(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Young Lions tells the stories of three soldiers, one German and two American, in World War II. Though they are continents apart when the novel begins (Christian Diestl is in Austria, Michael Whitacre is in New York, and Noah Ackerman is in Santa Monica), the tide of events brings their lives together briefly and fatally along a forest path in Germany.

The book’s almost seven hundred pages recount the progress of its three protagonists. Their lives are presented chronologically, kept parallel in time as the narrative focuses first on one protagonist, then on another. Paying little attention to the broad sweep of the war, the novel concentrates on the personal dramas and the small combats that determine each man’s fate. Christian, Michael, and Noah live out destinies shaped by their conscious decisions as well as by unconscious impulses and by the accidents or coincidences of environment. Though the particulars of their experiences differ, these three soldiers learn the common, bitter truth of combat: “You can’t let them send you any place where you don’t have friends to protect you.”

Christian’s career follows the victories and the defeats of the German army in Western Europe. He participates in the easy conquest of France and in the early success of the Afrika Corps; he savors the intoxicating spoils (women and food) of victory. When Nazi fortunes turn at the battle of El Alamein, Christian learns the brutal lessons of survival during a series of retreats. First in...

(The entire section is 620 words.)