Monday, January 18, 2010

I Had Seen Castles and A Day No Pigs Would Die

Sometimes when members of my family have appointments and lessons and shopping in the city an hour away, some of us spend some time waiting, and the place we do that is in a bookstore. This past weekend I spent enough time waiting in a bookstore to read two short YA novels, one after the other.

The first one, I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant, takes a very modern point of view on WWII. The hero, John Dante, says of himself and the young men like him "it was war I was too young for, war we were all too young for, and the reality of that is what we could not find at our dinner table. I can see us now, as we were, and I can see the fog around us. We cannot see any horror for ourselves, for Tony, for Frank, for the mailman, or for the grocer. We deceive ourselves into believing we can clean up the enemy, put him back in his place, and have our chicken parmigiana another night. Soon. A quick war and, intact, we all sit down again to eat."

John Dante has his own version of a trip into hell by fighting on the front lines, in the trenches. There he loses his youthful ardency and sees that his anachronistically peacenik girlfriend, Ginny, has been right all along. At the end of the book he says he still loves her, but he has never seen her again after the day he went off to fight. Guess he could only admit she was right to himself.

The story is a simplified prose version of Wilfred Owen's WWI poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, in which the similes work to give you a sense of the horror:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The beginning similes, in particular, work like the story Rylant tells. Rather than dashing young heroes, the soldiers look like beggars, and they cough like old women.

The second short book I read was A Day No Pigs Would Die. I sat on a wooden chair in the corner of Half-Price Books and read the whole story of the boy learning how to be a man from a father whose philosophy and way of life he thought unassailable.

The story is told in a dry, matter of fact way that makes giving the flavor of it by quoting short bits difficult. The writing has its own pace; you're led into the story in a hurry, and then you have a few minutes to look around before you have to emerge, unavoidably sadder, at the end.

I do like the occasional observations about the father. He "wasn't one to smile every year" but could occasionally carry out a good joke. And he was a man of few words: "Never miss a chance," Papa had once said, "to keep your mouth shut." So I think I'll take his advice. This is a lovely little book, a classic of children's literature, and I recommend it to you if you haven't read it.


Kristen said...

I love Cynthia Rylant's books for younger readers (even though everyone in my house is long past the Mr. Putter and Tabby reading stage, we continue to buy them as they come out because they are just so charming) so I should try one of hers for older readers. And I know I read A Day No Pigs Would Die many, many, many (I'll quit now before it gets embarrassing) years ago but I honestly don't remember much about it. Might be time for a re-read.

Jeanne said...

Kristen, We do the same thing with the Mr. Putter and Tabby books! We also like Rylant's Cat Heaven, although Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing About Barney helped us through cat deaths more when the kids were little.

Anonymous said...

A Day No Pigs Would Die was forced down our throats repeatedly for several years of middle school. Like Hemingway, it did not improve upon re-examination as an adult.


Jeanne said...

aw, poor Lemming. Many people hate being required to read something. I don't, but I do object to having to study it more than once, especially if it's simple (and about being simple, ironically, in this case).

Ron Griggs said...

Does Dante have a Virgil in this book?

Jeanne said...

Ron, no, but there's a Beatrice (Ginny).

Jodie said...

Well Wilfred Owen is my second favourite WWI poet so I'll have to try that out I think. What a shame he can't admit the girl is right, they might have made it work.

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