Skip to main content

Reflections on Literature: Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers

[dc]H[/dc]ave you ever picked up a novel, almost at random, and enjoyed a great read from it? I recently did with Marge Piercy’s 770-page book set in WWII, Gone to Soldiers (1987). It reinforced a point—Literature matters!—I had made almost a year ago in an essay on this site. But Piercy’s novel has also led to additional reflections. And in this fast-paced age of ours—this age of Twitter, Facebook, iPads, and Kindle (and I do like my Kindle)—I hope you readers are receptive to considering the value of spending many hours reading and thinking about 770 pages of fiction.

marge piercy

Since we’re all unique individuals, what works for me might not work for you. We all bring to reading any novel—or to seeing any film for that matter—our own unique experiences, and they help determine what we like and what we don’t and what we bring away from our reading. But, as unique as my reactions to Gone to Soldiers may be, I hope they stimulate you to think more about how fiction can enrich your life.

Like many novels I have enjoyed over the years, Gone to Soldiers broadened my sense of how others experience life. As mentioned in my earlier essay, literature offers us alternate visions of existence and can also help us become more empathetic to others, whether of the opposite sex, a different ethnic group, religion, nation, or political persuasion.

When I wrote above that I picked this novel up “almost at random,” what I meant was that of all the unread novels sitting around our house, I chose this one without much forethought. But one of the reasons was that it was written by a woman and was mainly about other women.

Except for my wife, Nancy, of 48 years and my daughter, Jenny, I do not know women well. The high school and university I attended were both all-male; two-years in the army provided little female companionship; and I became engaged to Nancy my first year of graduate school. During my teen years in the 1950s, it was much less common for teens to have friends of the opposite sex (unless romance was involved) than it is today, and after marrying none of my closest friends, except Nancy, have been women. Thus, reading Piercy, a feminist novelist and poet, offered me an opportunity to get to know some women (albeit fictional ones) better. And Piercy delivered.

Although always a supporter of the principle of equal rights for women, I can’t remember many concrete cases where I felt deeply aggrieved because a woman I knew and cared about was treated unfairly. Nancy is a nurse, never had trouble finding work when she wanted to, and never felt discriminated against in her nursing career. But in Gone to Soldiers one of the chief characters, Bernice, was a pilot who during World War II joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and Piercy makes us feel the discrimination and injustices they faced as women pilots. (Although this book is a work of fiction and we cannot expect historical accuracy from every small detail, the author has done her background research, and her novel conveys well the general tone of the WWII U. S. homefront, at least as experienced by some women.) Another main character, the writer Louise, comments on “the mistrust . . . society has for women. All kinds of experts and officials are terrified because so many women are working” (p. 317, all references to paperback ed.).

The pilot Bernice, as we discover late in the book, is also a lesbian. Although I have known lesbians, I have never had a lesbian friend and therefore never really felt the discrimination and prejudice that many people direct against them. But experiencing it through Bernice, who was one of those women who suffered because she “did not meet society’s standards of prettiness” (p. 319), helped me become more empathetic to those suffering discrimination because of their sexual preferences.

The Jews are still another group in the novel victimized by prejudice, and that of the most extreme kind. “No country [including the United States] wanted more Jews, so they would go up the chimneys [in places like Auschwitz]” ( pp. 484-85). My first published article many decades ago dealt with discrimination against Jews in the Russian Empire during the late nineteenth century. And I have been to Auschwitz and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. But the descriptions of the Jewish Jacqueline (one of the novel’s main characters) at Auschwitz and the horrors of that place struck me with a new force. At the end of the novel Piercy explains why Jacqueline wants to go to Israel (still a few years from becoming the independent country it would in 1948) “She belonged to no one but the friends who had survived and who were going, as Jews, to make a place where Jews could never be stateless” (p. 750). Jacqueline herself explains why she could not remain long again in France, the country of her birth. “If the French officials hadn't cooperated with the Nazis, had not handed over records, if French bureaucrats and cops hadn't helped round up Jews, if Vichy [the French puppet government] hadn't rushed to pass anti-Semitic legislation and deport Jews as fast as the Nazis,” then maybe she could have stayed, but as it was she would always be wondering about the French around her, “Whose Side were you on?” (p.767)

Empathizing with Jews who wanted a homeland of their own after the mind-boggling horrors of the Holocaust need not lessen our sympathy for the plight of Palestinian Arabs. My favorite professor when I was in graduate school at Georgetown was Hisham Sharabi, an Arab-American born in Palestine and a life-long champion of Palestinian Arab rights. I admired him greatly. What makes the present Arab-Jewish hostilities in the Middle East so tragic is that both peoples have suffered deeply, in no small part due to pre-1948 European actions.

