Shortgrass: A Novel of World War II by John J. Dwyer

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.

Oklahomans - Stry of Oklahoma and Its People

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.

John J. Dwyer, novelist, historian, Christian, and real Oklahoma cowboy.

The Late Great Pat Conroy

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I am always bothered by those questions that go like this:  “If you could share a meal with some famous person from the past, who would it be?”  It bothers me for several reasons.  First, I would be so filled with anxiety that I couldn’t eat.  Second, I can never think of anything sensible to say if I am around anyone who is famous, prominent, or in any way intimidating.  Third, some people that I really love from the past would not be very congenial to be around.  Along with that, if more than one of my heroes were there, I am not sure that they would get along.  I would positively dread sitting at a table with Ronald Reagan, William Faulkner, and John Calvin.

That being said, I think I could enjoy having some real contact with the late South Carolina author Pat Conroy.  Conroy does not rank among my “most favoritist writers.”  I don’t think he would rank as one of the greatest writers of all time.  But the man could write.  He could craft stories.  He could create plots that trap the reader and remain in the mind long after the book was finished.  He could delight, amuse, shock, offend, heal, and touch his readers.  The man, in spite of criticisms of his overblown prose, could deftly handle the gestation of literature that happens when the right pencil and paper meet.

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My most recent brush with Conroy came through reading Our Prince of Scribes:  Writers Remember Pat Conroy, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt.  The book has been published by the University of Georgia Press.

This book consists of a large number of memories, tributes, eulogies, and accounts of writers who knew Conroy.  Many of the contributors were unknown to me, but the fact that Rick Bragg and Ron Rash both contributed to the book was enough to pique my interest.  Upon starting the book, I found myself enjoying it, but thinking that it would be a book that only Conroy fans would care for.  No doubt, anyone who likes Conroy’s work would enjoy this collection, but it is more than a farewell tribute from fellow authors.  This book is a biography, but it is also the story about writing, about encouragement, about the role of authors, the need for mentors, and the power of love.

In case after case, Pat Conroy reached out to new, aspiring, and struggling authors and pressed, pushed, cajoled, and forced them to write.  If they had already written a book, he use the same tactics to get them to finish their second book.  Repeatedly, Conroy would embrace these younger or novice authors and brag on their books.  He could have written a whole book consisting of blurbs he wrote for other and often unknown writers.  Although he had no shortage of reading materials in his own personal library, he bought lots of novels by those who he was encouraging.  He both read and remembered, praised and sometimes constructively criticized, and created a whole cadre of writers, largely but not always southern.

I discovered more authors and book titles than I will ever be able to read just by reading this book.

Conroy would end letters and notes with the words “Great Love.”  My goodness, the man looked like a cross between Santa Claus and a teddy bear.  Many writers speculated that Conroy’s own pains, abusive upbringing (all related to accounts found in The Great Santini), and struggles in life gave him a strong heart of passion for all he did and people he touched.

Conroy was no saint, either in his own Catholic tradition or in the Protestant sense of the word.  He recognized that the writer is searching for God.  His own search was part of his overall search in life and desire to write well, live well, and love well.  Conroy was, maybe even more than a writer, a teacher.  His early book, The Water is Wide, is an autobiographical novel about his experiences teaching in an African-American school off the coast of South Carolina.  The teaching profession lost a gem when he was fired and when he turned to writing as a career.  But he was always the teacher, the coach, the mentor, guide, and helper.

I wish I could have met the man.  I wish I could have sat down to a meal with him.  He would have talked the whole time.  I would have been falling over in laughter at half his stories and turning red from embarrassment at other stories.  I would probably be working on a novel right now if I had met him.

Years ago, I attended a pastors conference and heard a prominent theologian whose books I own and have read.  I ran into him during the conference as he was going down a flight of stairs.  I stopped and told him how much I loved a certain book he had written.  Being tall and standing on a higher step, he was already over-towering me.  What I always remember is that he just stared at me when I spoke to him.  Maybe there were some reasons why I was left cold by that encounter.  But if I had met Pat Conroy, the story would be drastically different.  He would have made me feel like I was the king of the hill.

I started reading Conroy books way too late.  It all started when I picked up a copy of My Losing Season and fell into the trance of his prose style.  I still have several volumes to go before I can say that I have read all he ever wrote.  That’s the best we can do now.  He is gone, but his influence, his personality, and his books live on.

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My copy of this book is a rather stiff advanced reader’s copy. I hope to get a real copy in the future. I wish the picture on the front was explained, but it makes sense once you start learning about the man,

Post Script for Christian readers of this blog:

  1.  The accounts of Pat Conroy are the best examples I have seen of someone who had and used the gift of encouragement.  Although famous, he always took time for others.  He expended himself on helping others.
  2. R. C. Sproul spoke and wrote about his own experience reading Conroy.  He read The Lords of Discipline and wrote to Conroy praising him for the book.  Sproul was then surprised when he got a letter back from Conroy.  Sproul had been grappling with how to write a dialog when the speakers are using “non-Sunday School” words.  Conroy expressed his own frustration that church folks had with his books.
  3. As Conroy would say, people cuss and do violent things.  His writings are realistic.

Pat Conroy–Our Prince of Scribes–Remembering an Author

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I was saddened when I learned of the death of author Pat Conroy.  That sad event occurred on March 4, 2016,  Mr. Conroy was just past his 70th birthday.  Over the course of his writing life, he authored more than a dozen books, mostly novels.  The University of Georgia Press has produced a collection of short essays praising Conroy’s life, friendship, and work.  The contributors are mostly friends and also authors whose writings were inspired and encouraged by Pat Conroy.  Here are the details of the book:  Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt, published by the University of Georgia Press, hardback, $29.95.

I carried the book along with me on a field trip.  We were sitting in on voice lessons by an outstanding baritone singer and music instructor.  While listening to both the singers and the voice coaching, I began working my way into this collection.  At first, I was reading the book in order, beginning with the first essay.  At some point, I put the book down to listen, then picked it up again, and randomly opened it.  I read the essay I turned to and then turned randomly to yet another selection.  This book is a thoroughly delightful snacking book.  Open it anywhere and you meet a writer (many of whom I have not previously heard of) and you get another fun or interesting glimpse into the life of Mr. Conroy.

At this point in this preview, I will trace my own incomplete journey through the books of Pat Conroy.

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My first Conroy book was My Losing Season.  I found a nice copy at the local Goodwill; the book was by an author I had heard of a lot; and it was about basketball.  I read the introduction while sitting in the waiting room to see a doctor.  This was both an enjoyable and frustrating book.  On the one hand, one has to recognize that Conroy was using his artistic license to retell game after game of several seasons of basketball he played at the Citadel.

The coach was brutal, but not nearly as brutal as Conroy’s father.  The team was tough and skilled, but never achieved all they could.  Conroy and other players bemoaned their lost opportunities.  As a non-athlete, I was irritated at their forlorn attitudes because their playing experiences were incredible.  Major take-away:  In this book, the reader meets a few recurring Conroy-types.  There is the frustrated athlete, the occasional teacher who pushes literature, the cruel father, and the lost opportunities.  This book was autobiographical, but much that is in it shows up in some form or another in his other books.

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I believe that The Lords of Discipline was my second Conroy read.  This is, in my opinion, the best book he wrote.  It has plenty of autobiographical ties.  It is about a young man’s years at the Citadel; the young man plays basketball; the young man has an abusive father.  But there are several developing stories within the greater story.  And there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, or the Citadel, in this case.

This is not a nice clean read.  The characters are mostly testosterone driven, competitive, tough young men.  The hazing system of the Citadel is brutal, as in unbelievably brutal.  Any person, particularly any young man, more particularly any young Christian, who is thinking about going into the military or who is trying to get into one of the military academies, absolutely must read this book.  If hazing, bullying, pain, profanity, lewdness, bad company, temptation, alcohol, etc. as found in this book are too much to handle, go even step into the recruiter’s office.

Great story.  Unforgettable.  And it got Conroy in big trouble with the authorities at the Citadel.  For years, he–as a graduate–was persona non grata.  Thankfully, in time they recognized that this graduate was worthy of honoring.

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The Water is Wide is a more delightful story based on Conroy’s short-lived experience as a teacher in a really disadvantaged school on one of the islands off the South Carolina coast.  Long before I read this book, I had watched the movie version of it and loved it.  (I have also seen the movie versions of Lords of Discipline and The Great Santini.)  This is in the category of uplifting books that teachers like.  Against great odds and with limited resources, the teacher gets put into a classroom where the students are disadvantaged and not expected to improve.  But by pluck, love, and perseverance, the young lives are changed.

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I did not care for South of Broad.  As usual with Conroy’s writing, the story is engaging, the prose captivating, and the pacing fast.  The plot as it unfolded was very troubling, but, sad to say, very realistic.  In fact, very pertinent to some current news and events.  (I will refrain from details so as not to include spoilers.)

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In many ways, The Great Santini is Pat Conroy’s signature book.  Of course, the brutal, sadistic, heartless Bull Meecham is the fictional image of Conroy’s father.  This book has been described as a love letter of Pat to his father.  Friends, readers, critics, and others have long examined, debated, and been confounded by the complicated relationship between the son Pat and father Donald Conroy.  The publication of this book created a firestorm within Conroy’s family.  Oddly enough, in time his father warmed up to his son and reveled in his role in his son’s books.  I have heard that Donald would sign copies of the book with words to this effect:  “Donald Conroy upon whom the fictional character of Santini is based.”

This book ain’t pretty reading.  Hilariously funny, heartbreaking, scary–all of that, but not pretty.  Yet, it is the testament of a man who–despite his viciousness–loved his family.

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My Reading Life is a very delightful account of Conroy’s reading habits and preferences.  It includes tributes to his mother who fostered his love of reading, as well as discussions of teachers who influenced him.  Whether someone wants to read Conroy’s other books or not, this one is well worth reading.  I was thrilled a few years back to discover that my “extra copy” of this book–a like new volume that I paid $2 for–was autographed.

What I don’t have or have not read includes Prince of Tides, Beach Music, and The Death of Santini.  Hopefully, really nice, maybe even autographed, copies will show up somewhere along the way.  I might just have to fork out the full amount and buy A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life.

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