Book Notes and Reviews

Some of my blogs will be notes on books I have enjoyed and found meaningful.  Most will not be full reviews.  But the review below deserves a special read because it gives us a point of view on war we don’t always see, the many tough stories of women caught up in a war not of their choosing and in the absence of the husbands and brothers who might have protected them.  Look for notes on other books in my blogs.

WOMEN IN WARTIME, a review of two works of fiction

Suite Francaise, a novel by Irene Nemirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith, published by Alfred A Knoff, New York and Toronto, 2006.  The Death of a Confederate Colonel: Civil War Stories and a Novella by Pat Carr, published by The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2007

We remember history class.  We sat in our wooden seats, the kind with legs bolted to the wood floor which the janitor oiled and swept with a wide brush broom.  Our seats flipped up when we stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, promising our young support to a country about which we heard the glory and never the losses and trickeries.  We girls certainly did not hear what war was like for women.

I don’t remember understanding war except in terms of who won the battles.  I don’t remember getting it that France was occupied, that folks lost their freedom, that enemy soldiers lived in their homes.  I certainly never connected with what the Civil War did to the social fabric of the United States.  Seems we’ve been patching and mending ever since.  These two works of fiction, one set in France during WWII, one in the US Civil War, fill in missing stories.  These books help us to know, and to mend.

In Suite Francaise, Nemirovsky—a Ukrainian-born writer living in Paris—together with her family, was swept into the flight from Paris and from the Nazis in 1940.  Her story is many stories, glimpses into the lives of fellow travelers and their sometimes noble, often desperate and petty responses to the loss of their homes and safety.  Tragedy and comedy ride together on the roads toward southern France—and then walk side-by-side when cars break down or there is no gasoline to power them.  A busy mother, finally getting her younger children safely on the train, suddenly realizes she has forgotten her aged father-in-law in an upstairs room of the house where they stayed.  Taken in by beleaguered nuns, he calls for a notary and dictates his last wishes.  A bank manager orders all his employees to accompany him south and then, choosing to take his mistress along, bumps two of his employees, a couple, from his car.  The couple loyally set out on foot to meet up with the rest; their loyalty in never repaid.

A child’s pet cat escapes its tame veneer and kills a bird.

Eyes closed, he savoured the warm blood.  He had plunged his claws into the bird’s heart and clenched and unclenched his talons, digging deeper and deeper into the tender flesh that covered its delicate bones with slow and rhythmical movements until its heart stopped beating….

Tired, triumphant and covered in dew, the cat …slipped back into Jacqueline’s room, on to her bed, looking for that warm spot near her thin feet.  He was purring like a kettle on the boil.

The war itself is mostly unseen.  The writer gives us vignettes of people trying to buy food, people stealing food from other hungry people.  She gives us the plight not only of the refugees but of the folks in the towns and on the farms who must take them in, sharing their meager bed space and rations.  A boy in a fervor of national pride runs off to find the army, leaving his mother bereft.  A man courts the trust of a young couple, promising to watch their car while they go into the woods for a sleep, and takes off with the car.  Nemirovsky “catches” people masking with false pride (“I am an artist!”) their inability to cope with the war.  This together with all the usual posturing, only accentuated by the war, as in this exchange between a writer and a waiter, one of many such small moments so well captured by Nemirovsky.

“Breakfast?” Corte sighed, returning with difficulty to reality and the trivial problems of everyday life.  “I haven’t eaten in twenty-four hours,” he added with a faint smile.

That had been true the day before, but not this morning: at six o’clock he had eaten a hearty meal.  Nevertheless, he wasn’t lying: he had eaten absent-mindedly because of his extreme exhaustion and the concern he felt at the tragedy taking place in France.  He felt as though he hadn’t eaten.

“Oh, but you must force yourself, Monsieur!  I don’t like seeing you like this, Monsieur Corte.  You mustn’t give in.  You owe it to mankind.”

