What I possessed was a capacity to absorb and retain great quantities of words, a skill useful in spelling bees, Latin conjugations, and, for one shining moment, onstage. My dramatic talents were confined mostly to a deep second alto, but I snared the lead in the sixth-grade school play simply because no other child could memorize the lines. Dressed in a red, white, and blue flowing gown that my mother had painstakingly sewn, I was cast as the small embodiment of the American flag. Like a one-girl chorus in a Greek drama, my role was to deliver great swatches of truth and beauty from a pedestal on high. "I am the American flag!" began my soliloquy, then marched on through the ages to the rockets' red glare.
Such fervor must have met with a forgiving crowd in those Cold War and Camelot years. With the native-son exception of Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, Amarillo would vote overwhelmingly Republican in every presidential election for the last half of the twentieth centurya conservatism that displayed its colors everywhere from Sunday-morning sermons (where might was always right) to young girls camouflaged as American flags. My father had been a master sergeant in the Eighth Air Force during the Second World War, stationed for three years in a supply-command base in Blackpool, England, until months after the European theater was over. A tall, brown-haired man with pool-dark eyes and a slow, trustworthy grin, he had the type of young-Jimmy-Stewart physical stature that Hollywood had lionized in its soldier-heroes. I was born five years after his return, in 1951, and I grew up cloaked in the sweet mysteries of his having belonged to such an exotic mission. This aura of intrigue was heightened by the stories he told and the ones he wouldn't: the poker games he'd played and won throughout the war, the scar on his chest he refused to explain but that I imagined was a knife wound. Mostly, though, I had a notion of my father as a soldier in charge of a company of men, where his physical strength and bluster-rough camaraderie must have been on full display. For a child, these heroic images were part of a larger dimension that included physical warmth and the smell of coffee and Camel cigarettes; taken together, they offered a portrait of a dad who was already larger than life. When I stood on that stage in my patriotic garb, delivering my lines to a full house, I knew the audience held a man who had come back from the war to take care of me. I must have believed myself at the very center of the home of the brave.
The war novels were housed in the basement of the library, within the larger territory of Adult Fiction, where I wasn't supposed to be. So this was where I headed, preferring the remote aisles of the last rows of the alphabet, where I was less likely to be apprehended. There was a vague warning, issued by mothers and librarians both, to be on the lookout for strange, non-reading menthe ones who smelled of whiskey, nodded off at the reading tables, or seemed too interested in children. I was far too young to consider that most of these dispossessed were veterans of their own wars, real or illusory, and were, like me, simply looking for shelter. They never bothered me and I hardly noticed them, for I was curled up on the lineoleum before the rows of Leon Uris and Herman Woukmen whom I followed, without anyone's permission, into battlefields and drop zones of untold danger and intrigue. Did other girls love war novels the way I did, in those years when the national mythos was still dizzy with the aura of Allied victory? I know only that my passion for the genre was probably the beginning of a tragic worldviewthat Uris's Battle Cry and Mila 18 would send me on to the grittier likes of James Jones and Norman Mailer; that the moral ambiguities of Wouk's The Caine Mutiny may have prepared me for Dostoyevsky in adolescence. If The Yearling had been my first literary instruction in griefin the unalloyed pain of love and separationthen the messy heroics of fallen soldiers only secured that terrible lesson: the idea that valor could face off with evil in a field of mud, and lose.
Excerpted from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2006 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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