As much as we might like the world to be a simple, simplistic place, there is no clear line between war and peace. The two novels in today’s column make the point quite clearly.
And history can also live in the present. Twenty-thirteen is the Year of the Korean War Veteran here in Canada, as decreed by the federal government on the 60th anniversary of the armistice. It’s also the 60th anniversary of Unit 318 of the Army, Navy & Air Force Veterans in Canada – based in a clubhouse better known as The Hut, in Lennoxville.
Veterans (and others!) marked the Korean anniversary in downtown Lennoxville back in July, but The Hut is much more than a single event, and even more than the annual Armistice Supper in November. There’s a lovely little museum upstairs, regular dances, weekend brunches, a bar and a pool table (the space can be rented, too!).
Fiction, of course, glories in the study of conflict; the prolific and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Joyce Carol Oates touches on the Korean War in her novel You Must Remember This (1987) with the character of Polish-American Warren Stevick, the nerdly little boy who joins the army and becomes a self-assured young man in his buzz cut and spiffy uniform.
His time serving his country alternates from battlefield to hospital, to battlefield, to hospital again… it seems soldiers can’t ever get sent home, no matter how many times, or how badly, they’ve been wounded.
Finally returned to the United States, Warren has become a pacifist. He’s spit on by patriots for taking a stand.
The tale of Warren’s political and personal coming of age is one of the many stories in You Must Remember This spanning the 1950s and spinning off from little sister Enid. The Cold War envelopes Enid as it does her family, and the book opens with this skinny, perfectly behaved 15-year-old swallowing dozens of sleeping pills and quietly sneaking off to bed.
Enid survives, but the male relative she’s in love with who has refused to see her finds his resolve eroding.
The affair is destructive and horrifying, yet Oates is a fascinating writer whose prose considers obsession and violence. War and peace encroach on each other, both in the theatre of operations and in interpersonal relationships.
Or consider the first novel from Mackenzie Smith — British, a big-game hunter , a pilot, and the author of Who Pays The Piper (1999), a satisfying military thriller that stars Captain Christian Mckie, an SAS officer who’s betrayed during a bloody hostage retrieval in Sierra Leone (“their idea of fun is taking bets on the sex of an unborn child and then cutting open the mother”).
He’s left behind.
Baroness Margaret Thatcher, who has always had a soft spot for “my boys” in the Special Forces, shows up for the empty-casket funeral.
Who Pays offers Mckie’s story, as he attempts to cope with capture, torture, and the knowledge that no one is even looking for him. The need for revenge may, however, keep him alive. It’s a war of a different kind.
Who Pays The Piper is in New Arrivals; the novels of Joyce Carol Oates can be found on the adult fiction shelves.
– Eleanor Brown, Sept. 6, 2013