In this debut historical novel, duty draws an Iowa farmer away from the land he loves.
In 1943, Valentin Schmitz, a brokenhearted flutist, spends his days working on his farm in Shelby County, Iowa. His friends and neighbors are heading off to war in Europe, but as a veteran, Schmitz has already served his country. Furthermore, the food he produces—ranging from vegetables to goat milk and honey—is considered vital to the war effort. Meanwhile, in Paris, a group of partisans wages war against the Nazi occupation and the collaborationist Vichy government. The alternating of settings from the homefront to Europe works well; the Iowa sections tend toward the slow and introspective, but the frequent returns to the tension and violence of war-torn France maintain momentum. This interweaving also provides comments on American military mobilization and the tension between those who are fighting abroad and those who stay at home. Ultimately, though, these two threads converge. Schmitz is of German descent through his father and French descent through his mother. His French relatives—who have been denied visas to immigrate to America—face persecution for their Jehovah’s Witnesses faith, a situation that drives Schmitz to take drastic action. The book is a philosophical novel as well as a historical one. Schmitz, an intriguing, educated character, displays deep concern with right and wrong. Sometimes the story’s allusions, such as Schmitz’s comparison of the dawn scene on his farm to the works of various 19th-century painters, are effective and evocative. At other times, the myriad dropped-in literary quotes are a bit much. Matthiessen can be heavy-handed in other ways as well: the author calls the selfish Shelby residents who refuse to look after their neighbors the Cains; a widowed young French partisan is named France Deschamps. Her husband Raymond’s dying words, “I love you, France,” take on an unsubtle double meaning. Still, the discussions of obligation, ethics, and resistance are quite nuanced and engaging. Readers should be eager to know what actions Schmitz takes in this and subsequent books.
An appealing, meditative tale about life during wartime.