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March 18th: St. Alexander of Jerusalem and Second Lieutenant Owen

St. Alexander was a bishop in Jerusalem in the third century, and he is known for having founded a theological library and a school in Jerusalem during his tenure there. When he was an old man, he was arrested and taken to prison in Caesarea where he died, after being physically tortured and almost fed to the wild beasts.

“The glory of his white hairs and great sanctity formed a double crown for him in captivity.” Feast Day Of St. Alexander of Jerusalem, March 18th.

Wilfred Owen, World War One poet, b.March 18,1893, d.November 4, 1918.

2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Poetry Friday: The 20th Gift of Christmas in France, 1917

Christmas Eve in France by Jessie Fauset
“Jessie Redmon Fauset (April 27, 1882 – April 30, 1961) was an American editor, poet, essayist and novelist.
Fauset was the editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis. She also was the editor and co-author for the African American children’s magazine Brownies’ Book. She studied the teachings and beliefs of W.E.B Dubois and considered him to be her mentor. Fauset was known as one of the most intelligent women novelists of the Harlem Renaissance, earning her the name ‘the midwife’. In her lifetime she wrote four novels as well as poetry and short fiction.” ~Wikipedia, Jessie Redmon Faucet

OH little Christ, why do you sigh
As you look down to-night
On breathless France, on bleeding France,
And all her dreadful plight?
What bows your childish head so low?
What turns your cheek so white?

Oh little Christ, why do you moan,
What is it that you see
In mourning France, in martyred France,
And her great agony?
Does she recall your own dark day,
Your own Gethsemane?

Oh little Christ, why do you weep,
Why flow your tears so sore
For pleading France, for praying France,
A suppliant at God’s door?
“God sweetened not my cup,” you say,
“Shall He for France do more?”

Oh little Christ, what can this mean,
Why must this horror be
For fainting France, for faithful France,
And her sweet chivalry?
“I bled to free all men,” you say
“France bleeds to keep men free.”

Oh little, lovely Christ—you smile!
What guerdon is in store
For gallant France, for glorious France,
And all her valiant corps?
“Behold I live, and France, like me;
Shall live for evermore.”

The Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd. In which we are introduced to nurse Bess Crawford as she becomes a survivor of the sinking of HMHS Britannic in the Kea Channel off the Greek island of Kea on the morning of November 21, 1916. Upon her return to England to convalesce, Bess carries a cryptic message to the family of a soldier who died while under her care. The message begins a chain of events which lead to Bess’s involvement with a man who is possibly an escaped lunatic, but also possibly a wronged man.

An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd. This second book in the series featuring World War I nurse detective Bess Crawford uses good, solid storytelling and slow, careful character development to hold readers’ interest. Upon Bess’s return to England from the trenches of France, she witnesses a tearful parting between a woman, Mrs. Evanson, and a soldier who is not her husband but possibly her lover. When Bess recognizes Mrs. Evanson from her picture that was carried by her pilot husband and when the woman is later murdered, Bess becomes enmeshed in the family’s affairs and in the resolution of the mystery of her death.

In both of these books, the mystery and the characters were intriguing and entertaining. Bess Crawford is an independent young woman, and yet she doesn’t come across as a twenty-first century feminist artificially transplanted into the soil of the World War I-era. Instead, she has a family to whom she listens and she allows herself to be protected to some extent by the men in her life, especially family friend Simon Brandon. (I think Bess and Simon are headed for romance, but at least by the end of the second book in the series, the romance is completely unrealized.) And still Bess does what Bess feels obligated or drawn to do, and she meddles in things that are not really her concern.

In fact, that would be my only complaint about these books. For the purpose of furthering the plot, the authors (a mother-son team using the Charles Todd pseudonym) have Bess ask all sorts of questions and become over-involved in the lives of strangers with very little justification for her visits and intrusions. However, I can overlook the lack of warrant for Bess’s interference in the lives of her patients and their families for the sake of a good story.

