World War I

The Great War

ISBN: 
9780393088809

If you are a fan of graphic novels or comic book histories, Joe Sacco’s incredibly detailed book about the battle of the Somme is a keeper.  The accordion style of the book imparted a narrative push to this graphic history that has no text.

The folded-over 24 foot long drawing also gave Sacco a large expanse of space to record the planning for the war on the ramparts of Montreuil-sur-Mer, the gathering of horses, laden carts and howitzers before the battle, and the trenches, explosions and destruction of the battle itself.  

The artist also vividly captured the digging of graves and the field of white crosses after the bloodshed ended.  Sacco’s drawings are very accurate, expertly rendered, and they convey emotion. To get the full effect of this book, you should spread it out across a long table or even two tables.

The one-day battle had 60,000 British casualties—the largest of any battle Britain has been involved in before or since. Included in a separate booklet is Adam Hochschild’s narrative essay that places the art in context. Read more »

The Lifeboat

ISBN: 
9780316185905

Charlotte Rogan's debut novel The Lifeboat restores your faith in 21st century writing.  In this historical novel, two narratives intertwine: the more dramatic one being the story of the shipwreck of the Princess Alexandria during the first months of WWI on a voyage from England to America.  The second story is about Grace, a young woman whose family has suffered a financial collapse. Suddenly, needing to make her own way in the world, Grace's choices are narrow:  to become a governess or find a rich husband, Grace being resourceful and not wanted to be tied down by a job with long hours and little pay chooses the latter.

She finds her husband material in an unlikely place:  the engagement listings of a London society paper.  Henry Winter, an American financier, is handsome and rich and works for a company rapidly increasing in power and influence. Amazingly, this part of the plan works. They marry and set off for America. On the ship, as a sign of her newly altered status, Grace and Henry are invited to sit at the captain's table.

But there Grace's good luck ends. For one thing, Henry has not cabled his parents about the marriage, and seems reluctant to do so. His parents send him telegrams about his former fiancee but does she even know that she's become history to him? In the middle of the night the Empress mysteriously explodes and the new bride finds herself the last person squeezed onto a lifeboat, and without her husband. Read more »

Three Day Road

Three Day RoadI read a review of Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden's first novel of World War I, which mentions that this isn't necessarily an anti-war novel.   I had to read the sentence in that review several times to make sure I wasn't misreading or misunderstanding.  Does a war novel have to come out and specifically declare a stance? 

Really, Boyden includes anti-war elements right up to the breathtaking ending: senseless killings, madness, morphine addiction, shortsighted military leadership, dehumanization, and the day to day terror.  The characters in this book do seemingly impossible and horrible things in the name of combat.  Is that not stance enough?  Is it even important?

It is true that this book is about more than the descent into the hell of trench warfare.  It is a really poetic story of Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, Cree Indians who have grown up in Canada near Hudson Bay.  They have spent their childhood patiently hunting, skills which serve them well as snipers in some of the worst battles of World War I, including around Vimy Ridge and the Somme.  Maybe it needs to be said, but being good at killing moose to survive the winter is different than being good at killing Germans. Xavier and Elijah react differently, but equally destructively, to war. Read more »

War Books

MatterhornMy question of the week - Do women read war novels?  I don't mean to ask this in a polarizing and dramatic way, but out of genuine interest. 

I recently finished the excellent Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, a novelization about the Vietnam War.  Marlantes is a highly decorated Marine who served in Vietnam and this 600 page book was 30 years in the making.  The book is technical and almost solely set in Vietnam.  There isn't room for families, girlfriends, or real life.  This book is intense - filled with racial tensions, horrifying wounds, tigers, leeches, jungle rot, thirst, hunger, diarrhea, boredom, bad language and inept military structure.  I probably lost some of the technicalities of the military maneuvers, but in the end you really care about the characters.  At times, reading this was stressful but the pain and longing seems universal and touching.   Read more »

The Stone Carvers

Stone CarversThe Canadian National Vimy Memorial sits on a preserved battlefield in France where the Canadian Expeditionary Force took part in the Battle of Vimy Ridge during World War I.  The huge marble monument took 11 years to build and has giant human sculptures representing sacrifice, mourning, and strength and includes over 11,000 names of Canadian soldiers missing in action.

In Jane Urquhart's novel The Stone Carvers, we meet three fictional people who wind up working on this magnificent monument. Their lives are transformed both by the beauty of art and the horrors of war. 

Klara and Tilman Becker grow up in rural Canada in a German immigrant community at the turn of the century.  Their grandfather is a wood carver with high hopes for Tilman to learn the master craft.  While Tilman has a natural carving ability, he is proves unable to stay on the farm.  Even as early as 12, Tilman must migrate. Nothing his family does can keep him on the farm, not even a chain. Read more »

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