More than forty years after the conclusion of World War II, the conflict still exerts a tremendous hold over the imagination of many Americans. Its villains remain the ultimate measure of evil, its major battles landmarks of heroism, its consequence the shape of the modern world. Marge Piercy’s GONE TO SOLDIERS is a novel, consciously epic in scope, which follows the linked lives of ten central characters who are designed to reflect the range of human experience during the war.
Piercy, an accomplished novelist and poet, intends to retell the honored legends of courage and valor for the generation that lived through the war and to introduce a contemporary audience to the politics, social movements, and fierce battles of the struggle. Effectively intertwining extensive research, personal family experience, and a very powerful imagination, the novel is structured around several Jewish families of widely varying social backgrounds whose lives are drawn together by their work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the army’s intelligence organization. Piercy’s poetic skills enable her to produce battlefield scenes of harrowing intensity, but her primary focus is an intelligence agency because she wishes to demonstrate that the mind is the most fascinating weapon of human combat.
Although the multicharacter narrative is sometimes distracting when abrupt shifts undercut the momentum of the story, and although not all of the characters are imagined or developed with equal interest or insight, the wide range of the book gives it the panoramic power of the great novels of the nineteenth century. While Piercy is equally capable of rendering male or female perspectives on reality, her special concentration on the sensibility of several especially interesting women offers another view of a war which has generally been covered by male writers such as James Jones or Herman Wouk.
The action sequences, an obvious necessity in a work set directly in the tradition of VANITY FAIR and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, are equal to the descriptions of Piercy’s predecessors, but the novel is also informed by a very strong sense of social justice and human decency. Piercy’s design is to combine the romance and adventure of the commercially popular novel with the sociological realism of the best historical journalism and to thread an argument for progressive democratic values throughout the book. Scenes such as the siege of Guadalcanal, the infamous Detroit race riot, and the horrifying Polish death march are complemented by subtle examinations of the motives and desires of individuals caught in the turmoil of a global cataclysm. The realm of the novel has been made as real as the world to which the reader returns at its conclusion.
Foster, David L. “Women on the Edge of Narrative: Language in Marge Piercy’s Utopia.” In Patterns of the Fantastic II, edited by Donald M. Hassler. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1985. An interesting discussion of language as it reflects differences in status and power.
Jones, Libby Falk. “Gilman, Bradley, Piercy, and the Evolving Rhetoric of Feminist Utopias.” In Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative, edited by Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990. An important discussion on the differences in the ways that women and men communicate and how gender differences are revealed in language.
Piercy, Marge. Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982. Presents insights into Piercy’s attitudes on various feminist issues. Particularly interesting in view of its comments on education, body image, and issues of motherhood is the essay entitled “Through the Cracks: Growing Up in the Fifties.”
Walker, Sue, and Eugenie Hamner, eds. Ways of Knowing. Mobile, Ala.: Negative Capability Press, 1991. A collection of critical essays, including ones on Small Changes, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Stone, Paper, Knife (1983), Fly Away Home (1984), and such topics as “The Renewal of the Self by Returning to the Elements,” “Political Themes and Personal Preoccupations,” and “A Sense of Place.” Gives an overview of Piercy’s work and includes an extensive bibliography.
Westerlund-Shands, Kerstin. The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. A thorough critical assessment of Piercy’s novels.