I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and the task has fallen to me to wrap up this spring’s book club, in which we engaged with three books dedicated to various aspects of World War I. Let’s take a look back at the three books we read this spring, and see what kinds of connections and lessons we might take from them. All three books are of interest, as they manage to view the complications of the Great War from various unexpected distances and angles.
First, we read War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, a young adult novel that depicted the Great War from the point of view of a horse purchased for service in the trenches. The book is a heartfelt tale of war and sacrifice, though it does suffer somewhat by viewing the conflict through a gauzy film. Due to its intended readership, the War Horse struggles to approach World War I with the complexity and unflinching honesty that this troubling war requires.
Next, we moved on to Erik Kirschbaum’s Burning Beethoven, which takes a bleak look at the wave of anti-German hysteria that gripped the United States during the war. During this period, sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and German measles was re-christened as “liberty measles.” The names of German towns were changed. German-Americans often lived in fear for their lives, and the book recounts a heart-wrenching episode in which a young German-born American named Robert Prager was lynched in Collinsville, Illinois. Burning Beethoven, of course, brings forth unsettling echoes in a country that has in recent years demonized various groups of people because of their backgrounds or countries of origin. And Kirschbaum’s book calls up unfortunate memories of when French fries were renamed “freedom fries” during the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq.
Finally, we dove into another novel, A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton. Wharton is better known for novels like The House of Mirth and the Age of Innocence—depictions of the machinations of elite society in New York during the Gilded Age. Though set in Paris, A Son at the Front certainly deals with some of these same themes. Wharton does herself justice by not trying to stray too far from the world she knows best—the glittering ballrooms and well-appointed sitting rooms of upper-crusters. Nevertheless, Wharton was herself deeply involved in the war effort in Paris, and she had many close friends who lost sons to the Great War’s bloody front, and she evokes that milieu here. This is an unusual sort of war novel, in that there are no depictions of battles or bloodshed in the entire book. The book instead focuses on the internal wars that occur within the hearts of the parents left behind as their sons march off to the front.
All three of these books help to build a picture of a conflict that, one hundred years later, we still struggle to fully understand. The books focus on the unintended victims who are harmed when powerful people decided to wage war. As we see after completing these volumes, the assassination of a little-known archduke in Sarajevo can have consequences that reverberate across the world. Soon enough, loyal farm animals in Western Europe find themselves thrust into bloodsoaked trenches, while factory workers in Illinois find themselves hanged from trees, and a portrait painter in Paris discovers that the person he loves most in the world is being taken from him for reasons he can’t even faintly comprehend.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along with us this spring, and will join us again in the fall for another edition of the Radio Readers Book Club. For more information, just go to our website: hppr.org. Then click “Radio Readers Book Club” under the Features tab. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Baker.