dangerous city, but the children insisted on returning to be with their father, a Free Syrian commander. He’s captured by ISIS, and they are heartbroken. When they finally reach sanctuary in Germany—an iffy proposition, at best—young Farah still runs to shelter when a helicopter flies overhead. The detailed portrayal of this close-knit family brings the nightly news home in a way generalizations and statistics never can. Makes you realize “home” is a complex concept too.
  • The White Helmets, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel (41 minutes*), is the story of the unarmed and neutral civilians who respond to every bombing attack in search of victims. Last year, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Interviews with three of them working in Aleppo (a construction worker, a blacksmith, and a tailor in their former lives) show how they have responded with almost unimaginable compassion to the equally unimaginable destruction of their homeland. The white helmets they wear offer no magic protection from collapsing buildings or new bombings and, in fact, at times make them targets. At the last minute, cinematographer Khalid Khatib, a white helmet worker himself, was denied entry to the United States and, therefore, attendance at the Oscar ceremony. A sign of the strength of the film is that I found a Russian website debunking the White Helmets’ work.

These films were all fantastic and about compelling individuals, but my pick for Best Use of the Documentary Form was The White Helmets. Best Raiser of Blood Pressure: 4.1 Miles. Sentimental Favorite: Joe’s Violin.

*I don’t understand the Academy’s rules well enough to know why this nominee wasn’t disqualified for violating the length requirement.

A Thriller Reading List for the Trump Administration

Mar-a-LagoDear New Trump Administration Members, Friends and Hangers-on:

I propose an easy, entertaining way to enhance your understanding of how the world of secrets actually works. Read (or watch) a few of the many highly regarded thrillers for key lessons. They may spare you more of the embarrassments of the past few weeks.

Trust no one.
The initial reaction of ousted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to the possibility he’d engaged with Russian spies—“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian Intelligence officer’”—was LOL funny to thriller fans. When you’re dealing with a power whose aims differ from yours, anyone may be a spy. To get his paranoia up, Manafort shoulda read:
The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry
The Increment by David Ignatius
John le Carré’s “Smiley” novels, newly relevant

There are no secrets.
If Manafort caused chuckles and head-shaking, the allegations against ousted National Security Agency Director Michael Flynn was jaw-dropping. Not because Flynn had premature conversations with Russians, not because he lied about them, but because he apparently didn’t know his conversations would be monitored, recorded, transcribed, and become fodder for a political debacle. Surely the head of the NSA would understand the reach of the nation’s security apparatus.

Leaving aside the debate about whether Snowden should have snagged our stuff, what about the content of his revelations? What does Flynn think NSA’s $1.5 billion data storage facility at Camp Williams, Utah, is for, anyway? He should have read—and maybe somebody over there still ought to:
No Place to Hide – Glenn Greenwald (non-fiction)

The terrace of a resort isn’t the best place to strategize about national security. (See photo above).
Technology’s ability to “listen” by supersensitive microphones and by monitoring phone traffic and to “see” via miniaturized cameras and screen captures of compromised electronics far exceeds what participants in that meeting apparently supposed. Do all the Mar-a-Lago wait and kitchen staff have security clearances? Do the members? Are they tested for common sense? Apparently not, since a number of them recorded the confab. Worst was club member Richard DeAgazio, who posted a picture on Facebook of himself with “Rick,” the service member who carries the nuclear launch codes for the President—the “nuclear  football.” One hopes Rick, now identifiable by millions, has a safe new assignment.
Eye in the Sky – film by Gavin Hood
Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole

AND, WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, DEVELOP BETTER POLICIES, BECAUSE . . .

Climate change is real.
Dewy-fresh EPA director Scott Pruitt believes the debate about climate change is “far from settled.” While  recent heavy rains have alleviated most of California’s drought for now, the long-term trend persists. A fight over water in the U.S. Southwest is not inevitable, but its ugly consequences can be prevented only if the problem is squarely faced through regional strategies, which are what federal governments promote.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The War on Drugs is a loser.
This ill-conceived “war” has led to untold misery in Mexico and created a strong motive for illegal immigration. No wall will stop the drug flow. Fix this.
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
Down by the River, by Charles Bowden (non-fiction, not new, but harrowing. We’ve learned nothing.)

