Algonquin Books - Historical Fiction/Korean War/1950s
They left the city and climbed into the mountains. They drove the long balconies of stone, a world extant from the world of the street, a world womblike in its whispery green luxuriance. The world up there was newly wet and cooler by degrees, cooler than the street world. The rooms of the forest were deep and cathedral and what rose to them was scent and closeness, and nothing could be heard but the gently soughing wind.
--p. 40, The Coldest Night
The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead is a spare but powerful tale about a young man named Henry Childs. There are three distinct parts in which Henry falls deeply in love, goes off to fight in the Korean War after he's torn away from his girlfriend, Mercy, and then returns home wounded and grieving.
I found the sharp change from Part I, which leans toward romance, to Part II with Henry arriving in Korea so jarring, at first, that I actually set the book aside for a couple weeks. But it kept calling out, haunting me. If books could speak, this one had a low-pitched, insistent, growling voice that threatened to sink me if I didn't pick it up, again. I am so glad I finally gave in.
Gunny was running with them and then was down among them as they groaned and scrambled to their feet bearing the heavy weight of their armamentary . Gunny was tall and square built and born in 1905. He had been a marine since the age of sixteen and he was now forty-five years old and wore a long handlebar mustache he waxed every morning. He was now ferocious and screaming and cursing and kicking them in the ass.
I skimmed through Part I to remind myself where Henry came from, what happened between Henry and Mercy, and how he happened to end up in Korea, before diving into Part II. The writing is so sharp and minimalist that it also helped to read the cover flap to get a little more info. I usually avoid cover blurbs and publicity info because I like to go into the reading of a book knowing as little as possible. I like to be surprised. But I needed the extra info, this time.
In Part II, Henry arrives in Korea, where he marches and marches and marches through cold, colder, radio-battery-killing, flash-freezing, body-part blackening cold. Henry's new friend Lew is a veteran of WWII, a realist with a sense of humor. Henry and Lew don't know where they're headed nor when they'll get there. And, when they finally encounter action, the Chinese soldiers are brutal. They're everywhere. Henry and Lew don't even know they're in the midst of a seventeen-day battle that will be called the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, nor do you unless you've read about the book. And, that is the beauty of the writing in The Coldest Night. The sense that you are there. After days and days of mind-numbing cold and mystery about what may lie ahead, they enter terrifying, bloody, continuous horror.
"This is some kind of bad shit," Lew was saying.
"I feel like I already died and I'm just walking with you for a while. What do you think our chances are?"
"In whose favor?"
"Ours," Lew said.
In his mind Henry saw again the long wounded column bristling with weapons and armed men unwilling to die.
"Time to giddyup."
"Not yet," Henry said, pointing to the lake.
They watched in silence as the icy surface of the reservoir began to move. There were thousands of them. They'd been on the white ice the whole afternoon under white sheets and canvases, having marched ten miles down lake and now they were on their hands and knees and crawling south toward the shore's stony rim where they'd join the battle. Already their silhouettes were moving onto the ridgeline.
The oddly wonderful comradeship between Henry and Lew drew me in but the battle had me glued to the pages. It is harsh in the manner of real war. Olmstead doesn't ever say it's the battle of Chosin Reservoir because you're in Henry's perspective and the truth is, Henry doesn't actually know where exactly they've hiked or why they're battling, just that they're way outnumbered and he has no choice but to kill or die. The narrative could not possibly be more gripping.
In Part III, Henry returns home. I didn't know what to expect in the third section, although there was one particular plot point that I anticipated. The best way to describe Part III is probably to say that it is satisfying. There are unanswered questions as you leave Part I and Mercy is pulled from Henry's life. There are more answers eluding your grasp as you enter Part III. When the book closes, you know Henry's story is not finished because it's so much like real life that it can't be. Real stories never truly end. The chapters simply fold into each other. But, a part of his life has come full circle and there is a definite sigh of satisfaction in knowing where he is right now, as the book closes.
The closest parallel to Olmstead's writing style that I can come up with is Hemingway's writing. As with Hemingway, there are times that you want to holler out, "Give me more than this!!!" I never did know, for example, what Olmstead meant when he referred to the Lew and Henry (and the other men they marched with) as "the hunters" and I couldn't find any reference to that particular term when I looked it up online. But, I lean toward a preference for leaner, less flashy, tighter writing. There is an intensity that comes with a tighter focus and now that I'm acquainted with Olmstead's unique voice, I am very anxious to read more.
Highly recommended - A taut, intense and powerful tale of love, grief, war, and the making of a man. Sometimes a little too spare -- there were times I yearned for just a little more information -- yet there are scenes of tremendous beauty and brutality that would have lost their edge had they been more wordy. There's a great deal of teenage sex in Part I, but it's not overly graphic, as I recall.
Cleveland.com says Olmstead writes with "ferocious economy". Yes. That's a fine way to put it.
Not a review, but of interest:
Beth Fish Reads - I didn't realize Coal Black Horse and Far Bright Star by Olmstead precede The Coldest Night and are about the same family, the Childs family (although I did notice that the author cleverly inserted the first two titles into the narrative of The Coldest Night). "Beth Fish" informed me.
Thanks to our Twitter discussion, I now have acquired a copy of Coal Black Horse and am looking forward to going back in time to meet Henry's ancestors. I already had a copy of Far Bright Star and had trouble getting into it. Apparently, I just needed to become accustomed to Olmstead's writing and The Coldest Night was the introduction I needed.
In other news:
I spent the weekend shoving furniture around to try to let more light into the house, reading, cleaning. Nothing exciting, but it felt like progress. It's always pleasant to hang out with my two fur pals and I needed to step away from the computer for a few days.
I emptied a jam cabinet that used to sit in our entryway but somehow ended up getting shoved up against some bookshelves. It contained little more than books, CDs and a few miscellaneous trinkets. Most of the books went straight into a donation bag, but I stopped to read a tattered copy of M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker (the novel that became the movie and then a series) and couldn't put it down, Friday night. It was a perfect read -- the complete story of Hawkeye and Duke's time in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit, from the time they drive to the 4077th M*A*S*H to when they say goodbye, stateside.
Then, yesterday, I had to dig in my donation bags for entertainment when I made the mistake of leaving the house without one of my current reads. I started reading a beat-up copy of The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister that the United States Postal Service quite nearly murdered (but which I've since replaced, after a year of trying to flatten it out by weighting it beneath a large stack of books failed). So, now I'm 70 pages into my ratty but readable copy of Essential Ingredients, halfway through The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock, about a third of the way into The Lola Quartet (which is, I admit, frustrating me), carrying my poetry book, Light on the Concrete by Lucas Hunt, everywhere (except the restaurant, when I was so desperate I went digging in the donation bags) without reading more than 3 poems at a sitting and still occasionally glancing at the Titanic book to tell it, "Later, later."
My reading life is definitely not boring. How was your weekend reading?