Issue Date: May 26, 2006
Novel examines loss and redemption in World War II
Reviewed by JOHN J. McLAUGHLIN
The title of Alexander Parsons In the Shadows of the Sun, his gripping and poignant second novel, evokes the atomic bomb and the searing imprint it left not only upon the people and places it destroyed in World War II, but upon the geopolitical landscape of the latter 20th century. As we enter this work of historical fiction, we see that this is not a story that takes place on the sunny, morally unambiguous plane that many newspapers and historians had led us to believe defined that war, where the Allies nobly fought that epochs axis of evil.
At the center of In the Shadows are Jack and Baylis Strickland, nephew and uncle, cattle ranchers of the Bar-X, the family land outside the town of Cornucopia, N.M. In the opening pages, we find ourselves on the road of the Bataan Death March with Jack, an 18-year-old member of the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment. The regiments surrender in September 1942 was authorized by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had abandoned these soldiers months before.
Mr. Parsons shows us the death marchs real-life horrors: The prisoners of war held by the Japanese are starved, beaten, even forced to dig their own graves before being executed. At roads end, Jack is still alive, but having lost his dog tags, he is not recorded among the survivors, and the Army will send word back to his family of his death. Shipped from one POW camp to another, he faces nearly three more years of suffering before the wars end brings his release. Mr. Parsons conveys this excruciating odyssey in vivid, visceral terms. In the struggle to preserve his humanity, Jack learns that the measure of success lay in how well a day could be forgotten, not remembered.
The story then shifts back in time to the Stricklands ranch during the days preceding Pearl Harbor, when Jack flouts both his Uncle Baylis and his father, Ross, by enlisting, despite the familys need to pull through the current drought. The familys cracks are as evident as those in the parched land: Baylis wife can no longer endure the isolation of rural life, and Ross is consumed by anger even before the Army comes calling for both his boy and his land.
When they do, not even the Stricklands 150-year roots at the Bar-X can gainsay the force of Executive Order 9029 -- used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to appropriate large chunks of the New Mexican desert and turn them into atomic weapons testing sites. Those who, like Baylis, resisted this were labeled as unpatriotic, even as enemies. When the same soldiers who deliver this document bring word of Jacks seeming death, Baylis must struggle to corral Ross rage before it becomes fatal while at the same time preparing to stand his ground against the inevitable: the loss not only of his land but his marriage as well.
When Jack returns from the war, both he and Baylis make a journey of cataloging ruin, sifting through the damage to both their land and their souls. The desert landscape of the ranch is painted by Mr. Parsons, a Santa Fe native, in loving, minute detail. Formerly alive with red shale, flowering yucca and mountain deer, it has been transmogrified into a blackened, bald and barren earth. Examining it, Baylis remained kneeling, staring about with eyes unfocused. He rubbed his neck and spat, tasting the fine grit of the wind in his mouth.
Tasting the horrors of war, he and Jack are dazed, confused, disgusted; their choices at this novels end are our own, as we struggle to absorb and live with the ruinous effects of war in our time. The two men are deeply wounded and sorely tempted to bitterness, cynicism, even nihilism. But deep in their hearts, they yearn for redemption, the chance to make these wounds sacred after all.
In this novel, which Mr. Parsons researched in New Mexican archives over a period of five years, we see a mirror image of our own time during this so-called War on Terror: the lives of vets shattered on the battlefield, the lives of their families quietly destroyed at home. It is a book for anyone who dares to read the story of war from the side of those who do not enjoy its spoils.
John J. McLaughlin, a freelance writer in Seattle, is the program director for Education Across Borders.
National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006
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