Monday, July 2, 2012

Book #5: One of Ours

This book was really two very distinct but related stories. In hindsight, I guess they did need to be told as one. To start you have a young man who is struggling to find himself within his life as the son of a well to do farmer in America's heartland. He craves a life full of academics and adventure but allows himself to be forced into a mundane existence to suit his family's needs. The entire first half of this book is extremely tragic. I wanted to scream and beat this dutiful son with a brick as he made bad decision after bad decision, simply because he refused to stand up for himself and make decisions that suited HIM.
In the end of the first half of the book he is left unhappy, poorly educated, even more poorly married, and generally miserable all because he became fixated on changing the people around him instead of heading for the hills to seek fresh blood!  When he finally does gather the courage to run out on this pathetic existence he has created for himself, he runs directly into a war zone. This unlucky young man was one of the millions of young men around the world who voluntarily took up arms in the first global war.

World War I has always more or less horrified me. Being a woman born in the 1980s instead of the 1880s, there is no real reason for this. But I can honestly say that reading any piece of historical fiction about the buildup, duration, and aftermath of "The Great War" has always left me feeling an extreme sense of dread. Recently I stumbled across I list I made on my 21st birthday titled, "THINGS I LIKE!" Number 37 of the 67 items on the list was "32. listening to theories on why World War I started." To think that the murder of one couple in Sarajevo resulted in the death of tens of millions of people is horrific enough. But the complicated strings of events and alliances that were responsible for things getting so out of hand are even scarier. This war also made the world a lot smaller which resulted in an global outbreak of the Spanish Flu. More death, more sorrow, more destruction. That had to be a horrifying time to be alive, especially because so many people went into this war with a ridiculously romantic picture of what it would be like. Surely they couldn't have anticipated poison gas and machine guns. War in the post-Victorian era was a completely new game and this volunteer army of boys learned that the worst way.

The entire second half of the book is obviously about the war. It is during this section that you realize what a great writer Willa Cather is. She manages to paint (what seems to be) a very accurate portrait of life in the trenches and war torn Europe after having spent a few hundred pages writing about the fluffy beauty of the American countryside. The two stories smack each other in the face. But clearly the two stories had to be told together. It would be impossible to fully experience the horror of war had you not first seen the main character living in extreme peace. It also would have been impossible to understand his THIRST for war if you hadn't first suffered through his excruciatingly boring life back home.

The other feat this book accomplishes is showing you the effects of the war on the people who were left behind in the USA. Not just rationing of food and worrying about the fates of their sons. But seeing people pour over newspapers for information and dragging dusty atlases out of their attics in an attempt to figure out just how big or small the world is. The biggest change Willa Cather is able to illustrate is the extreme fall from grace experience by the German-American population. With WWI and WWII on our minds, it is easy for us to forget that Germans were once highly regarded by the international community as the bastions of intellect and scientific progress. Watching their social demotion was both interesting and heartbreaking. I also was amused at the portrayal of France as a "delicate little sister"  nation who needed our protection compared to its current reputation as a "bratty ungrateful" nation after having the allied forces save her twice before the century was half over.

Don't get me wrong, there was much more to this book than a collection of historical curiosities. It also contained lots of great bits of wisdom and naivety from an eclectic cast of characters. The people who made up the countryside, the college town, the European villages, and the armed forces were extremely interesting, especially when experienced through the eye of one sole main character. I enjoyed reading it but am not sure if I would ever pick it up again.

1 comment:

Maria said...

I thought the depiction of the United States' relationship with France was very interesting, especially given our recent, more tumultuous history toward them (ahem, Freedom Fries). I really liked the scene where Claude and the other soldiers encounter the Statue of Liberty. It was quite emotional. If only they could know that 80ish years later Americans would be feeling some very different things about France!