The first war novel that truly moved me was Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo. It’s a wrenching story, set in World War I, and I read it in my teens. Nonstop. Spellbound and aghast.
How did Trumbo write such a powerful novel that it has stuck with me for all these years?
Trumbo’s antiwar novel is set in motion by a sound, a ringing phone, a small detail that draws the reader into the story. Instead of launching into exposition, instead of describing the global sweep of war, he focuses narrowly on one man’s experience.
The human element.
The temptation might be to preach and explain, but skilled writers know that while exposition might be great for an essay, it is death to storytelling.
The challenge for writers is to find humanity within the brutality of war, to somehow distill massive historical events and fit them onto the page.
The Nazis were the ultimate bad guys, and since the worst villains can inspire the best fiction, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at the number of novels I’ve read over the past few years set within the sprawling contours of World War II. I’ll bet this is true for you, too.
Some of the most impactful books on my list include All the Light We Cannot See, Peace, The Reader, The Book Thief, Out Stealing Horses, and City of Thieves. The list could go on, but let me stop a minute.
These books are less about war than about courage. They focus not on horror, but on humanity.
If you’re paying close attention, you might notice that all of the WWII books I’ve just mentioned are set in Europe and Scandinavia. Maybe it’s a personal failing, but I can only think of a few novels—including Snow Falling on Cedars, Memoirs of a Geisha, and, most of all, When the Emperor Was Divine—that address WWII from a Japanese perspective. Yet one could argue that the horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki inspired every Cold War novel, plus the entire genre of post-apocalyptic fiction.
Few Americans glancing at the calendar today will even consider that on Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m. Hiroshima suffered the single most terrifying attack in history: The detonation of an atomic bomb.
Having just visited Hiroshima, I’ve thought a lot about how the world changed in that instant. Yet that monumental event does not appear much in our fiction. Is it a lingering sense of guilt that makes it hard for Americans to confront Hiroshima and Nagasaki in our fiction?
I can think of one WWII novel, The English Patient, in which the atomic bomb reverberates through the story, but it appears only at the end, causing an epiphany for a lead character. While this element works powerfully in the novel, it was dropped from the film. I can’t help but wonder: Is it because any suggestion of racism is too hard for us to face? Is it because only a Sri Lankan-born Canadian, Michael Ondaatje, could tackle the subject?
Perhaps the bombing of Hiroshima is still too horrific to write about. Zombies are easier. Vampires, werewolves, and fire-breathing dragons make more palatable villains. Not Americans, not ourselves.
Dare I say it? Even the grittiest book must entertain.
I know it’s repulsive to think of war as entertainment, but let’s face it: We readers want books that transport us in some way.
Consider The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. It’s hard to get grimmer than McCarthy’s starved and blighted post-apocalyptic landscape, and yet his novel won countless fans and a little thing called the Pulitzer Prize.
Why? Because at its core resides a heartrending message of love and hope. (When you read it, and I recommend that you do, it’s best to keep your tissues handy.)
Wars provide the terrible backdrop for many brilliant books, but you’ve surely noticed that I haven’t even touched upon the Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. There are just too many wars to contemplate, aren’t there? And yet the truth remains that we’re always ready for a well-told story.
Carla Norton is an award-winning novelist and bestselling true crime writer. Her debut fiction, The Edge of Normal, is a Thriller Award finalist and Royal Palm Literary Award winner. What Doesn’t Kill Her, the “high-octane” sequel, is a 2016 Nancy Pearl Award winner. Carla also wrote two books of true crime: Disturbed Ground, about a female serial killer, and Perfect Victim, which made the reading list for the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit and was a #1 New York Times bestseller. For more, please visit CarlaNorton.com and find her on Goodreads, Facebook, and Twitter.