But I turn to fiction not only for the chance to experience life through other eyes, often in earlier historical periods and in foreign countries, but also because of something more familiar, something often bordering on nostalgia. I like to read novels set in countries and places I have been, for example set in Moscow or Saint Petersburg (once Leningrad), both of which I have often visited. Thus, when an author mentions the Kremlin or the Neva River in St. Petersburg I can picture either one and often remember my own experiences at these places. And because I spent more than four decades in the academic world, I am partial to books with academic settings, for example Bernard Malamud’s A New Life (1961), Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975), and David Lodge’s Small World: An Academic Romance (1984).

Gone to Soldiers provided a nice mix of the new and foreign with the old and familiar. Most of the characters in it are adults living through WWII, and I lived through it also, but only as a very young child. Part of the novel is set in Washington D.C., and I lived there for most of the 1960s, but it was fascinating to experience D.C. in Piercy’s pages in the wartime early 1940s, a time when it was still a segregated city. Similarly some of her characters are in military service or work as intelligence analysts, both of which were experiences I had, but again in the 1960s and not during WWII. Part of the novel is also set in France, where I was stationed for six months of my military stint. And Bernice, as I mentioned above was a pilot, an experience I also briefly had—although I flew very little after obtaining my license, it was enough to enable me to appreciate Bernice’s love of being up in the sky at the controls of a plane.

Beyond the mix of the strange and the familiar, however, first-rate literature provides us with still something more. The radical Catholic Dorothy Day, who was a great appreciator of literature, expressed it well when she wrote in her diary in 1972: “No matter how old I get . . . no matter how feeble, short of breath, incapable of walking more than a few blocks, what with heart murmurs, heart failures, emphysema perhaps, arthritis in feet and knees, with all the symptoms of age and decrepitude, my heart can still leap for joy as I read and suddenly assent to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.”

We’ll get to the joy of assenting to truths in a minute, but first a few words about the convenience of reading. It can be done when one is young or old; well or sick; wide-awake or sleepy (as often occurs right before turning out the light and going to sleep for the night); alone at home or standing in a line, waiting in a doctor’s office, or riding public transport. And nowadays it can be done not only from a book, but from various ebook reading devises like Kindle.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Like so many novels, other fiction, and poems I have read, Gone to Soldiers furnishes truths I assented to and which brought me joy. The bravery and nobility of characters like the French resistance fighter Jacqueline moved me as earlier noble souls like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables had. We need reminders from time to time about the goodness and courage that we humans are capable of—that’s one reason Nancy and I enjoy watching the “Making a Difference” segment which shows up regularly on NBC’s Nightly News.

When another of Piercy’s characters, Ruthie, thinks of education as “a personal salvation” and “books a passport to elsewhere” (pp. 198-99), I assent with conviction and reflect on all the people lifted up to a better mental, emotional, and cultural life by education and books. And I think how foolish the anti-intellectualism that often characterizes American political life is, as if an education at an elite university were something to downplay or deemphasize. Coming from a blue-collar family and paying my own way through college and graduate school, I share Ruthie’s feeling that education and books are to be cherished and are passports to a better life.

One of the few pleasures Jacqueline experienced at Auschwitz was hearing poetry recited. “Anyone who knew a poem recited it . . . . It did not matter what language the poems were in, the women wanted them again and again” (pp. 627). These lines reminded me of how fond Leningraders were during the Siege of Leningrad—another Nazi atrocity—of listening to poets over Radio Leningrad. One Leningrader remembered that the words of poet Olga Berggolts united and encouraged them to endure and overcome the Nazi onslaught. Like such Leningraders, Piercy realizes that literature can provide food for the soul.

