Book reviews: Fiction, non-fiction books examine war, character, choice
May 7, 2016
"Everyone Brave is Forgiven," by Chris Cleave and "Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution," by Nathaniel Philbrick
Chris Cleave and Nathaniel Philbrick, two more Literary Sojourn favorites, bring super starts for your summer reading. Both have written books about people chiseled by war and shaped by character and choice and chance.
"Everyone Brave is Forgiven" is set in London at the beginning of World War II. A novel, it tells the story of two young women and two young men swept into the fervor of England's declaration of war, each drawn to "join up" like iron filings to a magnet.
Who they are defines how they can serve: One man enlists and becomes an officer, while the other is deemed "too essential" to carry a rifle. One woman drives an ambulance; the other teaches the few odd children not sent to the countryside.
And then, the bombs come. They rain down on London. They make night terrifying and day a nightmare. Buildings fall. Bodies collect in morgues, x's marked in grease paint on their foreheads. People who can leave for the countryside do; the rest of London shudders.
Alistair, the officer, commands a battery of artillerymen on the island of Malta. They are besieged, running out of ammunition and food. Letters, and some supplies, reach the men by the occasional small plane. The men shrink inside their clothes. Month after month, they succumb, one, then another.
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The Blitz doesn't go on forever, nor does the siege of Malta, but these four lives live on, forever changed. Cleave tells their stories in a beautifully crafted container of that time when London was bombed. I haven't underlined as many passages and earmarked as many pages in a long, long time. Read "Everyone Brave is Forgiven," and taste the language.
"Valiant Ambition" is the story of Benedict Arnold, and it is outstanding history.
We think we know the story: Benedict Arnold, a promising officer in Washington's service, turns traitor. Some of us probably know more — that his intent was to surrender the fort at West Point, the key to the Hudson River, to the British; that he barely escaped capture by Washington; that he eventually did fight as a British officer.
What Philbrick manages to do is to unclothe the man, to bare his soul. Brilliantly researched, Philbrick traces Arnold's roots as an upstart Connecticut gentleman, his daring, clever and successful command on the battlefield, the pain of the loss of both his wife and modest fortune while he served his country with victory after victory.
Caught up in the politics of the Continental Congress, without the station to gain the reward he deserved, denied the chance to serve his country in the way he wanted by his beloved General Washington, he turned.
In the course of telling this story, Philbrick writes one of the most thorough and readable accounts of the first years of the Revolutionary war I've read. The endnotes, more than 50 pages, are fascinating reading by themselves. But as much as this is a first-class history of the American Revolution, it succeeds as a story about human relationships and behavior. Philbrick finds Benedict Arnold, the man.
Ron Krall is co-owner of Off the Beaten Path.
This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore; e-books can be found at steamboatbooks.com.