Once There Was a War – John Steinbeck

The Nobel Award winning author, John Steinbeck often created themes of domestic economic struggle with such titles as East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath, but in the very center of his career, he took his pen to the European Theater of World War II as a war correspondent.  Later in his life, Steinbeck looked back at his time during the war and compiled several of the newspaper pieces he wrote into a book called Once There Was a War.

Steinbeck’s introduction started as nearly a paradox by saying the most famous war was mostly forgotten by the men who fought it.  He explains that the trauma, the urgency, the peril was experienced and acted on with instincts of war, and a fighter might not remember exactly how many barrels of the enemy were trained at them as they ran across fields, but perhaps, they also might forget at times, due to the fear that grips them as each step the soldier took was escaping death, while many of the comrades were not so lucky.

Steinbeck also adds that during times of war, many of the media are censored.  Partly because the soldier’s missions are treated as top-secret, any news the enemy might receive of an upcoming attack, or position of the allies could put many men in danger.  With somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Steinbeck adds that any news of less successful missions might reflect on commanding officers, so to protect their egos (and the correspondents), the failures, and the officers names were often struck from the record by censorship.  With America’s values of freedom of speech, someone today might think that the censorship then was unfair, but the correspondents did their best to follow the rules- nobody wanted to lose a shot a nice job in journalism after the war, and least of all, none of them wanted to be blamed for losing the war.

Steinbeck joined the war in 1943 and spent about a year in the action.  Through the book, the reader gets a first hand account of sailing from the US to England on a troopship, life at a bomber squadron in England, life in Tunisia, and missions to Italy.  The correspondent’s accounts give the reader, the ups and downs, the little-known pieces of war life, not known to someone living 75 years after the event.

My favorite pieces in the book were about a private named Big Train Mulligan.  Big Train was a driver in the army, he was a smart man and the soldier life suited him. He would do anything that was asked of him, but he also decided he loved his position as  driver in England better than any other option.  He loved it enough that he seemed to always mess up details when he was in line for a promotion, but not quite enough to lose the job.  That was the kind of guy he was.  He could have gone far in the army, he could have been an officer and led many men, but Big Train wasn’t interested in being responsible for other men, he just wanted to do his job.  He drove officers to and from appointments, and waited for them at the car until they required a ride to the next place.  Big Train somehow always attracted women as he waited at the cars, and he kept a big address book where he wrote each woman’s information into it.  When he drove the officers to a cramped house with tattered sheets and stiff beds, Big Train always had a woman from his book nearby where he would stay in a soft and comfortable bed and have a home cooked meal.  The women would stop at the car and talk to Big Train and he would reach into the officer’s belongings and pull a pack of cigarettes out for the girl, sometimes chocolate. The ladies loved the guy for this.  When the officers returned from the meeting to find their personal cigarettes or chocolates gone, Big Train would just explain that the woman was there and it seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do to offer her whatever he could find, and the officer agreed completely and no feelings were hurt.

Whether you’re a fan of WWII, Steinbeck, or just want a good book to read, this one fits the bill.  There was a nice range of emotion- fear, disgust, sadness, joy- this has it all. As we lose many WWII veterans to time, it is nice that we have these accounts Steinbeck has left us. Stories like these and from the veterans I’ve spoken to always send a chill down my spine and remind me of the enormous amount of respect these men and women earn.
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Number the Stars – Lois Lowry

“…and I want you all to remember – that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one.  That is the great gift our country hungers for, something every little peasant boy can look forward to, and with pleasure feel he is a part of – something he can work and fight for.”

-Kim Malthe-Bruun

This excerpt was from a real letter written by a young man who was part of the Denmark resistance of Nazi occupied forces, from his prison cell just before he was executed.  While Lowry’s story was fictional, she explained in the Afterword that stories like this were true and provided this sample to illustrate how the people of Denmark worked together to save the lives of thousands of Jewish citizens.

