The Lineup: Memorial Day

Memorial Day is my time to remember those killed by wars the world over, from time past and time present, in uniform or not. In part, to honor the soldiers—although most who die in wars don’t exactly volunteer, which I suppose, is badge of another sort of honor. In part, to bring to mind the horror, mortality and wreckage of war and the regret it evokes. In part, to remember I’m not a pacifist but not a nationalist either… Apparently I’m a woman of many parts.

This is a list of novels set in a time of war, but only those I have particularly appreciated. In no way is this meant to be an exhaustive inventory. Sad to say there is no dearth of these, and most readers have lists of their own. I would love to see your suggestions, so please feel free to add any in the comments section.

Henry V by William Shakespeare
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

(Act 4, scene iii)

The Religion by Tim Willocks
A rip-roaring epic based on the Turkish siege of Christian-held Malta in 1565—a long-ago war rendered in high adventure, romance, artful storytelling, and much derring-do, not to mention swashbuckling and even, I swear, cello duets. The pages almost turn themselves; it’s not subtle but it’s mighty tasty.

Burr by Gore Vidal
Burr is more than Vidal’s view of the Revolutionary War that established the United States of America. It is almost as if an insider who was there was giving us the real skinny, so that it’s not only about that war but what leads to it, what came after, and a myth-buster of major consequence. Also, wickedly readable.

March by Geraldine Brooks
What Marmee does during the War Between the States after Mr. March trots off to war as a preacher and philanderer. Exceptionally different.


Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Years hence, this book will be a classic readers will be privileged to peruse. John Brown’s son, Owen, tells his father’s story of a god-haunted anti-slavery activist whose compulsion for justice bloodied Kansas and went on to Harpers Ferry in then-Virginia. The sumptuous language is glorious.


Ladysmith by Giles Foden
The Boer War in all its contradictions comes alive in this novel. History parades throughout, with appearances by Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi, among others.


A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
Irish lads sent by England to wait, rot and occasionally fight in the trenches of what then was the Great War and now is World War I. That was bad enough, but for some of those Irish boys—in particular Willie Dunne—there was worse to come.


Regeneration by Pat Barker
Brilliant throughout, Barker re-imagines the story of Siegfried Sassoon, poet and English officer in World War I. It’s rare, insightful, pitch-perfect, and the impact of this book will stay with you.


Man’s Fate by André Malraux
Who’s a revolutionary? Who’s a hero? Who’s an activist? Who’s a terrorist? Who’s a patriot? Set in China during the early days of what is variously referred to as the Chinese Revolution, the Chinese Civil War and the War of Liberation, which roughly spanned 1919 to 1949, this book is especially relevant today. It’s also a great read.

King Rat by James Clavell
Allied prisoners-of-war held in Japanese-occupied Malaysia during World War II. Not for the faint of heart and a tremendous examination of what really constitutes honor, and how honor mutates according to the circumstances. Finest kind of reading.


Cat’s Grin by François Maspero
Doesn’t feature a real feline (I say with some regret) but it is about Luc “Cat” Ponte-Serra, who is 13 in the last year of Word War II in France. His story will keep you pegged to the pages.


The Things They Carried By Tim O’Brien
Perhaps the most-read novel about the U.S. war in Vietnam, justly so.


In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
What happens to your daughter if you don’t come home from Vietnam and she is raised by your brother, a Vietnam vet with problems… in Kentucky.


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