Lots of comparisons are made at Amazon and Goodreads between these books and the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I liked these two, at least, better than I liked the books about Maisie. Maybe I just liked these books set during the Great War better than those set just after.

Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley

Charles Hamilton Sorley was a British soldier in the first part of World War I. He had been a student in Germany before the war and had some admiration for the German spirit and Kultur. He was killed in action at the battle of Loos on October 13, 1915. His father gathered and published Sorley’s collected letters after the war. I read excerpts from that collection in The Penguin Book of First World War Prose.

“Germany must be crushed for her wicked and selfish aspiration to be mistress of the world but the country that, when mistress of the world, failed to set her an example of unworldliness and renunciation should take to herself half the blame of the blood expended in the crushing.”

The country that failed is Britain, of course.

“I have had a conventional education: Oxford would have corked it. But this has freed the spirit, glory be. Give me The Odyssey, and I return the New Testament to store. Physically as well as spiritually, give me the road.”

“I shall march hotly to the firing line, by turns critic, actor, hero, coward, and soldier of fortune: perhaps even for a moment Christian, humble, with ‘Thy will be done’. Then shock, combustion, the emergence of one of these: death or life: and then return to the old rigamarole.”

The Germany Mr. Sorley writes about, confident in her moral and cultural superiority, sounds a lot like the United States in the twenty-first century. The German intent was to export the strength and courage and efficiency of the Germans (Prussians) to the rest of the benighted and deprived world. And if this mission must be done militarily, then so be it. Are we caught up in the same error? Or have we learned from the First and Second World War that cultures and mores, no matter how superior, can only be exported by persuasion and propaganda, never by force?

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian

A couple of weeks ago when we played Book Tag with the theme of Summer Setting, Summer Reading, Debbie at ExUrbanis recommended this novel, saying that is was “part mystery and part love story.” So I borrowed a copy from the library.

And it is part mystery and part love story with a bit of psychological thriller and a ghost thrown in for free. The setting is the summer of 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I in southern France, near Basque country. Our narrator is a middle-aged Basque doctor who is recalling, in 1938 on the eve of yet another war, the days of his youth before he went off to fight in the Great War.

Dr. Montjean is a faithful and trustworthy narrator, but he doesn’t really understand the events and people he chronicles. There are lots of twists and surprises here that I certainly didn’t see coming. And the dialogue and the descriptions were both quite well-written, enough so that I eschewed my usual bad habit of skimming over long narrative passages.

Trevanian, the author, lives in the French Basque mountains, so the setting should be true-to-life. The description of a traditional Basque festival, complete with dancing, drinking, fighting and semi-pagan ritual is worth the reading of all the events leading up to it. Then there’s the Freudian, early twentieth century atmosphere that makes this novel just the right medicine for a good summer read.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

“The alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly in [Mahfouz's] work as the streets of London were conjured up by Dickens.” ~Newsweek

I was struggling through Mr. Mahfouz’s epic novel, the first part of a trilogy set in modern Cairo, Egypt, and in the middle I read the above blurb on the cover. The comparison helped. I still didn’t like the people in the book, especially the men, nor did I ever, ever while reading this novel have any desire to visit Egypt in the twentieth century or even now. However, there is a Dickensian connection—or maybe a nineteenthe century connection since Mr. Mahfouz cites his favorite authors as “Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and above all Proust.” I can see a little of all of those men’s influence in the novel. Notice that Mr. Mahfouz, who “lives in Cairo with his wife and two daughters,” does not name any female authors among his influences. Therein lies a tale.

Of all the books I have ever read, this one is the most likely to turn me into a flaming feminist. The men in the novel, as in Islamic culture?, are self-centered, egotistical, hypocritical tyrants. If I had to choose between living in World War I-era Egypt, where Palace Walk takes place, and Victorian England, the home of those notorious tyrants Mr. Murdstone, Bill Sikes, and Wackford Squeers, I’d take my chances in jolly old England. At least in England I’d be able to leave the house on occasion.

