I got this book in Denver, CO. It’s a great town and the Tattered Cover is a great, independent bookstore. It was displayed prominently at the entrance because it was the “One Book, One Denver” offering at the time. Arvin is a Denver resident with roots in the Midwest (he went to U of M). I’m a damn fool for some local flavor so I grabbed it.
This is a story about the horrors of war; World War II in fact. It’s about a fictional kid named George Tilson who lands in France and makes his way across many battlefields dodging German bombs and bullets. Early on, he doesn’t separate himself as a proficient fighter and barely fires a shot. He spends most of his time beating himself up for being afraid.
There was good reason to be afraid. Large chunks of the book are devoted to describing just how awful it is be in battle. He spends his time in dirty foxholes and is always on the brink of starvation. He sees fellow soldiers get shot, blown up by booby traps, and killed by freak mishaps. There is some hope. In the background and often on his mind is a woman he met during his first week in France. Here name is Claire.
** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **
On the violent front, his desire to leave the battleground and find Claire is so great that he raises his hand above the cover of a brick wall hoping to get shot and thus get a ticket out of the war. He takes a flesh wound but it’s not enough to get him sent home. Even worse, shortly thereafter he gets chosen to participate on a firing squad chartered to execute a deserter named Private Eddie Slovik.
The picture of Eddie Slovik struggling to stand after being shot by the firing squad haunts Tilson for the rest of the war. I think it basically desensitizes him to everything in life. This allows him to finish out the war as a respectable fighter and he even volunteers to hang around after the war to help rebuild. He is so desensitized that he even ignores Claire after noticing her in a line of beggars holding a baby. He finds out shortly after from Claire’s father that she was raped by a Nazi.
The last scene finds Tilson in the bunkhouse when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door but nobody is there. Then he hears the crying of a baby. It’s Claire’s baby girl and note requesting that Tilson take care of her.
The book ends there, leaving the open ended question of whether Tilson has the emotional fortitude take the child in. I’d like to think that he did so and that it changed his outlook for the rest of his life.
Arvin’s inspiration for this book appears to have come from another book called The Execution of Private Slovik. According to the book, Private Slovik was the only deserter during the war to pay the ultimate price of death. It was even made into a movie with Martin Sheen. Check out some of the reviews on Amazon of the movie, it seems to have stoked some passions.
It’s not light reading. I may have to get the movie.