A historical novel brings readers deep into the agonizing battles of World War II’s final year on the European front and the trials in Germany following the Allied victory.
William Connelly was raised in privilege, part of Philadelphia’s Main Line elite. His grandfather was a penniless Irish immigrant who, through fortitude and good fortune, opened his own brickyard, which his two sons expanded into a prominent paving company. Now his uncle is a United States congressman. But despite his access to a safer stateside deployment, Will, an Army lieutenant with a law degree, ships out to join the 106th Infantry Division. In December 1944, Will is stationed in Belgium when word comes that the Germans, who had been in retreat, are mounting a major new offensive. Will unexpectedly finds himself thrust onto the battlefield, to which, despite being seriously wounded, he returns, in one capacity or another, until the end of the conflict on the European front. On May 5, 1945, two days before the official armistice, Will is ordered to help liberate a “prison” camp. The shock of what he finds in the Mauthausen concentration camp in northern Austria, even more than the brutalities he witnessed in combat, is a turning point for him. He remains in Germany for several more years, attached to Gen. George S. Patton’s JAG Corps, prosecuting war criminals. These trials, less well-known than the Nuremberg Tribunals, were held at the notorious Dachau concentration camp and are riveting. A bit less than half the book graphically depicts the excruciating details of battle. Familiar luminaries make appearances, but this portion of the narrative is propelled by action and gore—it’s highly informative but tough to read. The postwar section focuses more on the scars of war, the traumas that kept soldiers like Will rooted in place, unable to return home quickly after what they had witnessed. McNulty (The Parachutist’s Daughter, 2011) delivers a vivid, fully developed hero. The author is a skillful writer, both in prose and dialogue. A few missing words can be easily overlooked, although one linguistic quirk is puzzling: He consistently writes “padded” when “patted” is required (“Will padded him on the shoulder”).
A brutal, mesmerizing, and historically compelling war story with a fully drawn protagonist.