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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

ELIZABETH SPELLER'S THE FIRST OF JULY RANKS WITH THE GREAT WAR NOVELS

All Quiet on the Western Front and The Red Badge of Courage are classic war novels because they deal not with the war so much as with the men who risk their lives, often for a cause they don't fully understand--if, indeed there is a legitimate cause. The books have a universal quality because humanity does not change its yearnings.

Elizabeth Speller’s The First of July is a book in this classic tradition as it examines men of different backgrounds, in different countries, and of different ages, all who have a reason to enter the war as a soldier but whose reason may have nothing to do with love of country.  Each makes extreme sacrifices during WWI but each for a very different reason.  In that way, in particular, I was immediately reminded of All Quiet on the Western Front and The Red Badge of Courage.  Those protagonists were boys; that is not always the case in The First of July.

First of July becomes a superb study of human character and motivation, its strengths and weaknesses as well as the yearnings which sometimes lie so deep inside that we are not even aware. 

Following the characters’ individual stories and appreciating the uniqueness of each man becomes a sad joy as we learn their fates in the horribly bloody battles of WWI.  In fact, Speller sets her novel before the war begins and then in the time leading up to, and then shortly after, the bloodiest battle for the British of WWI, The Battle of the Somme.  Allied forces casualties numbered almost one hundred thousand.

First of July is exquisitely crafted.  The ugliness and grittiness of war is exposed in a descriptive but controlled manner.  We move through time when war lay only on the horizon until it is all encompassing. We learn each character’s background and reaction as the war moves closer and closer.  We get a glimpse into the distinct cultures of their different countries as well as of their personal relationships with others.  From a wealthy “runaway” member of British royalty to the son of a coffin maker whose greatest wish is to make enough money to buy a fine bicycle, we view every strata of society, different kinds of relationships from mother and son to husband and wife.  Some men are honest; some are not.  Some have been mislead.  Some are ambitious; some are not. In total, we are gifted with a perceptive view of Everyman meeting the horrors of war.  It is stunning.

The writing is excellent--descriptive yet right and objective. I will definitely read another one of Elizabeth Speller’s books of historical fiction.



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