Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jews at War

I just finished re-reading Marge Piercy's historical novel of World War II, Gone to Soldiers (Summit Books, 1987).  I'd put it off for a few months because of its length, 700 pages (and she says in the afterword that it would have been a third longer if she'd gotten a grant to do research in the Soviet Union), which stopped my project of rereading all her work in chronological order.  Once I got going, it was a pleasure and toward the end I couldn't put it down -- though of course I knew how it turned out: what I wanted to know was how her characters would fare.

I haven't read much fiction set during World War II, and far from enough nonfiction about it, so I can't really compare Gone to Soldiers to anything except Sherri L. Smith's Flygirl (Putnam, 2009), about a young African American woman who passed as white to become a WASP.  I started to read Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead a couple of years ago but only did a couple of chapters; maybe it's time to go back to it.  And I really should read From Here to Eternity and other of James Jones's works.  Piercy's characters are mostly Jewish, both in the Europe and in the US, and often lower-middle class, and as always her perspective is feminist, anti-racist, and pro-labor, so she covers the anti-Semitism that American Jews faced at home as well as what European Jews faced at the hands of the Third Reich and its collaborators.  She describes the harassment that women faced in the factories, and that the women fliers of the WASPS had to deal with.  Her account of the Detroit race riots of 1943 is chilling. White racists were using the same folklore they use today:
The buses and trolleys were overloaded with people jammed into each other, after waiting half an hour or longer. The whites said the colored belonged to bump clubs and sought opportunities to jostle whites [275].
Today it's called the "knockout game," and though according to this article the Justice Department says "there have been similar incidents dating as far back as 1992", Piercy's research turned up the same basic idea from fifty years earlier.  (She declares in the afterword that although the novel is fiction, she wanted everything in it to have really happened to someone.)

Another striking bit: the Nazis "opened the sea war by sinking an unarmed passenger liner, the Athenia, and then claimed the British had blown it up themselves for propaganda" (109).  That's familiar too.  Very familiar.  (Ironically, the best-documented case I know of where something like this actually happened was when US Special Forces soldiers killed three Afghan women -- two of them pregnant -- and dug the bullets out of their bodies, trying to make it look like an honor killing by the Bad Guys.)

Gone to Soldiers isn't a novel I'll reread often, because of its length and because much of it is so emotionally painful, but I'm glad I reread it this time.

I can't say the same for Veronica Roth's Divergent (Katherine Tegen, 2011), now a major motion picture but even more of a drag, as far as I'm concerned, than Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.  Partly because it's longer: the first volume is 500 pages long.  I picked up Divergent at the library a couple of days ago and am now about halfway through it.  For awhile I wasn't sure I'd read it all, but I think I can finish it in two days so I might as well.  The writing is adequate (she at least uses the verb "diffuse" correctly, which is more than I can say about many pop writers these days) but thin.  I don't think she's built her world very well, and her characters are cardboard. Roth's imagined dystopian future just doesn't make much sense to me.  Maybe I'm just too old for it.