This Memorial Day, if you aren’t swamped by mattress sales and BBQs, pick up one of these classic books about war to remember the true meaning of the holiday and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
“Johnny Tremain” by Esther Forbes is a classic novel of the Revolutionary War. This coming of age story is action-packed, beautifully told and worth another look even if you read it in school. You’ll probably enjoy it even more since you don’t have to write a book report or build a diorama afterwards.
“The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane is another classic book set during the Civil War. A masterpiece of historical fiction, this powerful work challenges the reader with questions about the true meaning of courage, and the morality of war. Though he never fought in battle, Crane, born six years after the Union victory, captured the essence of the Civil War. He witnessed his first battle while serving as a war correspondent in Greece during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, according to Linda H. Davis's biography of Stephen Crane "Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane."
“Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks was recently made into a film starring Eddie Redmayne as the young Brit who spent time in pre-war France having an affair with a married woman, before getting caught up in World War I. The novel skips back and forth in time, but the characters are compelling enough to keep you hooked.
“Life in the Tomb” by Stratis Myrivilis first appeared in installments in a Greek newspaper from April 1923 to January 1924. The author later expanded and revised his work and the novel was published in Athens in 1930 to great acclaim. In journal form, it tells the story of life in the trenches. The English translation is by Peter Bien.
“The Master Butchers Singing Club” by Louise Erdrich is a stunning novel about German Americans in the early part of the 20th century. Starting at the end of World War I, then post-war immigration to the United States, the novel follows a dynamic group of characters through the interwar period and into World War II. The author’s own family history provided inspiration for the novel, adding further depth to this remarkable book.
“A Test of Wills” by Charles Todd published in 1996, is the first of the series about a shell-shocked vet/detective Ian Rutledge solving mysteries in post-World War I Britain. The most recent installment, the sixteenth of the series, “Hunting Shadows,” was published in 2014. The books are co-authored by the mother and son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd, though they publish under the name Charles Todd.
“Winter of the World” by Ken Follett is the second book in the Century Trilogy. It follows the huge cast of characters, historical figures, the families and the next generation, from the first novel and the end of World War I into the 1930’s and World War II. If you haven’t read “Fall of Giants,” the first book of the trilogy, please do. It will make keeping track of all the characters and their complicated relationships so much easier. It’s also an excellent read.
“A Separate Peace” by John Knowles is set during World War II and tells the story of high school boys on the verge of going off to war. There are no battles or gory scenes of wartime horrors, but the war looms over the entire book. It consumes the lives of the boys about to join up or be drafted even before they graduate high school. The fancy prep school they attend is woefully inadequate to prepare them for the future and the boys seem to know it instinctively. The friendship between Gene, the narrator, and Phineas is the kind of all-consuming one that would never survive beyond their adolescence, and cut short by tragedy, it is a chilling precursor to the war itself in miniature.
“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut is based on the author’s experience as a World War II prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden. Moving back and forth in time, the book’s dislocation, disconnection, disjointedness reflects the fractured world of Billy Pilgrim not only during but years after his wartime experience. With touches of humor amid the horrors of war, Vonnegut’s work is a classic. Powerfully anti-war, the book was published in 1969.
“The Book of War: 25 Centuries of Great War Writing” by John Keegan is a collection that should be on every military history fan’s shelf. It starts off with the ancient Greeks, Thucydides to be exact, and ends with an excerpt from “Bravo Two Zero” by Andy McNab, the controversial book about British special forces in the first Gulf War. In between, there are eyewitness accounts of famous battles throughout history, by famous historical figures like the Duke of Wellington and average soldiers, excerpts from journals and longer works, and war poetry by Robert Southey, Stephen Crane, W.B. Yeats and Siegfried Sassoon
What's your favorite war-inspired book?