One of the fundamental truths she emphasizes is the evil of prejudice, whether directed at women, Jews, or other minorities. In May 1943, the Jewish Jacqueline, hiding in France from Nazis and French collaborators, writes in her diary: “Nobody hates us as ourselves. . . . They don’t hate us because we did something or said something. They make us stand for an evil they invent and then they want to kill it in us” (p. 272). A month later, in Detroit, Jacqueline’s younger sister Naomi experiences all the prejudice manifested in the Detroit Race Riot of that year. And Ruthie, who worked in a Detroit factory, thought that “anti-Semitism was as common as general bitching in the factories” (p. 296). Ruthie also becomes upset at her fellow Americans who reject immigrant customs. “How dare those people think that everything done their way was superior? That foreign patterns meant stupidity? . . . That those who dressed shabbily and lived in poverty were necessarily ignorant?” (p. 678)

Piercy’s characters also demonstrate an understanding of the complexities of such abstractions as love and freedom. Another of her major figures, Abra, with her new husband, Daniel, visits Japan (including Hiroshima), shortly after the war’s end. Piercy writes, “She had married him because she loved him, but what shallow love that had been she already understood . . . . His affection was novel, a man who cared warmly, who expressed that caring readily and without forethought or rationing. . . . Theirs was, she thought, a relationship of equals at last” (pp. 752-53).

Piercy refers to some of the freedoms President Franklin Roosevelt advocated in 1941, such as “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear,” and Ruthie expresses a desire for such postwar freedoms (p. 736). But the author also describes the thoughts of another of her main characters, the writer Louise:

She had interviewed enough refugees to know what they thought they were fighting for: they were defeating Fascism or liberating their homeland or fighting for their own freedom to be whatever they were that had become illegal or dangerous, Jews or Masons or Communists or Socialists or Seventh-Day Adventists, avant-garde painters, surrealist writers. Or they were simply fighting like the Russians for survival, because the Germans planned to annihilate them.

But Americans were fighting for a higher standard of living. They were fighting their way out of the Depression. They were fighting for the goods they saw in advertisements and in movies about how the middle class lived. . . . What these people saw in their future was not a new brotherhood of man (and certainly not of woman), but the wife back at home [not working outside the home], a new car in the new garage of the new house in the new tract with grass this time. They saw themselves moving into an advertisement full of objects they had coveted (p. 421).

Louise is over-generalizing here. Piercy realizes that some Americans, like Ruthie, dreamt of more than material goods and a return to traditional marital relations, but the author is correct in identifying more material comfort as one of the principle dreams of many Americans. Prior to four years of war, many of them had suffered through the Great Depression.

Piercy also captures well the affection many Americans people felt, perhaps somewhat naively, for President Roosevelt in an era when “big government” was not yet a term of contempt. “His was the voice of government, that rich warm cocoa voice coming out of the radio and explaining how things would be and how they ought to be. Injustice meant the President didn’t know, didn’t have the facts, but always, you assumed he was on your side. If he knew, he would care, and he would try to make it better” (p. 680).

Although providing insights about such topics as prejudice, love, freedom, and government, Piercy’s novel is not preachy or primarily a novel of ideas. It is about her characters, whom she brings to life and whom we care about. Although they are mainly women, there are also several important men: Bernice’s brother, Jeff, who falls in love with Jacqueline; Murray, a Jewish marine fighting in the Pacific, who returns to marry Ruthie; her brother Duvey, who works on cargo ships supplying Europe; Daniel, who deciphers Japanese codes and, after an affair with the writer Louise, marries Abra. Oscar, Louise’s former husband, who also works for the U. S. government, subsequently has an affair with Abra, and takes her to England with him before she finally leaves him and marries Daniel.

Perhaps surprisingly for a novel by a gifted poet, there are not many lyrical or poetic passages in Gone to Soldiers. Piercy’s prose here is direct and fast paced. It is a page-turner that keeps us wanting to know what is going to happen next—no small feat for a 770-page novel. And we learn many interesting facts along the way. To take just three examples: 1) In 1939 and 1940, the U. S. Army only ranked about seventeenth in size as compared to other armies in the world; 2) General George Patton was an anti-Semite; and 3) on a foggy morning in July 1945, a U.S. B-25 bomber accidently crashed into New York’s Empire State Building, causing an explosion that spread flames through several upper floors and killed more than a dozen people including the pilot.

Once again a Piercy image, this time of a plane crashing into a New York skyscraper, provided a mix of something new I had not known before with something familiar (occurring on 9/11/2001) that few of us living then will ever forget.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss