An impressive and memorable trio of works about the many costs of war.

GROUNDED EAGLES

THREE TALES OF THE RAF IN WWII

In Schrader’s collection of novellas, men of the Royal Air Force try to make it through World War II without losing their sense of self.

In these three novellas, British airmen struggle with the complex roles that they must fill during and after their time at war. The first, A Stranger in the Mirror, tells the story of David “Banks” Goldman, a fighter pilot who’s lucky to have survived the destruction of his Hurricane. He didn’t make it out unscathed, however: His hands and his face have been burned beyond recognition. Reconstructive surgery can give him a new face, although it will take a lot of time and cause him a great deal of pain, and the chances of him flying again are slim. He wonders if a Banks who can’t fly and who wears a different visage is truly the same person. In A Rose in November, Rhys Jenkins, a widower and father of two, is perhaps too old to fight when the war begins—he had his share of that in the previous one—but he’s just received his dream posting as the “chiefy,” or ground chief, of a Spitfire squadron. When he meets Hattie Fitzsimmons, an officer in the Salvation Army who’s in a different social class, he’s forced to choose between his heart and his duty. The final novel, Lack of Moral Fibre, is a tale of objection. Kit Moran has flown 36 operations, and he refuses to fly a 37th. He is declared “LMF”—“lacking moral fiber”—and sent to a mental health facility for evaluation. If his psychiatrist, Ralph Grace, can find a medical reason for his refusal, he’ll receive treatment. If not, he’ll be punished for cowardice. Kit’s reasons for objecting turn out to be more complex than he can understand.

Over the course of this collection, Schrader’s prose is understated but often arresting, as when Banks works up the courage to look at his own burned face: “An image took shape in the glass. A mummy with glistening, shifting eyes. There was something inherently terrifying about a moving mummy because it suggested the return of the dead.” The stories here offer the reader compelling psychological explorations of men grappling with the traumas of war and attempting to find places for themselves in civilian society. In this way, the narratives have a timeless feel, but part of the joy of Schrader’s work is the way in which she brings the reader into highly specific, less-illuminated corners of British WWII history. A Stranger in the Mirror, with its exploration of traumatic injury, is perhaps the strongest of the pieces, but each of the others immerses the reader in a world of its own, with its own rules, shames, and dangers. Together, the novellas paint a grimly vivid portrait of what the average RAF serviceman might have experienced while also limning the contradictory ideals that they attempted—and often failed—to live up to during wartime.

An impressive and memorable trio of works about the many costs of war.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-9891597-9-1

Page Count: 356

Publisher: Cross Seas Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2022

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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A deep and grimly whimsical exploration of what it means to be a son, a father, and an artist.

THE SWALLOWED MAN

A retelling of Pinocchio from Geppetto's point of view.

The novel purports to be the memoirs of Geppetto, a carpenter from the town of Collodi, written in the belly of a vast fish that has swallowed him. Fortunately for Geppetto, the fish has also engulfed a ship, and its supplies—fresh water, candles, hardtack, captain’s logbook, ink—are what keep the Swallowed Man going. (Collodi is, of course, the name of the author of the original Pinocchio.) A misfit whose loneliness is equaled only by his drive to make art, Geppetto scours his surroundings for supplies, crafting sculptures out of pieces of the ship’s wood, softened hardtack, mussel shells, and his own hair, half hoping and half fearing to create a companion once again that will come to life. He befriends a crab that lives all too briefly in his beard, then mourns when “she” dies. Alone in the dark, he broods over his past, reflecting on his strained relationship with his father and his harsh treatment of his own “son”—Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that somehow came to life. In true Carey fashion, the author illustrates the novel with his own images of his protagonist’s art: sketches of Pinocchio, of woodworking tools, of the women Geppetto loved; photos of driftwood, of tintypes, of a sculpted self-portrait with seaweed hair. For all its humor, the novel is dark and claustrophobic, and its true subject is the responsibilities of creators. Remembering the first time he heard of the sea monster that was to swallow him, Geppetto wonders if the monster is somehow connected to Pinocchio: “The unnatural child had so thrown the world off-balance that it must be righted at any cost, and perhaps the only thing with the power to right it was a gigantic sea monster, born—I began to suppose this—just after I cracked the world by making a wooden person.” Later, contemplating his self-portrait bust, Geppetto asks, “Monster of the deep. Am I, then, the monster? Do I nightmare myself?”

A deep and grimly whimsical exploration of what it means to be a son, a father, and an artist.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18887-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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