In her fictional story, Number the Stars, Lowry introduced the readers to the Johansen family.  The main character, Annemarie, her younger sister, Kristi, and her parents.  Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen was a Jewish girl living in the same apartments and the two were nearly inseparable.  During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the time came when the German soldiers attempted to relocate the Jewish citizens.  The bravery of the Johansen family was told as they risked their lives to save their friends from the unknown dangers of the relocations.

Annemarie discovered a secret language of codes used by her family. At first she thought it was strange and was angry that her family would lie to her, but she discovered it made it easier for one to be brave if they don’t know the entire truth.  She found her uncle and father talking of delivering a carton of cigarettes to be strange, but the carton turned out to be the code for her friend, Ellen, who was to be taken to a safe place.  Good weather for fishing came to mean, a good time to take the Jewish friends to a safe place as well.

While the story was fictional, the reader experiences with the characters what it means to be brave and overcome life and death challenges.  I enjoy reading stories of the brave persevering during tough times, who doesn’t?  Lowry is an exceptional writer with other works like The Giver, if you haven’t read any of her work, you are missing out!

Rating: *********9/10

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway

I read Old Man and the Sea in one setting so I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on more Hemingway and I finally found a copy of A Farewell to Arms in a thrift store.  The balance of love and pain Hemingway puts into his writing reminds me of another great American writer I enjoy, Steinbeck.  Farewell was a nice read and had me all the way to the end.

An American, Frederick Henry, joins the Italian army to join the war effort against Austria.  He counts himself lucky to find his way to becoming an ambulance driver.  The position, he knew, had some danger but he considered it much more mild experience than the grunts at the front saw.  Early in the book, Hemingway built the grim scene of the war in Italy.  It seemed very light (in comparison to today’s standards), as soon as the snow came, the two sides settled down and put off the fighting until spring.  War was merely a summer job, while Henry traveled and experienced Italian culture in the winter. Henry and his friend, Ronaldi, talked of women, travel, and booze.  They were men’s men as Hemingway is known to build masculine characters.  Ronaldi introduced Frederick to Catherine, a British nurse and the two became playful as she warned Henry not to fall in love.  She had been in love with another soldier and his life was taken, so she was unsure she could love another soldier.

As the next war session commenced, Henry was preparing to start his duty near the front and was severely wounded.  His leg was blown with a bomb and he spent the rest of the summer in a hospital in Milan.  Catherine was transferred there and a proper romance began between the two.  Soon Catherine found herself carrying his child and they made plans to be together after the war.

After surgery, Henry returned to the war.  The Austrians were strong and led the Italians into a massive retreat.  This was a major low-point of the novel.  Lines of trucks were waiting for the proceeding vehicles to move forward.  As they patiently waited, in the back of their minds, the Austrians were getting nearer.  Henry made a decision to lead his group of ambulances to side roads to bypass the traffic jam.  A peaceful man, readers are surprised to find Henry killing a couple of engineers who walk away when he orders them to help get the trucks free from the mud they were trapped in.  Henry’s group walks the rest of the retreat.  As they neared their destination, Henry realized officers were being killed for leading their men in a cowardly retreat.  He was being questioned and about to be shot, when he dashed and dove into a river and floated to freedom.

Henry hopped a train and found his pregnant love, Catherine waiting.  He was unsure of the plan, but a friend alerted him in the middle of the night that he was identified and would be arrested in the morning.  Henry and Catherine borrowed the friend’s boat and rowed all night across a lake to the safety of Switzerland.  There, the couple enjoyed the winter and talked of where to settle down.

***SPOILER-

Catherine went into labor early in the Spring.  As they waited in the hospital, the contractions continued, but the baby wasn’t coming.  The doctor ordered a cesarean and prepped for surgery.  Henry worried and prayed.  He knew his love was in danger.  The baby had been strangled by his cord and didn’t survive. Catherine was recovering later that morning and they found she was hemorrhaging.  She was lost as well.  Henry was left with nothing.

While the ending sad, it was expected.  Though he wrote such a romantic escape, they were so close to living out their happy lives together, alas, life is not perfect. Hemingway showed us it can completely fall apart in the last chapter of our book.

Rating **********10/10