The mother of the family in Palace Walk, Amina, leaves her home three or four times during the course of the novel, a time period of three or four years. She attends the weddings of her daughters, and she dares to go to a religious shrine once while her husband is out of town–with predictably disastrous consequences. Otherwise, Amina and her daughters are not allowed to even look out the window, lest they be seen by a man and become “fallen women.”

So the women in Palace Walk are firmly controlled, tyrannized, and abused by the central character of the novel (surely not the Hero), the father, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. This patriarch has a split personality: he is friendly, amiable, good-humored, and popular with his drinking buddies and paramours, of whom he has many, but at home he is a stern, grim, autocrat who rules his family with invective and fear. Oh, but they all love and respect him. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is a god in his own home, ruling over a collection of cloistered, intimidated women and three sons who are molding themselves in his image–when they are not cowering in his shadow.

The story also deals with the way the outside world impinges on the lives of the al-Sayyid (or al-Jawad?) family. As the novel begins it’s 1917, and the British are ruling Egypt although the occupation force seems to be mostly Australian. As World War I comes to a close, one of the sons, Fahmy, becomes involved in the anti-British independence movement. However, even when dealing with political and religious changes outside the home, the novel never loses its claustrophobic feel, always circling back to the home and the sense of imprisonment that each of the family members feels, even the men. After a while, it made me want to break out, screaming.

I’m glad to have read Palace Walk. I might, in a year or two, want to read the next book in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, in which novel I am told some women actually get to go to school! The main problem I had with this first novel is that I could find nothing attractive about the characters or the culture in this story, nothing with which to identify. I wanted the British “oppressors” to win and reform the country and let the women and servants out of their slavery. But none of the women in this novel would have had the spine or or imagination to take advantage of such a liberation, and the British didn’t seem to be headed in that direction anyway.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

As I began reading this story, recently made into a Steven Spielberg movie by the same title, I immediately was reminded of one of my favorite horse stories, Black Beauty. Joey, the War Horse, and Black Beauty actually have a lot in common. Both horses tell their stories in first person from the point of view of an intelligent and winsome horse. Both horses have a succession of owners and riders, both good and bad. Both horses see their friends mistreated and abused, and both are themselves injured by poor handling and by the illnesses to which neglected or overworked horses are susceptible. Both horses form bonds of affection with some of their human owners, and both are rewarded with rest after a series of adventures and misadventures.

Joey, the narrator of War Horse, is a half-thoroughbred bay horse who is trained to do farm work by his beloved first owner Albert, a teenaged farm boy. However, as World War I breaks out, Joey becomes a cavalry horse, and he is taken to France to carry an officer in the British army into battle. As wars sometimes do, the First World War brings Joey into many settings and hazards that he would never otherwise have experienced.

I thought the author got the voice just right in this story, not too intellectual; after all Joey is a horse. And still the voice was that of a clever animal capable of forming loving bonds with his human owners and keepers.

War Horse would be a wonderful introduction to World War I for the middle grade reader, and I can’t wait to see the movie now that I’ve read the book.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

“[S]he had forgotten that it is the first concern of love to safeguard the dignity of the beloved, so that neither God in his skies nor the boy peering through the hedge should find in all time one possibility for contempt . . .”

I’m not sure what that statement means, to guard someone else’s dignity before God and man(?), but it is interesting to think about, as is this little story by Rebecca West, her first novel, published just as the First World War was ending in 1918. In 1914, The Soldier, Captain Christopher Baldry, is a sort of a hero, returning from the war, but the book is really about the women that Captain Baldry left behind: his cousin Jenny, his wife, Kitty, and his first love, Margaret.

