Don J. Snyder, who lived and taught in Maine for many years and now lives in Scotland, has written an old-fashioned historical novel that offers plenty for contemporary readers.

“The Tin Nose Shop” tells the story of an English World War I veteran, Sam Burke, who is saved from execution by firing squad at almost the last second. He was about to be executed for cowardice because he had huddled in a trench when commanded to go over the top, and his best friend, Ned, who ran back to get him, was killed by a shell.

But a commanding officer halts the execution. Sam is a fine artist, and the army needs him to help reconstruct the faces of badly maimed soldiers. As Snyder writes in the author’s note that prefaces the book, The Great War was the first mechanized war and “more than 60,000 soldiers had their faces mutilated by machine-gun fire and exploding shells.”

The novel is inspired by the real-life Francis Derwent Wood, who used pre-war photographs of the mutilated veterans to make thin, lightweight masks that would disguise their disfigurement and help them go back home to their families and villages. In the novel, Snyder’s eleventh book, he transfers work that was actually done by Wood in London (and later Paris) to Northern Ireland. He makes his fictional Sam Burke be the first to make the masks at The “Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department” or the Tin Nose Shop, from which the book gets its title.

Oliver, an intelligent, spry Boer War veteran, is in charge of the new enterprise. Oliver both comforts and challenges the returning veterans, who fear they will never be able to go home with dignity, and likewise Sam, whose wrists show the white scars of his two suicide attempts.

Meanwhile, Ned’s wife, Katie, is waiting for news of Ned and Sam. The trio grew up together, and though Katie loved Sam more, the rambunctious, forceful Ned had left Katie no choice but to marry him. Sam, afraid to lose them both, had not stood in Ned’s way. Katie and Ned have a daughter, Charlotte, but Katie, hardly realizing what she’s doing, has fallen into a relationship with a local man, Finn, a deaf and dumb shepherd. When the local priest castigates her, she stands up to him.


“But she is certain of something now, something she probably should have known before. It was that part of her, the place Ned told her belonged to him. That part of her is why men invented their religion. So they could govern her desire with their rules.”

When Katie learns Ned has been killed, she wonders what became of Sam. She will learn soon enough and rejoin him, with Charlotte, in Ireland. But there is no happily ever after. Things are more complicated than that. And a secret Sam is keeping must be revealed.

Before the pair arrive, Sam, in turn, has had a relationship with a mysterious visiting American girl, Lily. She’s a survivor of the sinking of the Lusitania, and the relationship is encouraged by Oliver, who hopes she will draw Sam out of himself.

As women who rebel against men’s authority over them and their bodies, Lily, Katie and another character, an Englishwoman named Daisy, Sam’s first lover, are all unorthodox for their time.

Snyder includes brutal descriptions of war, “the boot he picked up with a foot still in it, and the squealing horse racing across no man’s land between the trenches whose ears had been set on fire,” as well as beautiful descriptions of nature, as when he describes a fishing boat “with a flock of gulls above it, like a deck of cards thrown into the air.”

He explores the inner worlds of his characters – the impact of the trauma of war, their survivor’s guilt, and in Sam’s case, the psyche of an artist, “both his curse and his blessing,” who is unable not to immediately think of how he would paint something he sees, no matter how tragic.

I could have done without the presence of the Lusitania and the appearance of real life English poet Siegfried Sassoon late in the book. Their inclusion felt heavy-handed and distracted me from the fictional world Snyder created. Also, certain episodes in the book struck me as melodramatic. These quibbles aside, “The Tin Nose Shop” is a compelling, compassionate and wise novel, about war, art and love in our broken but beautiful world.

Frank Freeman is a poet and book reviewer who writes from Saco. 

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