Saturday, March 5, 2011

[TSS] Musings: Soldier from the War Returning

Soldier from the War Returning
Thomas Childers' Solder From the War Returning:  The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming from World War II is a fantastic book.  There are many books out there, and even more reviews, about how people in Europe dealt with the war- the home front, the rationing, the bombings, etc.  But there's much less about how Americans confronted the war and as far as I can tell, very little about the aftermath of the war.

Peter Jennings coined the now-famous term "The Greatest Generation" - referring to the men and women who grew up during the Great Depression, lived through World War II and then raised families through the tumultuous period of the 1960s.  As a country, we have whitewashed the entire generation to be one that put up with hardship and made the best of the little they had.  But this is not fair- yes, they went through a lot- but they were not perfect and it is a disservice to act as though they lived Camelot-like lives.  Childers wrote this book in an attempt to share with readers how difficult it was for men and women after WWII- how hard it is to settle back into a normal life.

Childers chronicles three families in this book.  Willis Allen and his crumbling marriage to Grace after he returns from the war with no legs.  Mildred and Tom Childers (the author's own parents) who are unable to re-establish trust in each other after recriminations of infidelity and the death of Mildred's beloved brother in Germany.  Michael Gold and his long-term PTSD that would cause him to break out in violent rages and jeopardize his medical career.

It's a fascinating, intimate and ultimately very revealing book that brings home the fact that when you've lived through a war, for you, it never ends.  Even those who succeeded in coming home and starting fresh were haunted by dreams or "temper tantrums" and divorce rates for veterans skyrocketed after the war ended.  The men came back angry, the women didn't trust them, and people went through the motions of life with no deeper connections.

One of the most poignant scenes in the book for me was when Willis Allen's grown and estranged son Gary came to visit him.  Gary had just been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and was visiting to say goodbye.  He asked his father- a young man who had gone to war as a happy and easy-going person but returned as a veteran who lost both legs and was angry and paranoid and cruel- to tell him, just once, that he loved him.  Willis, knowing this was the last time he would ever see his son, and wanting desperately to overcome the differences between them, could not comply.  He could not find it in him to say "I love you" to his son.

This is not a happy book.  The people who populate it are desperately unhappy much of the time, going through the motions of a Norman Rockwell existence that never materialized for them.  But it's also a truly beautiful and haunting narrative.  None of the characters is perfect, but there is such a depth of humanity in them, and each one deserves your sympathy and empathy.  I can't imagine what it would be like to come home after two high-stress years of war abroad, with very little contact during that time, and try to take up the fragile threads of a marriage once more.  I don't know how I would react to the realization that the happy, tall and handsome young man you married is now permanently disabled and terrifyingly angry about it.  World War II affected the soldiers that fought in it, but as the author says, some of the scars were even deeper for the ones left behind on the home front.
She wailed so much about how he had changed since the war, that he had been a stranger when he came home, but she had it all wrong.  It was Mildred, not him, who had been derailed by the war.  He had readjusted and moved on, he thought, but the happy, optimistic, shy young woman he had left at the station in Battle Creek in 1943 had not survived the war. She was a casualty, not listed in the official statistics.  He had come home to a woman heartbroken, caught in an undertow of grief and depression so powerful that it had flowed beneath the surface of their lives ever since.
Soldier from the war Returning
 It is difficult to read a book like this, but also very powerful.  The Greatest Generation in the next few decades will have completely disappeared from living memory.  It is an injustice to them and all their trials and tribulations to remember them only as an idealized group that did everything perfectly and lived a grand life. They struggled and fought every day to overcome the damage the war did to them and Childers' book is an excellent homage to them.  Highly recommended.


  1. I does sound really good. So many books about WWII and it's aftermath either focus on the holocaust or romanticize it.

  2. I've always enjoyed reading social history and this book seems to hit the mark.

  3. Yes, I think too many books are sentimental about the working-class heroes of the time.
    This sounds like a good one.

  4. I love aftermathy books -- I'm dying to read that book Demobbed, about British soldiers coming home from World War II. This sounds wonderful too! As you say, it's impossible to imagine coming home from that to regular life.

  5. Oh, this sounds good. I remember when I was a little kid I did a project on my grandfather and what it was like when he came home from WWII. I always found it fascinating, so I really should read this book and the book that Jenny mentions above me... :)

  6. This book sounds amazing! I've recently read a few depression and WW1-era books, and I agree we should never judge them through a lens safely secured in the more peaceful times now. Sometimes you just cannot judge. Like that father-son example you gave.

  7. Teddy - Yes, you're right. Very romanticized.

    Kathleen - Yes, if you like social history, I think you'd really enjoy it.

    Monica - Yes, definitely with the blue collar. It seems like veterans had a pretty high rate of unemployment at that time, too, which is sad.

    Jenny - I want to find and read Demobbed, too! It sounds fantastic. Also Stranger in the House.

    Kailana - That's great you were able to do a project like that. It's nice to have that oral history.

    Aths - Yes, that example just tore me apart. It was so sad and moving.

  8. I always only read books about WWI, but also there I only like a certain few. Not all warbooks are for me

  9. This one sounds really good and I'm putting it on my list. Thanks for a great review, Aarti.

  10. I do tend to agree that this time period and the people affected are most often seen through rose colored glasses, when I imagine that it must be very different than the truth of what life was like for all of them after the war. Your review intrigues for a lot of reasons, and this is a book that I really need to read. Though it does indeed sound like it can be heartbreaking at times, it also sounds rather interesting and poignant. This is a book that I am going to be looking into very soon, and I thank you for your very intelligent and heartfelt review.


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