The Return of the Soldier is another amnesia story, but it has an atmosphere and a poignancy that some of the other stories in the genre lack. Chris Baldry comes back from the war having lost his memory of the past fifteen years. The story is narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin, who grew up with Chris and who lives in his house as a companion to his wife, Kitty.

There are lot of questions raised in the story and left to be answered by the reader:

Is Jenny a reliable narrator? Are the thoughts and motivations of the other characters really as Jenny describes them or are we being told a tale that is only true in part from Jenny’s perspective? And who is Jenny? Why is she there, and why is she so interested in telling this story? I tried to read the story carefully, but I was never sure about Jenny’s personality and motivations.

What kind of person is Chris? Was he really happy in his marriage and his home before the war? Would he want to return to the war and “do his duty”, or is his amnesia not only an illness but also a subconscious running away from the horrors of the battlefield?

Who really loves Chris Baldry, the soldier? I would say that the woman who sacrifices herself for him is the one who really loves him. Who is that? Well, you tell me after you’ve read the book.

I recommend that you read this one slowly and carefully, paying attention to the details of time, setting, characterization, and plot. I wonder if watching the 1982 movie version of this novel, starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Ian Holm, Glenda Jackson, and Ann-Margret, would help at all in answering any of the questions, at least from the perspective of the screenwriters, the director, and the actors who made the movie.

World War One for Children and Young Adults

I read three novels in the past couple of weeks for children and young adults that were set before, during, and after World War I. I’ll have to say that each of the books was odd in its own way: odd prose style in the first, an unexpected twist that I almost didn’t see coming in the second, and anomalous angels in the third.

Eyes Like Willy’s by Juanita Havill. A French brother and sister, Guy and Sarah Masson, and their Austrian friend Willy are separated by the war. The writing style in this one is the strange part. At least, it read oddly to me. The sentences are short and choppy, Hemingway-esque, with a lack of transitions and analogies that I found disconcerting. At the same time, the sparse prose made me pay attention to each detail, so I can’t say it was ineffective—just odd. Here’s an example, chosen at random:

“Their first guests of the summer were Willy and his father. Willy had grown much taller. He was almost as tall as Guy, and thinner. He had a thin black mustache and looked older than seventeen. Seeing Wily’s mustache, Guy decided that he would grow one this summer.”

If I were writing the story, I would probably have combined some of those sentences into one more complicated sentence. But I’m not at all sure that my inclination to complication would be the better choice for this story. The book is short, 135 pages, but it tells a nuanced story of friendship over the course of several years and the effects of war on the relationships of three young people as they grow into adulthood during World War I.

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. Mr. Morpurgo also wrote War Horse, the book that formed the source material for the movie of the same name from last year. Both Private Peaceful and War Horse are set during World War I, and I plan to pick up the latter book from the library this afternoon. I haven’t seen the movie or read the book yet.

Private Peaceful focuses on the plight of British soldiers who were summarily tried, condemned and executed on the battlefield for cowardice or desertion during World War 1. Mr. Morpurgo gives some information in his afterword that I did not know about this practice:

“That a shameful injustice had been done to these unfortunate men seemed to me beyond doubt. Their judges called them ‘worthless.’ Their trials, or court martials, were brief, under twenty minutes in some cases. Twenty minutes for a man’s life. Often they had no one to speak for them and no witnesses were called in their defense. . . . The youngest soldier to be executed was just seventeen.

Successive British governments have since refused to acknowledge the injustice suffered by these men, and have refused to grant posthumous pardons—which would of course be a great consolation to surviving relatives. The New Zealand government have pardoned their executed soldiers; it can be done. The Australians and the Americans, to their credit, never allowed their soldiers to be executed in the first place.”

I thought the novel itself, the story of Charlie and Tommo Peaceful, brothers who went to war together, was well-written and absorbing. Mr. Morpurgo kept me guessing until the end, and one of the minor characters, Big Joe, was so well-drawn that I wanted him to have his own book. (Big Joe is the Peaceful brothers’ older sibling who is mentally challenged.)

