I Wish this War Were Over
Diana O’Hehir is known primarily as a poet. Two books of poetry, Summoned (1976) and The Power to Change Geography (1979), and several poetry awards attest her literary talent and accomplishments. Writing of poetry, Diana O’Hehir has commented that she views her work “as harnessed energy,” a “way of taking the chaotic emotion, the turbulent perception” of experience and “re-creating them as images.” She might very well have made the same statement regarding her fiction. Her first novel, I Wish This War Were Over, is a story of disruption and growth, the end of idealism and youth. Through dramatic episodes and descriptive passages and images made vivid by O’Hehir’s acute sense of time and place, the novel successfully captures the chaotic and turbulent experiences of its heroine at a time of global conflict.
Set in 1944, I Wish This War Were Over centers on the internal battles of Helen Reynolds, the nineteen-year-old narrator. The novel is an account of Helen’s cross-country trip to rescue her drunken mother, Selma, from further decline and self-destruction, and the train journey that Helen makes is clearly her initiation into adult life, fraught with the adventures and uncertainties usually accompanying such an awakening. This is Helen’s “first trip” alone and “the first major action” she has “ever performed” by herself. It carries her from Berkeley, California, her home, across the West to the Great Salt Lake, then to Chicago, where she is temporarily reunited with her former boyfriend, Will Jessup, a college-age soldier, and where she later spends several weeks with an older man in a seedy hotel. Helen’s eventual destination is Washington, D.C., where her mother has been living. Along the way, she struggles to understand herself and her past and to evolve an identity separate from her mother’s, a process which the reader shares through flashbacks, internal monologues, and imaginary dialogues that Helen constructs with her sister, Clara, who has remained in Berkeley.
A vital part of Helen’s emotional and physical journey is her affair with John O’Connell, a forty-year-old union organizer and army transport lieutenant whom she meets her first day on the train. Significantly, O’Connell is also a former boyfriend of Helen’s mother. His affair with Helen provides much of the novel’s interest and energy as well as a source of conflict. O’Connell is also a highly original and memorable character, a man who represents a vast range of American experience. A child of Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods, a youthful runaway, Wobbly, and CIO activist, he tells Helen at one point that he was jailed twenty-seven times between 1933 and 1939 for union activity. Arrogant and beguiling, O’Connell is a skillful raconteur and manipulator of people. He is also the principal means by which Helen learns about men. Her father, another romantic idealist, was killed in the Spanish Civil War when Helen was thirteen. A volunteer, he abandoned his wife and two daughters to fight for the Socialist cause, an action Helen reassesses in the course of the novel.
At the heart of I Wish This War Were Over is the very real psychological war Helen fights to understand her parents, particularly her mother. Indeed, much of the novel involves Helen’s thoughts about her mother. Their relationship is complex, rich, contradictory, and tragicomic. Selma is, as Helen observes, a “child” who gives the “impression of not having any past at all.” Like many of the weak, she exercises a perverse strength in controlling others. Despite years of dissipation, she has remained a beautiful woman, attractive because of her vitality and “untrammelled spirit”—qualities which, like O’Connell’s, represent the energy of American idealism. Described early in the novel as “a seeker and a searcher,” Selma, however, lacks O’Connell’s certainty of purpose and endurance. She is instead sentimental about principles and hopelessly self-centered and destructive. After her husband’s death, she engaged in several Socialist activities but was eventually excluded because of her drinking. Her drunkenness and at least one suicide attempt led her two daughters to send her east to Washington, an act of rejection that Helen feels guilty about and tries to rectify by her journey.
The rescue of her mother is not easily accomplished, however, nor are past wounds and the impact of Helen’s early years quickly healed and forgotten. Helen realizes almost immediately her mistake in attempting such a rescue. Selma Reynolds refuses responsibility for her life and actions and denies her daughter’s independent identity. Both women, moreover, are deceptive with each other and exceedingly contradictory. Helen longs nostalgically for her mother’s younger, happier days before her husband’s death, a time when Helen was a child and her mother the rescuer. Like most children, she nevertheless wishes her mother to treat her with the respect due an adult. Helen also hides her true feelings about Will, her former boyfriend, and lies about her trip east, particularly her stay in Chicago. For obvious reasons, she does not tell Selma about O’Connell, with whom she sleeps even after her Washington arrival. The discovery of that affair comes accidentally and precipitates the novel’s tragic end.
Selma, on the other hand, is not the vulnerable figure she pretends to be, nor has she the fine and “exquisite” feelings that she affects. Rather, she is a failed woman, incapable of holding a job and verbally abusive with her friends; she viciously attacks a male friend, Ford, who has helped her through several destructive alcoholic periods in Washington. When, after Helen’s arrival, Selma quits drinking, she names Helen her...
(The entire section is 2378 words.)