This book offers an unique way of exploring the tragedy of World War I, based on an actual government program during the 1930s that sent mothers of dead soldiers to Europe, so they could visit their sons’ graves. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.
The author creates five fictional mothers, all of whom travel together to visit the graveyard and battlefields near Verdun, where their sons died. Escorted by a recent West Point grad and a young army nurse, these women come from different classes and ethnic backgrounds. They are thrust together for a three-week journey that is part holiday and part deep personal obligation.
There are frictions around their differences but also intense bonding around the shared tragedy of losing a child. At times they display frustration with one another and, at other times, find themselves fiercely defending one another. And by the end of their trip, they become sufficiently unified to demand explanations when the competency of army personnel is questioned.
I found Smith construct very inventive because it also allowed me to explore some less obvious aspects of this conflict. Like,
• The questionable value of fighting a 20th century war with 19th century tactics.
• Experimental plastic surgery techniques used to help survivors deal with severe facial injures.
• Ways in which racial discrimination played out in the military, through institutionalized double standards.
• Which values get rewarded in the military, even when they have little or nothing to do with honesty or honor.
The narrative is well written and the relationships ring true. The book as a whole turns out to offer quite a thoughtful look at war, sacrifice, survival, and the nature of collateral damage.