I recommend Private Peaceful if you liked War Horse or if you just want to read a well-told tale of the difficulties of being a soldier on the front lines during World War I.

A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse. In 1918 Boston, Hannah Gold must face her own wartime suffering as the influenza epidemic sweeps through her family and town. While the war forms a backdrop for this novel, it’s really the story of a Jewish family and the influenza epidemic of 1918. Fourteen year old Hannah is rather improbably sent out into the streets of Boston by her erstwhile guardian to keep her from catching the flu from her family members, and she ends up, again improbably, in Vermont. Hannah also sees angels.

It’s a good introduction to the time period and the prejudices of that era and the hardships of the Spanish flu epidemic. And the reviews at Amazon are for the most part highly positive. I just didn’t ever believe in Hannah or her cold impersonal guardian Vashti or her plight. And I thought the author cheated on the ending by making us believe one (tragic) thing and then pulling off a “no, not really” surprise. And the angels seemed out of place and sort of extraneous.

So, my favorite World War I children’s and YA novels so far are: Winnie’s War by Jennie Moss, The Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Laurence, and Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. What about you?

12 World War I Novels and Nonfiction Books I’d Like to Read in 2012

War Through the Generations is focusing on World War I this year. Here a few of the books I’d like to read for that project.

Children’s and YA Fiction:
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. “Joey, the farm horse, is sold to the army and sent to the Western front.” I’d like to read the book, then see the movie.
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. “Private Thomas Peaceful lied about his age and left his family behind to fight in the First World War. While standing watch over a battlefield, Thomas spends the night reflecting on his life, aware that the war has changed him forever.”
Without Warning: Ellen’s Story, 1914-1918 by Dennis Hamley. “Ellen Wilkins becomes a nurse to follow her brother to war.”
A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse. “In 1918 Boston, Hannah Gold must face her own wartime suffering as the influenza epidemic sweeps through her family and town.”
Eyes Like Willy’s by Juanita Havill. “A French brother and sister, Guy and Sarah Masson, and their Austrian friend Willy are separated by the war.”
The Shell House by Linda Newbery. “Greg explores a ruined English mansion, and meets Faith, a serious young woman who gives him a tour of the grounds. She also tells him about the past inhabitants, whose son disappeared after he returned home from fighting in World War I.”

Adult Fiction:
Strange Meeting by Susan Hill. Reviewed at A Work in Progress. “The trenches of the Western Front are the setting for this story of the extraordinary devotion that develops between silent, morose John Hillard, full of war’s futility, and his as yet unscathed trench mate, David Barton.”
How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston. Reviewed by Dani at A Work in Progress. “When war breaks out in 1914, both Jerry and Alec sign up – yet for quite different reasons. On the fields of Flanders they find themselves standing together, but once again divided: as officer and enlisted man.”
To The Last Man by Jeff Shaara. “Spring 1916: the horror of a stalemate on Europe’s western front. France and Great Britain are on one side of the barbed wire, a fierce German army is on the other. Shaara opens the window onto the otherworldly tableau of trench warfare as seen through the eyes of a typical British soldier who experiences the bizarre and the horrible–a “Tommy” whose innocent youth is cast into the hell of a terrifying war.”
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. “In summer 1964, a distinguished-looking gentleman in his seventies dismounts on principle from a streetcar that was to carry him from Rome to a distant village, instead accompanying on foot a boy denied a fare. As they walk, he tells the boy the story of his life.”

Nonfiction:
Blood and Iron: Letters from the Western Front by Hugo Montagu Butterworth. “Butterworth was a dedicated and much-loved schoolmaster and a gifted cricketer, who served with distinction as an officer in the Rifle Brigade from the spring of 1915. His letters give us a telling insight into the thoughts and reactions of a highly educated, sensitive and perceptive individual confronted by the horrors of modern warfare.”
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War by Robert Massie.