Gone to Soldiers
It might seem that there have already been too many novels about World War II. The cynical realists of the G.I. generation turned into the major new writers of the 1950’s while others produced romances—of both the masculine and feminine variety—about patriotism and glory. Later, the backwash of Vietnam bitterness aroused nostalgia for the home front and battlefields of the “good war.” In Gone to Soldiers, however, Marge Piercy uses both sound historical research and telling new perspectives to follow ten characters through disparate experiences of war at home and abroad. In so doing, she re-creates the rhythm and totality of the war that wrenched and changed individual lives and determined the shape of society for the postwar generations.
Piercy gains control of this vast canvas by tapping readers’ knowledge to engage them in the tale, as well as through expert plotting and characterization. The first sections, which introduce the characters and make vivid the texture of their lives, also provide clues to the date; readers know more than the characters, wait breathlessly to see what the onset of war will do to them, wonder how their lives will change. Piercy has done the research to provide much more than brand names and popular songs: she re-creates not only the physical but also the intellectual and ideological feel of place and time. Even attitudes that would destroy sympathy for a character of the 1980’s become part of the inevitable social context.
Gone to Soldiers is a war novel about spies and jungle fighting and submarine attacks and how marines depend only on their buddies—all the traditional material is freshly and vividly handled. It is also a war novel about the comradeship of women working together in factories, writers striving to arouse patriotism, working stiffs on Atlantic convoy duty, and Jewish children smuggled across the Pyrenees to safety. Bernice Coates, a large, plain girl who feels trapped at home as her father’s housekeeper, finds freedom and mastery as a pilot. Service with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in London gives Jeff a chance to paint, associate with art students, and recapture the youth he lost to the Depression. There is money in Detroit pockets and class mobility for men such as Daniel Balaban, who is sent to Harvard University to learn Japanese. Abra Scott and her friends have glamorous jobs in Washington, D.C. Professors break free of the dreary routine to do intelligence research. War breeds cash and excitement; it opens new opportunities and gives meaning to daily lives.
War also exposes the pervasive racism in American society, the sexual harassment of women who move into formerly all-male spheres, the stupidity and glory-hunting in high places, and the anti-Semitism everywhere (in the marine corps, Murray Feldstein is sometimes in greater danger from his sergeant than from the Japanese). Writers create tools to manipulate public opinion; workers die in unsafe factories. Even hardened fighting men are horrified by the mass suicide of Japanese civilians on Saipan. As victory finally draws near, the unspeakable degradation of concentration-camp life is made vivid—as is the Allied failure to bomb the railroad tracks that feed mounting numbers of Jews into the gas chambers.
By focusing on individuals and what they see, Piercy communicates the impact of war on daily life. Its constant presence, at some level of awareness, made every day exciting and agonizing, often at the same time. There are no grand set pieces, no moments of absolute triumph. The ambiguity is sharp, for example, in readers’ intense concern for Murray, fighting across the islands of the Pacific as the Japanese defenses grow increasingly entrenched and suicidal. The atomic bomb comes as an immense relief: It will not be necessary to invade Japan at the cost of untold lives. Yet when Daniel and Abra visit Hiroshima (as part of a postwar survey providing the information to prepare for future wars), the...
(The entire section is 2,176 words.)