This multigenerational epic follows heroine Julia Crockett’s journey from tomboy Army brat to military wife and beyond, from the Great Depression through Vietnam.
Historical novelist Semsch (The Lees of Menokin, 2009, etc.) allows her main character to be unlikable, manipulative, overly ambitious and irresistible in the mold of Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara. “I want to be a general’s wife,” oft-abrasive Julia commands her colonel husband. Fortunately, Semsch’s deft depiction of the preteen who dreams of being a soldier nearly 50 years before women are allowed to do so provides enough context to Julia’s harsh manner and choices that the reader can’t help but wait and hope for her aha moment. But while the novel’s leading lady is compelling, she is inconsistent. Julia’s Catholicism becomes a stumbling block to true love, though Semsch hasn’t established the Church’s influence prior to wielding it as a plot device. The novel’s rawest, most memorable moments involve men at war. A soldier on reconnaissance in Korea deduces the nearby enemy is Chinese because he smells garlic cooking. Another allows himself to be lured into an ambush to put a wounded horse out of its misery. Julia’s gentle brother watches a young Vietnamese boy run away and thinks “what a sad thing that a child should fear him because he was an American.” Seconds later, he is blown to bits by a grenade the boy has left at his feet. These spare, searing scenes are perfectly executed, as is Semsch’s depiction of the luxe life of officers and wives in Tehran during the early days of the Shah. The dialogue is occasionally melodramatic and characters too self-aware, as when Julia confides, “I don’t want the familiar, the things I know and trust to end.” But such lapses are outweighed by the story’s forward motion and the rare glimpse into the life and “noble calling” of the career military.
The appeal of Semsch’s novel is evident at the end when, knowing great changes lie ahead for the nation and its soldiers, the reader can’t help wondering how Julia Crockett will confront them.