This encyclopedic debut novel looks at the early months of World War I, as its initial, optimistic hopes for a quick conclusion devolve into dreary reality.
Smith tells his tale through the experiences of nine people—German, French, British and American—who find themselves thrust into “The Great War.” The most winning character is Gordon Graham, an African-American from Dayton, Ohio, who, after being rejected by a U.S. Army recruiter, moves to France to join the French Foreign Legion in hopes of fulfilling his dream of becoming a pilot. He and other soldiers in the trenches experience the physical and emotional devastation of war. At one point, an English infantryman describes an artillery attack: “When the house blew apart, Vernon saw the front door fly from its hinges and strike the old lady’s back. It cut her in half.” Smith’s characters draw readers in as they quickly realize that they’re pawns in their leaders’ war, and become disillusioned by all the death and destruction. Overall, this novel is very well-researched. However, that fact is a double-edged sword, especially in the book’s first half, as the plot and characters get buried in lengthy descriptions of the minutia of military structure, weaponry and uniforms: “Their wool tunics were almost entirely gray, save for thin red piping down the front opening, around the collars and sleeve cuffs and a red crown and W (for Wilhelm) monogrammed on their shoulder straps”—and that’s but one sentence of a two-paragraph description. Such detail is important in historical fiction, but not to the detriment of the work as a whole. Also, as this is the first of a series, the engaging characters’ stories lack closure, and are frustratingly cut off in midstream.
An information-packed but flawed novel of World War I.