Excerpt from Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

by Elizabeth D. Samet

Soldier's Heart
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2007, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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Print Excerpt

An extensive list of books and films recommended by Elizabeth Samet can be found at the end of this excerpt.

Chapter One

SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVER

I had forgotten all about the radio in my hand. I was so startled when it crackled to life I nearly dropped it:

SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVER
SHAKESPEARE 6, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 3—OVER
SHAKESPEARE 3, GIVE ME A SITREP WHEN YOU HAVE THE ENEMY IN SIGHT—OVER
WILCO—OUT

I have said "out" when I should have said "over." I have taken far too long to figure out that "SITREP" means situation report. Somewhere this might be fatal. Here the amused voice on the other end, that of my colleague Dan, grumbles that I'm not allowed to end a transmission I didn't start:

YOU CAN'T SAY OUT, SHAKESPEARE 3, ONLY I CAN SAY OUT
OOPS

I had volunteered for this mission: standing guard at the doors of the United States Military Academy's Department of English, during the school's annual Plebe Parent Weekend, which is immediately abbreviated—as all things military must be—PPW. This event is designed to gratify the curiosity of parents who have only recently surrendered their children to the United States Corps of Cadets, West Point's student body. In their first semester, plebes take English 101, an introductory composition course that is part of the Academy's thirty-course core curriculum, which includes everything from engineering to philosophy, military history to information technology, economics to psychology. The plebes dwell at the bottom of a four-class hierarchy in which sophomores, juniors, and seniors go by the names yearlings, cows, and firsties respectively. All of this terminology takes some getting used to. Even when you think you know what things are, you can't be sure you know what to call them.

It had been decided that every department needed a presence at the door of its open house. To lend myself the aura of officialdom, I retrieved from the bottom of my desk drawer a name tag I hadn't worn since new faculty orientation several years before. Identifying me as prof samet, dept of english, it was emblazoned with the belligerent Academy crest of Pallas Athena and the microscopic words civilian service, a designation that turns out to be a statement of the obvious: if you aren't in uniform—even in civilian clothes most cadets and officers give themselves away by their bearing, their haircuts, and their fashion choices—it is pretty clear what you are. And while a few tourists have mistaken me for a cadet over the years, the cadets themselves have never been confused.

There are civilian professors at all of the service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard), as well as on the faculties of the military's various staff and senior service colleges. At the Military Academy, civilian professors are considered emergency personnel; we acquire the magnificently redundant epithet "key and essential." In weather-related emergencies, when West Point, which like other Army installations is referred to as a "post," goes to a condition called "Code Red," some civilian employees can stay home, but as the memo issued at the start of each academic year explains, I need to make arrangements for an emergency billet with someone on post in the event that nature threatens to derail my commute. The strategic advantages of the terrain that made this location attractive in the eighteenth century, when Fort Putnam was built high up on the west bank of the Hudson River, make the approach on winter days rather daunting. Civilians who live "off post," and most do, must venture over one of the surrounding mountains. Should a dangling modifier need reattaching, a sentence fragment suturing, or a metaphor anatomizing in a storm, however, I will be first on the scene. That's a set of priorities an English professor can embrace.

Excerpted from Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet. Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth D. Samet. Published in October 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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