War is a constant throughout human history. Even now as I write this review, North Korea is threatening all-out war with South Korea and the United States (even though they have technically been at war since 1953, but we won’t get into that). The latest issue of The Sewanee Review examines all the facets of war in its collection of fiction, poetry, and essays. From the battlefields of the distant past to the conflicts of today, the authors in this issue examine the heavy cost of war and the impact it has on those who survive.
“The Sleeping Saints” by Michael Beeman is a powerful story with a great opening that immediately sucks you in: “Afterward Roxanne Irving would not remember which arrived in Glennwoods first, the snow or the returning dead.” Roxanne lives in a small New Hampshire town where autumn descends as “gray and cold as the barrel of a gun.” Her brother, Peter, joined the army with many other young men in their small town after 9/11 and is serving in Iraq. Roxanne worries constantly about her brother and sends him emails hoping for his safe return. But her nightmares come true when her father, a veteran of Vietnam, tells her that the army has reported Peter missing in action: “Peter disappeared outside one of the awful villages that colored his e-mails, all the same gibberish to Roxanne, foul like curses.” Roxanne turns to midnight ski runs to escape from the pain, but has an unexpected visitor: “By a tree a shadow moved. Roxanne cursed herself for staying out after the darkness was coming sooner each night, alone. She took a shuffled step away and extended her ski poles, ready to bolt. ‘Roxy.’ It was a nickname she had not heard since childhood.” This is a fantastic story with razor sharp writing and a chilling ending.
Austin Smith’s poem “The Stephenson County Fair in Wartime” is set in an innocent county fair, but surges with dark undercurrents: “The man taking tickets fantasizes / he’s taking souls, and maybe he is.” The man operating the Ferris wheel “has a tattoo of a spider spinning / a web on his arm” and thinks of how the blood of his guests tastes. Set against the backdrop of this disturbing setting, a boy takes his girlfriend to a shooting gallery to win her a stuffed animal. The mood of the poem takes a drastic turn once the man at the gallery places the gun in the boy’s hand:
. . . the kid swings
the gun toward him slow and says,
softly, “Bang,” and everyone
around them stops breathing.
I love how the tension is established in these last few stanzas. All life and activity holds its breath as a couple sitting on top of the stalled Ferris wheel realize “how alone they are, and how far from earth.” A marvelous ending that is loaded with meaning.
Scott Donaldson’s essay “Bomber Boy” examines the military career of Charlie Fenton, an author whose young adult life reads like the bio of a Hollywood action hero: “As a second-semester freshman, he’d been dismissed from Yale in the spring of 1938 for entertaining a girl in his room.” After a few more years of misbehaving in the universities, Fenton joins the Royal Canadian Air Force. His rebellious attitude and disdain for authority lands him in the dangerous position of a gunner: “a nightmare, as the average lifetime of a gunner in action is 2½ minutes.” Donaldson quotes a section of Max Hastings’s Bomber Command to illustrate how terrifying this position was for the average gunner:
The rear gunner faced the loneliest and coldest night of all. Gazing back into the darkness . . . he often felt that he inhabited a different planet from the tight little cluster of aircrew so far forward in the cockpit. Even after electrically heated suits were introduced, they often broke down. Many gunners cut away their turret doors to dispel the nightmare of being trapped when the aircraft was hit—they were wedged impossibly tightly in their flying gear.
Sortie after sortie takes its toll on Fenton’s morale. The romance of fighting in a war erodes, and all that is left is the terror of not knowing if he will live to see another day. The fighting and the terror are too much for Fenton and he goes AWOL, hiding with his lover in London until he turns himself in. Donaldson’s essay is tightly written and shows how the scars of war haunted Charlie Fenton until his suicide in 1960.
Another fine essay in this issue is Edwin M. Yoder, Jr.’s “Intestine Shock.” Yoder’s essay compares the similarities of two civil wars—the English War of the Roses and the American Civil War—and the historians who recorded them: “Civil wars are nothing if not tragic, involving the clash, evoked in King Henry’s soliloquy . . . ‘of one nature, of one substance bred . . . in the shock and furious close of civil butchery.’” Facts are woven into the essay without being dull or pedantic. History lovers will appreciate Yoder’s commitment to details and may even learn more about these two major civil wars that have shaped Western history.
Earl Rovit’s autobiographical “The Waning of the Wayne” is a semi-satirical reflection of his service in the army during the Korean War. Rovit’s style is punchy and fun as he tells a story of an early morning patrol:
And, around 3 a.m. one day about an hour before my relief was due, through the murky white with sleet in my face, I saw what looked like a figure climbing the wire. “Halt! Who goes there?” I yelled, as though I were reciting lines in a movie. I unslung my M-1 and pointed it across the enclosure. The figure kept climbing, and I pulled the trigger and then came the shot and muzzle flash, and the figure fell or jumped off the wire, picked itself up, and vanished from sight. I pulled open the jerry-built gate and checked in the direction of my shot. A crate of Coca-Cola cartons had a .30 caliber hole through it with shattered glass and shards of frozen Coca-Cola . . . Like a far-flung sentinel of liberty I had stood tall against the forces of evil and made Coca-Cola a little safer for the free world.
One can only hope that fewer wars will occur in the future and that there is no shortage of writers. This is an excellent issue that deserves to be read.