Eddie’s War by Carol Fisher Saller
namelos (August 1, 2011)
Reviewed by Kristen-Paige Madonia
Set on a farm in a small town in Illinois before and during World War II, Carol Fisher Saller’s novel Eddie’s War is composed of a series of 76 poetic prose vignettes that narrate the complicated world of Eddie Carl, a nine-year-old boy grappling with life during the time range of 1934 to 1944. The book, which is marketed for middle-grade readers but will find a large audience among adults as well, invites us to return to that heartbreaking and beautiful time of youth when we first begin to understand the vastness of the world but are still wrestling with the day-to-day experiences and challenges of being a child. Drawing from the diary her father began in 1944 as a child in the eighth grade, Saller explores farm life and Eddie’s relationships to his small-town community and to nature; this setting serves as the backdrop for Eddie, who gets left behind when his brother Thomas goes to war to fight as a bomber pilot.
In addition to the diary, Saller’s aunt also gave her copies of letters her father mailed to his brother while his brother was at war, another resource she used to fuel the vivid setting and poignant emotional tone of the novel. It is this kind of detailed authenticity that makes the book so memorable—the meticulous accounts of working on the farm and riding the hitch of the family tractor, blue jeans turned up, the sun burning brightly as they wove their way through rows of new corn. In addition to life on the farm, Eddie often spends his time in the library reading wrinkled and yellowed newspaper accounts of the war, and finds solace in the papers, electric fan panning back and forth as he ruffles through crime stories and headlines, opening and closing the sheets together “like wings of a big, papery moth.” It is in the library that Eddie initiates an unlikely friendship with Jozef, an older man from Poland, as they exchange their fears and hopes and histories throughout the course of the novel.
While his brother serves as a bomber pilot on the other side of the ocean, Eddie assumes a larger role at home: flying in the crop duster plane, competing in pest-killing contests (“I had one rat tail, two sparrows, and a mouse”), playing basketball, minding his grandmother (“If the president really wanted to win the war, he should put gramas in charge”), and discovering the mysterious world of girls and high school. Through letters that Eddie and his brother write to one another while Thomas is training for and fighting in the war, the novel juxtaposes Eddie’s small-town life—where a school bus skidding sideways constitutes an emergency—with the world Eddie imagines Thomas enduring, “away at the air base-probably learning emergency drills, women and children first... cutting up in a fighter, being an ace—and what the heck—winning the war all by himself.” More than half of the book takes place during the war, and while the short chapters are at times tragic and full of coming-of-age complications that immediately align the reader with Eddie and his struggles, Saller has managed to balance the dramatic WWII historical setting with the often comedic and lighthearted tone of a young boy wading his way through adolescence. The short, concise stanza structure creates a sense of immediacy and urgency, and it is impossible not to feel as though you are a part of Eddie’s family and his community as they manage the trials of wartime.
Saller’s vibrant descriptions and complex characters invite the reader to participate in the world of the story as opposed to simply witnessing it, and her talent as a writer is undeniable as she experiments with prose-poetry structure and explores the convoluted and emotional historical setting of WWII. But the heart of the book lies with Eddie’s voice, his distinct way of viewing the world, his inevitable innocence and eventual loss of it, and the way his life on the farm is altered as he navigates his way out of childhood and into the adult world.
Kristen-Paige Madonia’s debut novel will be published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster, and her short fiction has appeared in Upstreet, New Orleans Review, American Fiction: Best Previously Unpublished Stories by Emerging Writers, Sycamore Review, Inkwell, and South Dakota Review. She holds an MFA from California State University, Long Beach and currently teaches creative writing in Charlottesville, Virginia and is at work on her second novel.