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Glutting on Misery: Book Clubs and War Novels

***SPOILER ALERT:  Details given about Left to Tell and Unbroken***

I recently posted on the book club I joined, and the group selected Laura Hillenbrand’s novel, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, for its first month.  Since we had discussed choosing a “fun, easy” read for the first month to elicit maximum participation from the club members, I was stunned by the choice.

I approached the book with more than a little bias.  As a graduate of a military academy, I was required to read more than my fair share of books on war–Rape of Nanking, Tent of Orange Mist, Operation Homecoming, Flight to Arras, Catch-22, Farewell to Arms, The Diary of Anne Frank are a few–and those were just in English classes, not in the history or military science classes.  I didn’t like reading war novels then, and age and experience haven’t changed that.  I don’t like movies that center on suffering or torture, either, no matter how redeeming the ending may be.  I feel that there’s enough hurt in the world that we shouldn’t have to seek it out in our free time. 

Mass grave at Kigali’s Genocide Museum

I kept having the sensation as I read Unbroken that I’d read it before.  Finally, I figured out that it reminded me of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, a book I’ve had to read in not one, but two different book clubs.  That got me wondering–why do book clubs keep picking these emotionally draining, horrific accounts of villainy?  The books share the same format.  Each begins with the background of the protagonist, the education, the promise, with hints of foreboding sprinkled in.  Then the bulk of the books are agonizing in their accounts of human brutality and misery.  Each ends with the protagonist devoting self to God and forgiving his or her primary oppressor. 

A Kigali Orphanage

I think that for a lot people, the concept of war and suffering is so foreign that it is captivating.  These books, though, are certainly not meant as mere entertainment.  Why do people want to read them?  I think, in part, it’s a genuine desire not to be ignorant.  With a worldwide death toll around 60 million, World War II is the most studied war to date.  I confess that before reading Left to Tell, I really didn’t understand the true magnitude of the Rwandan genocide–800,000 people killed in 3 months is utterly staggering, yet many Americans are ignorant of the event.  If 20% of the American populace was dead in less than a year, the whole world would know, but not so when it comes to Africa.  That book later came to be more meaningful to me because I traveled to Rwanda for a 10-day Darfur support military mission, met the people, went to the genocide museum, and toured the countryside.

So a genuine desire to be informed and aware is one reason to read war novels, perhaps because, we are told, “history repeats itself.”  If we are informed, we may have the wisdom to avoid events like this again.  Another reason is, perhaps, a morbid curiosity.  The experiences of a POW or genocide survivor are so utterly far-removed from our own that we are curious. 

Finally, we live for the hope–the happy ending we pray to find at the book’s end.  We find it, to a degree, in Left to Tell and Unbroken; each protagonist discovers faith along the way and, through a relationship to God, forgives the oppressor.  Hopeful and happy they may be, but I also find the endings somewhat damning to the reader.  Who among us truly believes he would find forgiveness in his heart after such treatment and experiences? 

Me at a Kigali art program for sick kids

From a writer’s perspective, I found Hillenbrand’s book difficult to read not only because of its content, but because of its poor editing.  She can’t settle on a writing style, sometimes relaying the facts in a manner drier than any encyclopedia, sometimes trying to get into the heads of the men.  She frequently throws in a random paragraph or two that has little to do with the material preceding it, resulting in an oft-stilted, episodic narrative.  She remains very detached from everyone except Louie and the Bird; one of the things I remember most about Phil is his odd shortened pant leg, yet his experience was surely no less dramatic. 

In contrast, Left to Tell is simple and personal in its telling, the shattered innocence palpable.  Comparing Immaculee’s experience with Louie’s would be foolish and pointless, so I won’t compare the content, but I think the writing in Left to Tell was done more accessibly while still conveying the horror.

I will never enjoy or seek out war novels, but I can still appreciate what they accomplish.

2 Responses to “Glutting on Misery: Book Clubs and War Novels”

  1. I have tried to read Unbroken three times and just can not get into it. On the other hand, last week I started In the Shadow of the Banyan and didn’t stop until I was done. It was an amazing story about survival during the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. But the writing was poetic and the viewpoint was from a child, so the perspective was new and fresh, without all the gore and violence (although she certainly does not ignore it).

    I have a friend here in the Springs who just put out his war memoir and what I love about it is the unabashed admittance of the draw or appeal of war — the almost primal need to be a part of it. I think that is why some read or study books on war. I can’t think of a more profound way to face humanity and feed the need to participate in it. That need is different for all I think.

    Excellent post Liz!

    BTW, Do you have those pics on Flickr or Picasa? I would love to have a copy! I don’t have a single pic from then, at least that I can find.

    • I look forward to reading your novel when it’s available! Would you classify it as a “war” novel? Does she suffer flashbacks or are you going into detail about her experiences?

      Also, I can burn our Rwanda trip pics to a CD and mail them.

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