McCall (Set Apart, 2010) offers a small-town coming-of-age story that deepens as it blends into real-life World War II history.
Eighteen-year-old Corbin O’Connell lives in Judson, Pennsylvania, a charming small town that’s reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life’s Bedford Falls (but without Mr. Potter). Corbin is being pursued by the conniving Velma Hix, but he’s really in love with Daisy Hall. However, Daisy and Corbin’s best friend, John Ottinger, the scion of Judson’s richest family, have long been an item, and Corbin respects that. Desperate to escape the farm, Corbin sees joining the Army, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as a godsend. In the late summer of 1942, he and a reluctant John arrive in Europe—months after D-Day, when the war is expected to safely wind down. But instead, they’re just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last desperate move. Very soon, Corbin is captured, and he’s eventually taken to Berga, a slave-labor camp. The brutality that the men experience there is nearly unimaginable, as their sadistic captors hold the Geneva Convention protocols in contempt. As the men starve and freeze, they hear the American and British planes overhead; they’re eventually saved only by the German surrender. Overall, McCall is an adept writer who delivers by showing the everyday aspects of war, as well as the big picture: “Veneered over the devastation of war was the confusion of war—the delayed, lost and wrong information that was, in its own way, nearly as damaging as bullets flying at the front.” The novel becomes even more engrossing in later chapters when Corbin gets back to Judson—and he’s a far different person from the kid who thought his escape would be a lark.
A mature rumination on war that will have extra appeal for WWII buffs.