My friend John Barach is right. Fiction is read for enjoyment. As a literature teacher, I spend class time highlighting benefits of reading literary works. Sometimes, I justify my own reading of spy and espionage novels, murder mysteries, and other times of “escape reading” because the books are well written, or give insights into human nature, or reveal aspects of foreign nations, and so on. But I like reading for fun.
It is all fun, but some types of books are…funner than others. (I like using the word funner because it is more fun sounding than more fun.) Page-turning fiction is fun to read. I often start the book with a slow pace and read a chapter or a few pages each night, but somewhere around the 50 to 100 page mark of a good book, I start reading more and more. I don’t stay up all night reading, nor all day. And I usually am reading a half dozen books at a time. But the novel on the bed stand is my dessert reading. And I like dessert in every form.
In January, I read and reviewed Shortgrass by John J. Dwyer. This is a novel set in Oklahoma during the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is the story of a young man named Lance Roark and his life struggles, ranging from religious convictions to romance to facing the oncoming war that conflicts with his pacifist religious background. From the moment I finished that book, I was chomping at the bit to read the sequel.
That sequel, Mustang, came out a few months ago, but I saved it for just the right occasion. That occasion turned out to be mid-to-late July. I read the book by starting slowly, but as often happens, I found myself more and more drawn in to Lance’s life and struggles. Consequently, I read increasing numbers of pages until I felt the relief of having finished the book along with the sadness that it was over.
To review a novel is not easy because of the problem of spoilers, so I will focus on some of the themes of these books, with an emphasis on Mustang.
World War II was a great war in terms of the number of places where it took place, the number of countries it involved, the cost in lives and material, and much more. The bibliography on WWII is simply overwhelming, but one could do no better than to read Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars. It was a war dominated to a large degree by the still evolving air power. Debates still rage over the effectiveness and the morality of the air war.
Lance Roark falls in love with flying before the war. After Pearl Harbor, he is a shoe in for the Army Air Corps. (The Air Force as a separate branch of the military did not exist then.) He then becomes the lead pilot for a B-17 Flying Fortress. The array of planes used by the different sides in World War II is amazing, and from a distance, the air war seems to have a certain glamour and panache. The actual story, from inside the cockpit and from the experiences of the pilots and crews, was anything but glamorous. The air war was horrible for both those in the sky and on the ground.
Flak, unbearable cold, enemy fighter planes, and fear were among the factors that made bombing raids so terrible. I would be curious to know some of Dwyer’s sources for details because the story was unbearably gruesome reading. That can all be seen as the cost of warfare, but the other factors have to do with the effectiveness or lack of it in the bombing raids. We would like to think that the Americans bombed military targets with only occasional civilian losses, but that is far from true.
Concerning World War I, J. R. R. Tolkien said, ” By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” Same just about happened to Lance Roark, and that is not poetic license on the part of the author.
But this is a novel and not a war documentary, so there is an intense human element to the story. Lance is a Mennonite from his upbringing. Being such, he and his ancestors and church community had been against fighting. Although like many who were influenced by pacifism, he choose to go into the service, he never completely gets over his convictions. Before the war, he had been a friend to and a supporter of Charles Lindberg. Lindberg’s life went from hero to villian in a short time because of his opposition to the U. S. entering into World War II (prior to Pearl Harbor). Often forgotten is Lindberg’s service to his country after the war became a fact.
Intertwined in the story are many threads related to the political actions that got us into the war. Add to that the atrocities that Americans, who were far less brutal than the Nazis, Japanese, or Russians, committed. War, even when most justified and necessary, is fraught with many evils.
Lance goes through a series of crises with his faith. You will have to read the books to learn the details, but he was the proverbial “red-blooded American male,” the type that the British described as “over sexed, over paid, and over here.” Lance ain’t no Elsie Densmore, nor is he Natty Bumpo.
In so many ways, I find myself envious of Lance Roark. He is a football hero; he is apparantly a heart-throb to many girls; he is brave, faithful, loving, strong; and yet he is a real and believable character. And he is a Southern, by way of Oklahoma, who in true Southern fashion loves his momma. He is also like Forrest Gump, in that he meets and knows so many people who either are famous or who become famous. Besides, Lindberg, Lance crosses paths with President Roosevelt, Walter Cronkite, John F. Kennedy, and others.
But I don’t envy what Lance goes through. I am currently reading a massive book called Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France by Peter Caddick-Adams. It reinforces and elaborates on many of the details that are found in Mustang.
When I look at World War II, whether it is in an historical study or in fiction, I simply shake my head in unbelief that mere mortals like me did the amazing, brave, horrible, and incredible things that people did.
When (not if) you read Mustang, you may either want to brush up on your knowledge of the war or have your electronic devices handy so that you can distinguish between Messerschmidts and Mustangs. And buckle on your flak jacket and helmet. You are in for a ride.