I was never very keen on history when I was a school. I think it was the way that it was presented as dates after dates without any personal stories that I could relate to as a teenager. It wasn’t until I saw SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in 1998 that I found my appetite for history. The film blew me away and working in a book shop I immediately tried to find as many books a possible to read about D-Day. I now know the flaws of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN but it did put me on the right course.
My first stop was reading Stephen E. Ambrose and love both the book and mini-series of BAND OF BROTHERS equally. Antony Beevor’s STALINGRAD also came out at this time, another astonishing history of the Second World War. But these histories were limited in their point of view. Ambrose was definitely my favourite as he relied on oral histories to write his books which did give me a more immediate point of view but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. The opening twenty minutes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN put you in the middle of somewhere you didn’t want to be but at the same time realized you could easily have been in that situation in 1944. So I turned to historical fiction.
I have a colleague at the shop who is a huge Tudor history nut and steadfastly refuses to read any fiction on the subject (although we did finally convince him to read WOLF HALL after six months and he loved it). He won’t read the fiction because any inaccuracies upset him. I can see his point but there is something about being able to get into characters heads, using your own imagination and projecting your own experiences onto a story that makes me love good, historical fiction.
So this lead me to read James Jones’ THE THIN RED LINE. I have not read another book that comes close to the raw emotion displayed in this novel. The vast array of characters, from PFCs to Colonels, gave a unique insight into the life and experience not only of an individual soldier but an army company as a whole. Charlie Company was a character in the book and the ridge they had to take was a ‘dancing elephant’ that was alive and violent. To then discover that FROM HERE TO ETERNITY was a prequel of sorts and that Jones’ last, unfinished novel WHISTLE was the sequel was incredible. I have a Top 3 books of all-time (I can’t decide on just one) and THE THIN RED LINE is one of them (the other two are A STAR CALLED HENRY and MIDDLESEX).
The only other novel that has ever come close to THE THIN RED LINE was James Webb’s FIELDS OF FIRE. I had a copy on my shelf for years but was finally spurred on to read it when I read a George Pelecanos review likening it to THE THIN RED LINE. The Vietnam War has never held much interest for me; neither has the First World War. There is something black and white about the Second World War which makes it easier to relate to, although in reality there was nothing black and white about it at all. It was politically messy as any war.
This brings me to Karl Marlantes’ MATTERHORN. There are numerous quotes comparing the book to Norman Mailer’s THE NAKED AND THE DEAD as well as THE THIN RED LINE. MATTERHORN exceeds THE NAKED AND THE DEAD in every department and is a worthy equal to THE THIN RED LINE. Like the afore mentioned classics of the combat-novel genre you meet and get to know every member of the Marine company (Bravo) and it becomes a living, breathing character itself. And the mountain nicknamed Matterhorn looms over every action Bravo is involved in.
This epic novel, which apparently was cut down from a 1600 page manuscript to 597 pages, centers on a young Lieutenant just beginning his tour of duty. The size of the book is not daunting at all as you are instantly enthralled in the book and I would have been happy to read another 600 pages. I also love the fact that the book itself has made a long and arduous journey to readers. Karl Marlantes as worked on the novel for thirty years. When he finally finished the book no one would publish it. He finally found a small, non-profit publisher in California but then the industry buzz about the book caught the attention of Grove/Atlantic who have parternerd with the small publisher so that the book can gain the audience it deserves.
This isn’t a war novel about heroes. It is not a war novel about politics. Although both are factors throughout the story. This is not about why America was in Vietnam, because the characters in the story didn’t get a choice in the matter. This is about men and boys who experience something that changes them forever and it is about societies that will change forever. It is about war, but the biggest battles are those that the men of Bravo Company have to fight with each other and themselves. If I wrote a list of what would be in my perfect read it would tick every box…twice!