It’s extremes that rivet us in Olmstead’s searing seventh novel: the heaven of first love; the hell of the battlefield.
Henry Childs grew up in the mountains of West Virginia, raised by his grandfather and his sweet-natured mother Clemmie. (The mystery of his never-mentioned father is a late-revelation shocker.) His forebears were soldiers and horsemen, but they’ve lost their land, and Clemmie must move with Henry to the city, Charleston. In 1950 Henry is a high school junior with a passion for horses and baseball. He helps out at some stables where he meets Mercy. She comes from money and is university-bound, while Henry seems headed for a factory. The attraction between these virgins is mutual and overwhelming; from the outset their sex is a rapt communication. Henry is warned off by her father and brother. The lovers elope to New Orleans, where an apartment is waiting for them, courtesy of Mercy’s accommodating aunt. They make it their Eden. Father and brother come to expel them, abducting Mercy, giving Henry a final warning. Though underage, he enlists as a Marine and is sent to Korea. He does recon with Lew, a gruff World War II vet. Quite unsentimentally, a bond develops, a wise-guy routine. The cold is arctic. The Chinese come at night, waves of them. It’s kill or be killed; answer atrocity with atrocity. In New Orleans we ached because we feared what was happening had to end; in Korea we ache because we fear it never will. Olmstead’s extraordinary language gives us new eyes.
An exceptionally fine study of love, war and the double-edged role of memory, which can both sustain and destroy. Prize-winning material.