Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Sunray: The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard

by Valerie Fortney

On May 17, 2006, at approximately ­7 p.m.­ Afghanistan time, Forward Observation Officer Captain Nichola Goddard earned a tragic place in Canadian history: she became the first female Canadian soldier to die in combat. Although the media was predictably preoccupied with the death of a female soldier, Sunray takes a step back to profile the life of a woman who consistently defied the societally imposed constraints of her sex.

Eschewing tragic, one-note platitudes, the book honours a fearless young woman who grew into a resilient warrior. Regardless of a reader’s attitude toward the war in Afghanistan, this book provides a heartbreaking story of a hero who believed in her own convictions above the artificial limitations of her sex. Born to left-wing pacifists, Nichola was an unlikely soldier. However, she maintained a fierce loyalty to her own decision to pursue a military career, and remained courageous every step of the way.

From Sunray’s first pages it is evident that journalist Valerie Fortney is a skilled writer endeavouring to tell not a military story, but a human one. The book’s richly detailed narrative is culled from family archives and extensive interviews, and Fortney paints a vivid picture of Nichola’s unique, well-­travelled upbringing. No detail is spared: Fortney even journeys with the Goddard family to Papua New Guinea, where Nichola spent her early life, to interview the tribespeople who knew her as a girl. Nichola’s own correspondence is also incorporated into the book, further humanizing her and forestalling a pacifist reader’s impulse to pass judgment on her decision to enter military life.

The detail and research Fortney marshals renders the story universal, and reveals the difficult compromises that military life demands. This is not a book only for military enthusiasts or history buffs; it will reward any reader interested in the drama of a brave, inspiring life.

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