by Jack Woodville London, Vire Press, 2010, Austin Texas.
A Review by Ron Camarda
The French Letters trilogy by Jack London might be historical fiction, but my experience has been anything but fiction, but true historical humanity… too raw in her truth.
My strong emotional reaction to Engaged in War: Normandy 1944 is a testament to Jack’s poetic, traumatic, stressful, and dynamic flair for the written word. I am both numb and humbled with just a trace of a hope. Every time I began to feel good about this war story, I was punched in the back or wounded by friendly fire. Just like war tends to do.
London is on a mission to expose the hypocrisy of war. Although I read the last words of this second book of the trilogy, the story remains open like a festering, infected and grotesque battlefield wound; unseen in the depths of the soul. I want to know how it ends… now!
The layers of understanding and probing of the human soul are masterfully plumbed beyond ordinary comprehension. I know Jack London personally and call him a friend. His storytelling and charm often unnerve me. The book is not about being “engaged in war” as much as it is “engaged in humanity.” London does not interfere with his mostly complex characters, but allows them to frustrate and unsettle the expected and stereotypical. However, London’s painstaking attention to historical and emotional details clearly probes the exposed soul like only a surgical lawyer would have the balls to do.
As a chaplain who has participated in combat, boredom and court martials, some involving murder, I wanted to throw the book into the fireplace. Only my reasonability and curiosity of where Jack would take me next, restrained my impulses. Jack London gets it right. The confusion and ambiguity of life is not always clear… and need not be artificially made clear. Wars involve human beings. It does not matter if it is in Normandy or in our immediate families. All wars twist, leave out important information, and distort our humanity, even the ‘good’ aspects. Medals were not always deserved, even postmortem ones.
Virginia’s War (first of the Trilogy) is a good read that exposes the horror of the war on the home front. Engaged in War refuses to allow us to remain bystanders. Jack draws the reader in and to experience being severely injured, only to wake up with very limited and slow forthcoming information. Contemplating myself as one of the soldiers or marines I ministered to in Fallujah, and waking up to a missing limb or gaping hole in ones’ body was unnerving. It is also brilliantly done.
Dr. Will Hastings is a young man whom we might all see as our inner self: loyal, truthful, artistic, vulnerable, victim, skeptical, passionate and betrayed. Who would not love his demeanor and his innocence, humility and almost reckless compassion? Then there is the protagonist or ignorant character who represent the hidden traits we are all capable of…only if we are honest. How often do we humans simply feed off of our insufficient facts and indeed fan the flames of resentment and hysteria? Then sometimes we actually believe we are God’s representatives to save face, “Fix their records, you hear? I’ll be God damned if I’m going to let something like this muck up the reputation of my unit, you hear?”
I just want to cry. It happens all the time, but when it happens to you or someone you love, it blinds us to the global or even universal reality. Prosecuting or defending attorneys are sometimes more into winning than discovering the truth. This can be costly, especially when the “escape artists” continue to destroy lives and hope itself.
When Will was treated as a villain by even the one’s he saved, I thought he was at high risk behaviors like suicide. Sounds similar to Vietnam veterans returning. I looked at the few pages remaining and felt utterly depressed and lost. How could a few pages restore anything? I identified so much with Will and his engagement in military incompetence, death of hope, the fog of war, and unfulfilled romance. My frustration and anger even focused on Jack London, my heroic friend. What had you write a story I spent hours engaged in only to get my soul and heart stomped on? At least Will had decided to visit the parents of one of his fallen soldiers. That has been me! It seems to help the grieving families, but not the grieving soldier.
But through the labor pains, the story does end with hope, albeit unfinished. It is similar to after a mother gives birth. She doesn’t jump up and down in celebration. She simply embraces the baby and protects the child with her vulnerability.
Thank you Jack, my brother and friend, for birthing hope!
In some ways I do not look forward to the final book of the trilogy and yet I long for it. Jack London facilitates a critical shift in our thinking and judgment. We have to think for ourselves calmly and reflectively which tends to surprise us. “Back home, whenever something happens, we always say, it’s the war. It’s changed everything, the war. I don’t know why I didn’t think the war would change you, too.”
I don’t know why I didn’t think the war in Iraq would change me, too. Ten years later I need to ask the question. I also need to answer it truthfully and soulfully. London has the courage to attempt to answer this question almost 40 years after Jack’s War.