Roxana Robinson‘s Sparta joins last year’s excellent additions to literature about war (both of which ended up on our Best of the Year list — The Yellow Birds and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). Like those novels, Sparta‘s power comes from an examination of what happens when a young soldier returns home. Her research into the minds and experiences of Marines showed her that they are very conscious of the past, and especially of the Spartans. Her protagonist is a Classics major who wanted to experience military life in order to understand his subject more thoroughly. (There is an author interview in The Daily Beast that does a good job of expanding on this side of the novel.)
Snow Hunters follows a young man whose story alternates between his past as a prisoner of war in North Korea and a present in which he starts over as a tailor’s assistant in Brazil. Author Paul Yoon writes in spare, almost poetic prose, and makes an epic story of the consequences of war into quite a short novel. According to an article on NPR, the first draft of this novel was over 500 pages long. Only the essence of the story remains.
I was trying to think of other novels about the Korean War that might be considered to have teen appeal. I came up with The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead (which we reviewed here last year), but that is from an American point of view. Any other suggestions?
Adult/High School–Conrad Ferrell isn’t your typical military enlistee. From his wealthy Eastern seaboard family to his liberal-arts college education, he seems poised to join his friends and classmates on Wall Street or at a law firm. But his infatuation with ancient Greek literature has him identifying with the warring Spartans, so he joins the Marines shortly before 9/11. Now, what was going to be a military adventure becomes literal war. The novel actually begins with Conrad returning from his tour of duty to find his placid, caring family is annoying to him, and the girl he left behind is alternately just what he needs and the brunt of his persistent anger. Conrad clearly has traumas, but they are revealed slowly and from his perspective, allowing readers to be privy to Conrad’s thought processes. Readers may get annoyed at Conrad’s inability to control his anger or get himself together, but the repetition of the mood swings and bad behavior slowly builds Conrad’s (and Robinson’s) case. Basic training may have prepared Conrad for war, but soldiers need a basic training to re-prepare them for life. As was told in a factual manner in Sebastian Junger’s War (2010) whether it’s as serious as PTSD or just “re-entry problems,” coming back from battle is far from smooth. This well-researched book lists War and many others in ending acknowledgements. This is a good fictional addition to this literature of our current war, and has a strong focus on a college-aged protaganist.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
Adult/High School–In this lyrical coming-of-age story set mostly in Brazil, Yoon chooses his words carefully, and short though it is, the novel packs a punch. Yohan is a North Korean prisoner of war, but he soon travels to Brazil (thanks to the United Nations) to start a new life. Through flashbacks, he reflects on his childhood and friendships he forged in the horrific Korean War. In Brazil, he must learn Portuguese and a new culture, and try to create a life for himself. Thanks to the mentoring of his employer and landlord, a Japanese tailor named Kiyoshi, Yohan is accepted into the town and learns to quietly thrive. There isn’t much dialogue in this book, but Yohan sees the world through an artist’s eye. He finds friends and discovers love, and even that is an exquisite discovery to be cherished. This is a unique addition to multicultural and war reading lists, but it could also serve as an example of quality literary fiction. It’s the kind of story that makes you highlight passages and hug yourself. Give it to teens who love lyrical writing and have a thirst for authors who craft their prose with care.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL