Flanders is Patricia Anthony’s seventh novel. One of the hallmarks of her work is complex characters, and Flanders is no exception. The main character, Travis Lee Stanhope, for example, is from a rural family in Texas, but before he joins the British army in World War I, he becomes a pre-med student on scholarship at Harvard University, where he spends most of his time reading the Romantic poets, especially Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. He admits later that he joined the British Expeditionary Force to avoid becoming a doctor or returning to his family, though in the end he confesses to having no idea why he joined.
The novel is presented in the form of letters and postcards from Travis to his fourteen-year-old brother Bobby in Texas; through these, the reader learns not only what happens to Travis between the spring and early winter of 1916 in Flanders but also what his family background is like. When Travis was a boy, his father beat him and did the same to Travis’s half-Cherokee mother. The father also had an affair with a black woman, by whom he had a child. Travis caught his father in bed with this woman and almost shot him, at which point the father deserted the family.
During the novel, Travis’s father goes blind and dies, and Travis continually dreams of him sitting humbly on his wife’s bed with a wooden horse in his hands. He carved and gave this horse to his son, but Travis would not accept it. His father wants forgiveness, which Travis refuses to give to him, though as the war matures him, he moves toward doing so.
There is no forgiveness in Private Pierre LeBlanc for anyone in his background, and no mercy in him for anyone in general. He comes from Canada and is an orphan, though he has a sister who is a nun. He always projects his memories as a form of hatred. Travis stands up to him, and they become comrades for a while, to the point to which Travis shows him how to ride a horse. LeBlanc may joke about blowing up rats with firecrackers made of spent cartridges, but he displays great gentleness with horses.
He also shares with Travis an abusive Christian background, which has led both men to be disbelievers. Here, however, the similarity ends. Travis is an expert sharpshooter, but he does not enjoy killing. LeBlanc does. He has the battle-courage of a psychotic, and he is much decorated and highly valued by the British Command for all the Germans he has killed. He thus escapes punishment for his other crimes, which include raping and murdering a twelve-year-old girl and raping and mutilating a bakery girl. Travis witnesses the latter when he is drunk, and—much to his abhorrence later—he masturbates while he does so. To atone, he gives the recovering girl a gold cross, but that is all he can do. LeBlanc threatens to reveal what Travis did in witnessing the rape, and as they confront each other with pitchforks—Travis having beaten LeBlanc up earlier—LeBlanc backs down, and all the ties between them are cut.
The paradox of Travis’s character includes his ability to empathize with others on the one hand, and his violence when he is drunk on the other. He is capable of hurting a prostitute in bed at one moment and being gentle with her at another. He is capable of killing enemies efficiently and without thought and of trying to save lives as well, even theirs. The demon balances the angel in him, but this is true neither of LeBlanc, in whom the pleasure of maiming and killing predominates, nor of Richard Miller, their captain, in whom the love of justice predominates.
Miller is paradoxical in several ways. As an officer, he has ties to the British upper class, but he is a Jew. He is also gay, and though this is one of the markers he shares with many young men of his social standing, such as Captain Colin Dunston-Smith, his lover, it jeopardizes his relationship to the enlisted men in his command, especially Travis, with whom he falls in love.
Travis shares with Miller a love of horses, an enthusiasm for poetry, and a devotion to fair play. Indeed, Travis comes to love Miller, though not sexually. Miller accepts this, but all along he must treat Travis as a soldier whose insubordination must be controlled, and as a good-hearted and intelligent person who sometimes depends on him for kindness, such as when Travis is falsely arrested for the rape and murder of the twelve-year-old girl.
Like Travis, Miller does not belong. Just as Travis is an American and a rebel, Miller, as a Jewish officer in the British army, is the subject of distrust and contempt from his superiors and the target of betrayal by his peers.
Mediating between the classes, as it were, is Thomas O’Shaughnessy, a Catholic chaplain whose education connects him to the officers and whose understanding of sin connects him to the enlisted men. He has a special tie to Travis...
(The entire section is 1997 words.)