A badly wounded French soldier takes refuge in a farmhouse, where a young girl nurses him and keeps watch over him.  As he convalesces, the two share tender moments.  Then he is well—and leaves.  She marries a young farmer, a “good man” who, however, does not inspire love.  One sees how war moves people in and out of one another’s lives, leaving hearts yearning.

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This yearning is also a theme in Pat Carr’s collection of stories, The Death of a Confederate Colonel: Civil War Stories and a Novella.  In the confederate south a young woman, in a homestead alone because her husband has gone to war, takes in a wounded Union soldier, binds his wounds, and, while is he resting and dying, discovers in the pocket of the bloody shirt she has taken off him, a diary which touches her.  He writes, We “found to our satisfaction that there is no fun in soldiering.”  “A stagnant pond close by, containing the half-decayed carcasses of mules, horses, and hogs is the water we must use.”

She read about the skirmishes, the lack of food, the snow and the crossing of the White River that froze the men’s feet.  Yet among the bitter scenes, she felt a jolt of pleasure when she saw the names of her town in his handwriting, Prairie Grove, Yellville, Fayetteville, spelled out in his neat lines, and it was as if somehow they were sharing those places.

Carr combines the stark raw images of war with a window into a woman’s heart.  Reading in the dairy through the night, the woman watches over the soldier and thinks of her plodding husband.

Nathaniel, with his flat gold eyes that might have been cut from gourd rinds was one thing, but this Union man was something different.

When the soldier dies, the woman thought about the wife he probably had in Iowa, how she ought to have this small diary.  She ought to relinquish it when the authorities came for his body.

Then, before she realized she was going to move, she was bending down, opening her cedar chest.  She held the lid with one hand while she reached between the layers of cloth and hid the diary between the folds of her wedding dress.

Nemirovsky’s character, the French wife Lucile, whose husband is a prisoner in Germany, discovers in Bruno, a German Officer who stays at her home, a common humanity.  Feeling no allegiance to her husband, who had taken a mistress, Lucile at first believes in her love for this ‘enemy’ but later hides a French farmer wanted by the Germans and recoils at the distrust inherent in their situation.  The man who wants to make love to her would kill her if he knew.

In both books a transcendence of sides beckons the reader into a commonality of both misery and honor.  Then in Carr’s novella Leaving Gilead, another lift outside and beyond the narrow assumptions of culture is achieved in Renny, the slave who faces impossible odds as he sets out to rescue the family that owns him.  On the surface, he is a slave.  In reality, he is a hero, a shrewd and honest survivor.  And a father to Saranell in the absence of her own.  In fact, the two become complicit at an ethics transcendent of war and culture.  When he tells her she’s not riding to town with him at midnight, the ten year old stomps off muttering, “It’d serve him right if I told Papa he was reading a book.”

“But the one thing Papa won’t want to hear—“ She sighed again.  “—just before he’s marching off to fight the Yankees, is that somebody already broke the law and taught Renny how to read.”

She doesn’t tell.

I can’t compare these books without a mention of Pat Carr’s Rule #1: Never write from inside the mind of someone you have not been.  It’s a rule Carr teaches—and follows completely, one that may not have occurred to Nemirovsky, who writes the thoughts of the German Officer, a weakness in the book, I think, since the pattern and emphasis of his thoughts seem feminine, a flaw that would have bothered me vaguely before I met Pat Carr and her Rule, and bothers me now for reasons I understand.  The book would have been stronger had we learned of his thoughts through observing his speech and actions.

Both of these war books, told from the point of view of women—or mostly so in Nemirovsky’s case—make the characters they portray our neighbors, ourselves.  We are taken into it—the hunger and betrayals, the affirmation of all that is best in folks, of honor and willing sacrifice—and love.  Love that betrays and love that refuses all compromise.  Love lit by its absence.  Readers will not forget the diary, hidden in a chest among the folds of a wedding dress—a wedding dress!—to be taken out and savoured through the dull years as the wisp of the love the woman knows should be.  Or the young French farm wife quietly bearing the child of the wrong man, wrong for her heart.

War takes society outside civilization—or takes civilization out of society.  These women writers show us the way back home to the heart.