Peace Breaks Out
The title of John Knowles’s most recent novel is taken from Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, when the camp follower and opportunist exclaims in horror when she hears that “peace has broken out” just when she has bought supplies that she intends to sell to the soldiers at enormous profit. Peace, elusive as it sometimes seems, and desirable as most people claim it is, can be a mixed blessing. At the very least, it can be a time of turmoil and conflict, a period during which individuals find it difficult to adjust to the new situation in which they suddenly are thrust. Just as war can demand difficult adjustments, so peace can be a time of trauma. This pain and confusion can be part of the lives even of people who were not directly involved in the conflict. In Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles constructs a moral tale out of the difficulties that a group of prep schoolboys encounter as they face the postwar world.
When Pete Hallam, Devon, Class of ’37, returns to his old prep school after being mustered out of the service in 1945, he is looking for peace and quiet, for a place in which he can rest and collect himself after the years of horror that he has experienced on the European battlefront. The reality that he encounters, however, is not as tranquil as he expected. The violence of individual emotions and beliefs can sometimes upset a life almost as much as the violence of physical conflict.
Knowles’s short novel illustrates better than many history books the continuum of history. Although historians and teachers may try to construct hard and fast lines around events in history, in actuality the lines are decidedly blurry. When one looks at the sequence of events that make up history, one sees that the edges run together much like the edges in a watercolor drawing. Although peace is officially declared and the troops are returning home, the line cannot so easily be drawn cutting off the passions of the war from the concerns of the peacetime populace. This is especially true of the young people whose intellectual awareness ripened during the conflict. They cannot help but see the world in terms of sharp, contradictory definitions, and they are uncomfortable if anyone tells them that definitions might actually be ambiguous, that shades of gray do indeed exist.
Pete Hallam, after surviving the horrors of war, with minor physical and mental wounds, is grateful to return to a place such as Devon, which he regards as a paradise, a world untouched by the cruelty and violence that he has endured for so many years. Emotionally and morally exhausted, he is eager to find a place to rest. As he says to himself, he is tired of G.I. talk, tired of ruined villages, tired of destroyed human lives, tired of the residue of war. Soon, however, he sees that Devon and its students are not untouched by the war. Perhaps they were too young to have actually been enlisted in the Army, but they were mature enough to observe and to feel the violence that was consuming much of the rest of the world. As Roscoe Latch, Pete’s former Latin techer, points out, these boys are “aware.” It is too late to protect them from the realities of the world. They know that life on earth is not innocent.
The postwar concern with right and wrong, the intense fear of new enemies, already is visible at Devon School, as Pete Hallam undertakes his duties as teacher and coach. The incipient paranoia that eventually culminated in the Joseph McCarthy era, is budding even in this small New England prep school. The boys are intelligent enough and aware enough to be influenced by the concerns that are floating through the rest of the country. The father of one of the boys is in President Truman’s cabinet; other parents are successful businessmen, industrialists, movers and shakers, individuals who either are involved in determining public opinion or who react violently to it.
Several of the students, including Wexford, the editor of the school paper, are concerned with the moral position of the United States, now that the long war is over. After all, the very fact that brings joy to Pete Hallam may be a source of guilt to others. America was not physically touched by the war. True, many United States citizens suffered and died in the course of the war; the country at large made sacrifices, endured rationing and other hardships of varying intensity. No American city was bombed, however. Nazi troops did not march down American streets. While other countries may have achieved some kind of catharsis through the violence...
(The entire section is 1860 words.)