First-time author Tolos offers a coming-of-age story set during the Korean War years about an orphaned boy reared in a household and town full of secrets and lies.
Bennie Benetronos doesn’t have pleasant memories of his small hometown, Beckley, W.V. In 1942, he was abandoned there by his parents, who went to find work in the defense industry. A lonely, isolated 7-year-old, he was forced to live with a well-meaning but stern grandmother; his Aunt Clara, a mentally unstable harridan; and the ghost of another aunt who’s mysteriously found dead in the book’s disconnected prologue. To endure his unhappy life, Bennie constantly imagines his parents’ return. But a terrible fate has befallen them, and he spends the rest of his childhood mourning their loss and trying to work hard enough to satisfy his difficult aunt and careworn grandmother. He doggedly pursues entrance to West Point, which will provide him with the opportunity to serve his country and prove his worth to his family. He easily fulfills the academic requirements, thanks to the early tutelage from his grandmother, with her sharp mind and broken Croatian-English, and Miss Marsh, a devoted high school teacher. He fails the requisite physical tests, though, and is thus not accepted for admission, throwing him into a tailspin of depression and self-doubt. With guidance from Miss Marsh, he secures admission to the University of Virginia, where he’s academically and socially successful, though he still pines for West Point. The author describes the midcentury years at all-male UVA adequately but with little flair—this is no Animal House in Dixie. Bennie endlessly debates military matters with his privileged, Army-brat roommate, Greg, and the two share an obsession with Civil War battles and disagreements about the morality of soldiering. However, the battle stats they trade are often tiresome and loaded with details readers will likely pass over. Their debates over the military and warfare, while heartfelt, cover no new ground. Eventually, the attempts to reconcile the disparate plotlines come across as contrived and unsatisfying.
While full of colorful period details from the Eisenhower era and evidence of the importance of the military, this boy’s story lacks a coherent or compelling approach.