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...
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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 effects of nuclear destruction—on a civilian population—are equally clear. Should the bomb have been dropped? There is no “right answer”; nothing in war, even in a good war, can ever be right.
Marge Piercy’s fiction is more consistently political—in the broadest sense—than that of any other major contemporary writer in the United States. She conceived Gone to Soldiers soon after finishing Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), a book that imagined alternate futures which might grow from the seeds already visible in society. Gone to Soldiers uses the same technique in reverse. Just as Charles Dickens and George Eliot wrote about the world before railroads in an effort to understand how the immediate past influenced their own times, so Piercy has emphasized those elements in the World War II years that shaped the cultural and political context of the following generations.
The intertwined narratives of the various characters not only show the war as experienced by individuals but also emphasize the interconnections that make it no longer possible to lead separate lives. Daniel’s work as a code breaker holed up in a fancy girls’ finishing school in Washington, D.C., has an impact on marines facing the barren volcanic rock of Tarawa. Through the use of Naomi’s viewpoint, the experience of Jews in France—both before and after the Nazi occupation—supplies an important context for the racial animosities of wartime Detroit.
Wartime ambiguities also reach deep into individual lives, casting light on both the domestic ideology of the 1950’s and the new feminism of the late 1960’s. Louise Kahan, at the beginning of the book, is a divorced leftist with a teenage daughter; she subscribes to the Daily Worker but earns her living writing slick-magazine romances, knowing full well that she is exploiting her readers’ buried fantasies. Her initial wartime work—as a consultant feeding appropriate ideas to writers and editors—is ironically satisfying: Louise is very good at creating fiction to glamorize female independence and useful work. When the tide begins to turn, the message shifts, and Louise grabs the opportunity to advance her own professional future by going to Europe as a correspondent for Collier’s. She rides on tanks, sleeps in foxholes, files a story from Paris even before the first troops arrive, and stays with the army through the disaster of the Ardennes. She sees farms, houses, whole villages destroyed; watches young men die; and covers the liberation of Buchenwald. It is wholly understandable—once Louise has seen the consequences of the games men play—that she begins to yearn for the world of romance and nurture, false though she knows it is.
The war enlarges even while it damages. A pretentious, snobbish, and self-involved adolescent such as Jacqueline can be transformed into a splendid hero of the Resistance. The G.I. Bill will give men a chance to break out of the working class into the American dream—yet they will not be the same men they were before learning to kill. Interviewing shipyard workers, Louise perceives that theywere fighting for a higher standard of living. They were fighting their way out of the Depression. They were fighting for the goods they saw in advertisements and in movies about how the middle class lived. What these people saw in their future was not a new brotherhood of man (and certainly not of woman), but the wife back at home, a new car in the new garage of the new house in the new tract with grass this time. They saw themselves moving into an advertisement full of objects they had coveted, but never owned and seldom even touched.
Louise’s own childhood in foster homes and her empathy for people who had always worked hard yet remained in want give the passage depth; it is not simply a criticism of 1950’s materialism. In similar fashion, the growth of the OSS out of the old boys’ network of the Ivy League suggests why power and secrecy were not easy to give up. Some reviews have criticized Piercy for representing a wide range of age, religion, class, background, and sexual orientation and yet omitting the black experience. Because she is a political novelist, however, Piercy knows full well that the omission of black Americans accurately represents the consciousness of the time. If black soldiers had been visible and black workers in Detroit had earned respect instead of resentment and fear, there would not have been any need for a civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Because blacks were not “in” the society and period about which Piercy writes, the postwar world took the shape that it did.
Gone to Soldiers is packed with contextual understandings. Many of the women characters come to enjoy the easy comradeship of a world without men; some have, to an extent, given up sexuality—ceased to depend on or even crave male love. The growing animosity toward Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) toward the end of the war grows from these and other factors:Congress was conservative, a product of the off-election of 1942 when rigid voting laws had prevented both the troops and the workers who had moved for defense jobs from registering. The Civil Service Committee said that there were already too many trained pilots who would be competing for scarce jobs as soon as peace came, when the Depression would immediately resume. They ought to be nurses or doing defense work or home with their families, like respectable girls. The general agreement seemed to be that WASPs, whatever they were, were not nice.
Gone to Soldiers is a long and demanding novel. At one level, it might be seen as an anthology of war fiction in its various guises. Jacqueline’s story, for example, has echoes of Ernest Hemingway—except that Piercy changes the genders and carries the tale far beyond the pat, bittersweet ending. Louise Kahan might be the central figure in one of the World War II tales found on racks of paperback historical romances for women. Murray’s misfit Jew in a combat unit is a character familiar from the books of the late 1940’s; the story of Bernice, freed to fill a man’s role and gradually learning to name her lesbianism, came to be told in later decades. In Piercy’s hands, however, the individual stories enlarge one another and create contextual depths that make the book far more than the sum of its parts. Some of the characters are more interesting than others, but all are thoroughly realized—even the men, which is not always the case in Piercy’s work. The complex structure is kept engrossing by intricate accumulations of detail about little-known aspects of the war, by the juxtaposition of sections to create ironic sidelights, and by deep emotional involvement with people worth caring about.
Sources for Further Study
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.
Giles, James R, and Wanda H. Giles, ed. American Novelists Since World War II: Sixth Series. Vol. 227 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 2000.
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.
Kramer, S. Lillian. “A Feminist Interpretation of Jewish History and Spirituality: Collision and Fusion in Marge Piercy’s Later Poetry and Fiction.” In Connections and Collisions: Identities in Contemporary Jewish-American Women’s Writing, edited by Lois E. Rubin. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005.
Pacernick, Gary. Meaning and Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001.
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.”
Ratiner, Steven. “Marge Piercy: The Communal Voice.” In Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, edited by Steven Ratiner. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.
See, Carolyn. “A Great Novel That Examines the Great War.” Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1987.
Shands, Kerstin W. The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
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.
Yardley, Jonathan. Review of Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy. The Washington Post Book World, May 3, 1987, p. X3.