explores the connection between literature and
real-life for the students at West Point Military
Academy, for whom "real-life" has changed
drastically in the last few years. When Samet
accepted her position as a civilian literature
professor in 1997, the Army, to which the academy
contributes about a thousand second lieutenants each
spring, wasn't at war with anyone. But as she
says, "Following Sept. 11, 2001, the stakes of
American soldiering had suddenly been raised, as
well as the stakes of teaching at West Point."
Teaching the literature of war to individuals who could imagine themselves fighting a war in progress against a specific identifiable enemy was a new experience. For example, in 2003, as the nation watched the news make a case for war in Iraq, Samet's class was reading Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.
Some of Samet's students doggedly but furtively search for the military lesson to be extracted from every piece of literature, while others became passionately invested in separating the activities of the classroom from the business of soldiering. C.S. Lewis's once said, "We read to know we are not alone," and that is perhaps one of the reasons author Samat feels her role in teaching literature at West Point is of value to the cadets. She says of her students, "One day,… in some remote outpost that none of us can anticipate…they too will perhaps read to know they are not alone."
This is a powerful and introspective book that will appeal to many people in many different ways:
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the hallowed halls of a military academy, you'll like getting a glimpse into the lives of the cadets.
If you have a loved one serving in the military, you'll read this with personal interest and perhaps find yourself packing something extra in the boxes from home. Look out especially for the chapter titled "Books are Weapons".
If you're a teacher of English, or any subject for that matter, you'll appreciate the challenge Samat faces in making her content relevant.
If you're a history buff, you'll enjoy the references to our country's leaders in connection with West Point—Adams, Jefferson, George Washington, Sherman and Grant, to name a few.
If you're philosophical, you'll be given much to ponder with specific references to the works of Shakespeare, Aristotle, William Golding and Plutarch. As did one cadet, who was skeptical of the value of literature for a soldier until he came across the words "hope springs eternal" in Pope's "Essay on Man". From these three words he deduced that "perhaps hoping for the best even in the face of eternity is what sets humanity apart."
And for those who wish to explore the literature of war in more depth, a lifetime course of study beckons in an appendix listing five pages of recommended books and films.
Soldier's Heart is inspirational, informative, patriotic and even humorous at times (mastering the acronyms and even the radio. Who says "out" and who says "over"?). But don't take my word for it - check out what our BookBrowse members have to say in their "First Impression" reviews - fourteen members posted reviews, averaging 4.5 stars out of 5. Read them here.
Reading List: An extensive list of books and films recommended by Elizabeth Samet can be found at BookBrowse, at the end of the excerpt.
This review was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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