I am again writing an extended version of a Book Babe review for this blog. I like doing research for my reviews, and I tend to think that the audience for this blog has more interest in reading that sort of review.
I have loved Marge Piercy's poetry and her science fiction novel, Woman on the Edge of Time. For me, she is a feminist icon. I received a request from the publisher to review the new e-book version of her 1987 novel Gone To Soldiers.
So I decided that it was time that I read it. When I agreed to review
this book, I had no idea of its length. I remember marking it as
currently reading on Goodreads, navigating to the book's page on the
database and seeing 800 pages for the first time. Those who are daunted
by carrying around a print tome, may prefer to access Piercy's saga on
their e-readers or tablets. I know that I did. Yet next time I will
check the page count beforehand, so that I can give the publisher or
author a more realistic time frame for when they can expect a review. I
received a free copy from the publisher via Net Galley in return for
this honest review.
The title comes from the Pete Seeger protest song, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
. The Wikipedia article that I've linked reveals that Seeger wrote it
in 1955, but it's inextricably linked with the 1960's anti-war
movement. So I expected that Piercy wouldn't have idealized WWII. I
imagined that her depiction of the war would be more ambivalent, and I
wasn't wrong. Readers can expect to find suffering, death and horror
in Gone To Soldiers, but also compassion, bravery and triumph.
For feminists, it's important to note that much of the narrative
is a story about women, and some were extraordinary. My personal
favorites were Jacqueline, Bernice and Louise.
I'll start with Louise because Gone To Soldiers
opens with her perspective. Originally, I wasn't impressed with her.
The multiplicity of her talents, her fortitude and resilience are
gradually revealed over the course of the narrative. She wrote both fiction and features for magazines such as Collier's. She briefly became a propagandist for the U.S. government because she thought that she'd be able to promote awareness of the concentration camps. She was galvanized by the suicide of Szmul Zygielbojm , a Polish Jew who was a member of the Polish government in exile in London. He left a suicide note saying that his action was a protest against the deaths of Polish Jews in concentration camps. Unfortunately, Louise wasn't allowed to write about that subject as part of her propaganda job.
Later, after the war was over, Louise visited the Displaced Persons camps in Germany and testified to the Harrison Commission about post-war atrocities against concentration camp survivors. This was an investigation convened by Earl G. Harrison who was appointed by President Truman to inspect the Displaced Persons' facilities. Harrison produced The Harrison Report to document the results of his investigation. I was shocked to learn from this book about the role that U.S. General Patton played in these atrocities. When I ran a search on the subject, I discovered a Washington Post article by Richard Cohen called What Bill O'Reilly Ignored About George Patton which criticized O'Reilly's biography of Patton for failing to deal with his antisemitism.
journalist, Louise's travels bound the characters together. Although
Jacqueline and Bernice never met each other, Louise had the opportunity
to interview both of them.
Louise encountered Bernice
first. Bernice was a pilot, and eventually joined the Women Airforce
Service Pilots (WASP). Her entire life was focused on flying--getting an
opportunity to fly, and then trying to find a way to keep flying.
Readers may be astonished by how far she was willing to go to continue
being a pilot after the war was over. Her refusal to ever give up on
her dreams was what I admired most about her. To
learn more about the WASP, I recommend The WASP Official Archive at Texas Women's University.
began as a sheltered Paris teenager who I found immensely irritating
because of her complete lack of empathy. The German occupation of
France shattered her life and reshaped her personality. The crucible of
war and oppression accomplished the most marvelous metamorphosis for
this character. It also fundamentally changed her priorities and her
loyalties. I respected Bernice and Louise a great deal, but I came to
love Jacqueline. Her struggle to survive truly moved me.
favorite male characters were Daniel and Bernice's brother, Jeff.
Daniel had a tremendous facility for languages and a preference for
Asian cultures. I found him unusual, and I learned a great deal from
his experiences. Jeff was an artist, but he desperately wanted to do
something heroic so that his life would mean something. I think that
his life did mean something because he lived and loved with intensity,
authenticity and a sense of commitment to everything he did.
A boy who was acting as a courier for the Resistance appeared briefly in this book. He was an Eclaireur Israélite de France. I learned from the Wikipedia article that I linked in the last sentence that this is a French Jewish Scouting organization founded in 1923. They were banned by the Vichy government. They later re-formed in 1969 and became co-educational.
The viewpoint characters in Gone To Soldiers
illuminated a number of aspects of the world they inhabited. Even
when I didn't particularly identify with a character, I felt that I
understood more about each slice of the realities of WWII that these
characters represented. It is often said that a novel is more than the
sum of its parts, but I believe that it was the segments of individual
perceptions that gave this book significance.