On the theme of resurgent ill will between the U.S. and Russia, reminiscent of the bad old days of the Cold War, see “Spy Fic: Freshly Relevant.”

Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

Saint Joan

Saint Joan

Andrus Nichols & Eric Tucker in Saint Joan; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Bedlam Theater Company is presenting, in rotating repertory productions, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through February 12. Each of the plays is done with the same four cast members playing all the parts, which makes for some quick persona changes.

Due to scheduling difficulties, I’ve seen only the Saint Joan—a difficult choice, because Hamlet is always revelatory, and the experience of each is meant to shed light on the other. As with any Shaw, a good twenty minutes near the end could be ditched. Good old G.B.S. seems determined to bang audiences over the head with his messages. Still, you’ll never see a more vigorous interpretation of this work, one that easily keeps you going through a full three acts (in direct contradistinction to the growing trend for one-act, 90-minute affairs), as religious dogma and divine inspiration cross swords.

The cast members manage to be simultaneously energetic and nuanced, and they wring every bit of humor out of the play’s early scenes. Bedlam founder Eric Tucker was terrific in Saint Joan, especially as the Earl of Warwick, but then all the actors (Andrus Nichols as Joan), Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe (both in numerous parts) keep your interest and your intellect on their toes. I’m as much a fan of gorgeous sets and inspired costumes as anyone, but Bedlam’s stripped-down, bare-stage version has the virtue of showing how brilliant actors can conjure people and relationships to life unaided.

Bedlam has a commitment to using “all the house,” and for Saint Joan, the first few rows of audience seats were on the stage, and a cast member occasionally emerged from somewhere in the main house. Not to worry, audience members aren’t called upon to do more than observe.

Despite having been a patron of the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Shaw Festival for more than 20 seasons I’d never seen Saint Joan. And, if you also feel this classic is worth getting to know, you might never find a more approachable and engaging mounting of it than this one.

For tickets, call the McCarter box office at 609-258-2787, or visit the box office online.

Winter Break: Quebec City

Chateau Frontenac

photo: Guillaume Cattiaux, creative commons license

Three nights in Québec City was a perfect post-Christmas getaway for three generations in our family. In warm coats, ear muffs, fur-lined gloves, tall boots, and ski-wear, we stayed comfortable, even though daytime temps were in the teens and low 20s and nighttime temps in the single digits. On Thursday, there was what in New Jersey would be termed a blizzard, but to the Québécois was just 18 inches more snow.

We stayed at historic Le Château Frontenac (take the hotel tour). Though there are other hotel choices that look charming, many Frontenac rooms have panoramic views of the St. Lawrence River—persuasive evidence for why this city was considered so strategic by the French and later the English. Québec is an Algonquin word that means “where the river narrows,” and it’s only a kilometer wide here, covered in snow now. We saw a canoe filled with crazy people row across.

A Great Lakes freighter slid past the city one morning, en route to Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, or possibly even Milwaukee, Chicago, or Duluth, since the Straits of Mackinac appear not yet impassable. (This ship tracker showed the John B. Aird going through this morning.)

At the Musée du Fort, you get an excellent bird’s eye view of the several battles that have been fought for control of this location. Presentations are in English and French. We also visited the Citadel on Cape Diamond to see for ourselves what the military leaders could observe. A general “could see everything he needed to see,” a six-year-old member of our party observed. It’s an active military base, home of the distinguished Royal 22nd Régiment Canadién Français.

The hotel has a thrilling toboggan run as well as indoor pool and hot tub for thawing out. Horse-drawn calèches right outside the front door offer an hour’s leisurely tour through the upper city. Excellent restaurants.

maple sugar popsicle

photo: Jaime Walker, creative commons license

The lower city is full of charming shops, restaurants, a bustling farmer’s market, and a funicular to transport you back to the top of the steep cliff.

Not to miss: snow candy! Outdoor vendors fill wooden trays or hollowed-out logs with crushed ice and snow, then pour on stripes of hot maple syrup. As it hardens almost immediately, it’s gathered up with a popsicle stick. Warm and cold at the same time—delicious!

Reading List

To understand the place of Quebec in U.S. history, two excellent reads are: