I have a confession to make, and it will be of no great surprise to those who know me well. I don’t prefer fantasy, science fiction, or what I might call Christian fantasy. I have read and felt the power of The Chronicles of Narnia (although my reading was late in life) and I read and enjoyed The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit, but not The Silmarillion yet). Does Fahrenheit 451 count as science fiction? I love that book, of course.
But as a whole, in general, and overall, give me a novel with a realistic twist and a setting in the south or the west, preferably in an earlier era. For that reason, I love Wendell Berry’s books. And although William Faulkner’s southerners are often (nearly always) a bit on the eccentric, weird, and warped side, I love Yoknapatawpha County. The books of Jesse Stuart are among my favorites, and Hie to the Hunters is the most popular book I teach. The books of Ron Rash, some of Bret Lott’s novels, the Joe Pickett novels of C. J. Box, and the non-fiction, but deeply southern books of Rick Bragg are among my favorites.
So, it should be no surprise that I read and liked Shortgrass by John J. Dwyer. But I was surprised. You see, it is a bit awkward when one reads a novel by someone you know. John Dwyer is in the category of a good friend I have never met. We live in neighboring states: He is in Oklahoma and I am in Arkansas. I have personally inscribed and autographed copies of his biographical novels about Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. I have his study of America history, titled The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil Civil War. I read his posts on Facebook with joy and laugh at his grandson’s cute antics. But his and my paths have not crossed. We would be instant friends because of so many shared interests, although I would be a bit daunted by all he has done and is doing.
Here is the difficulty: What do you do when a friend or acquaintance writes a book and it is only “so so” or even worse, what if it is awful? Usually, I can find some good points in most books. I have read a few where I found myself hoping the authors would kill off the main characters and end the book more quickly.
The good news is that I not only found this book pleasing to my desire to read about people in a past-tense southern setting and I found it quite enjoyable. In fact, I am now chomping at the bit for the sequel which isn’t due out yet for a few months. So, let me talk about this book a bit without any spoilers.
Shortgrass: A Novel of World War II by John J. Dwyer is published by Tiree Oghma Creative Media. You can read and learn about the book from John’s website found HERE.
The story is set in Oklahoma (which is no surprise since John has written some histories of that state) during the 1930’s and 40’s. The book is set in a historical context with lots of references to political events of the time, primarily the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the looming prospects of war coming to America. The main character is a young man named Lance Roark. Lance is the All-American boy in many respects. He loves his family, excels at football, loves his horse Jeb deeply, and faces all sorts of challenges and threats to his future.
While Lance is a great guy, he is not perfect or flawless. He struggles to know what to do, which direction to turn at times, and how to curb his appetites and desires. And Lance is a Mennonite. He is not nominal believer, but rather is deeply committed to following Christ. On the front line–to use an awkward analogy–the issue of interaction with the world is critical for a Mennonite believer. Going to war is verboten (German for forbidden). But what about other interactions in this world, or in Lance’s world, like football and college and girls of other faith persuasions?
I have to admit that the opening chapter created great doubts about the book in my mind. It begins with the story of Lance’s senior year and a football game that turns into a brawl between neighboring towns. If you don’t understand the intensity of small town sports rivalries, you won’t get this chapter. Football has never been my sport. God made me far too small, too slow, too uncoordinated, too unaggressive, too clumsy, and totally unfit for anything resembling sports competition, especially football. But I was enduring the chapter until the end when something happened at the end that hooked me into the book.
So much for plot details. Here I shall say a word or two about the importance of the book.
First, it accomplishes what a piece of fictional writing is supposed to do. It provides enjoyment. Great stories are enjoyable in many different ways and at different levels, but beyond all great themes, worldviews, philosophical underpinings, and the like, a story is to be enjoyed. Mark Shortgrass a success here.
Second, this book deals with the struggles of a believer who is facing challenges to what he believes. Lance has two loves pulling for his attention: He wants to work at a mission among the Comanche people and he wants to fly airplanes. Add to this all of the other things tugging at his heart and life: Family, friends, football, girls, college, career, and the war. Lance’s people had known religious persecution. During World War I, the Mennonites in his community and background had been harassed and persecuted for their pacifism. Their Germanic heritage caused people to accuse them of being in sympathy to Germany in World War I and their refusal to fight resulted in their being called cowards, traitors, and worse.
This is no book about shallow faith or easy believe-ism. And it is not a sappy religious story of a good boy who finds the doors open to him as he obeys God all along the way. An curmudgeonly Presbyterian Calvinist like myself found much in this book that resonated with my own life.
Third, this novel is set in the midst of a historical time-period with interactions and appearances of actual historical figures. This gives the book a real feel. If it did not actually happen, we know it could have.
Don’t want to overkill the book with praise here, so let’s give this review a rest. Unfortunately, it will have to be a long rest since Mustang, the sequel, will not be out for a few more months.