Tarnished Brass is a novella that comes in at around a hundred pages of story, but author Max L. Knight fits in an incredible amount of information. The book not only informs readers about events of the past, it also reminds readers of the far-reaching effects of war, even decades later, even across oceans.
While I was happily navigating high school and college through the eighties, like most kids in that stage of life, I was oblivious to what was happening in El Salvador (and most of the world outside my bubble). I lived a safe and privileged life while El Salvador lost the decade as a war-torn country plagued by fighting factions – one of them aided by funding, training, and weapons courtesy of the United States.
The archbishop urgently petitioned those in power to alter course.
“In the name of God and this suffering population, whose cries reach to the heavens more tumultuous each day…cease the repression.”
His words were met by a sniper’s bullet to the heart.
Many of the chapters in Tarnished Brass are filled primarily with historical information that gives readers facts about the political and military climate and the war’s ever-worsening impact on the Salvadorans. The only pause in El Salvador’s war was when an earthquake interrupted it and displaced hundreds of thousands of people who were already suffering. Knight does a good job of keeping the plight of the poor as a constant thread running through all the chapters. The poor never win in war — or in times of peace. The strength of the book is in Knight’s world-building: the poverty, the destruction, the darkness of El Salvador.
Tarnished Brass is well-written and cleanly edited, and its contents are engaging. The structure of the book is unique, vacillating between storytelling and fact-telling. There are chapters that give readers insight into the lives of the three main characters, but none of the characters are ever fully fleshed-out or given much depth. (The exception was a chapter dedicated to the psychological profile of a side-character, Diana, which was profoundly sad and fascinating.) There are other chapters in which the purpose is solely to inform, and only a few sentences, either at the beginning or the end, tie in one of the story’s characters to the scene. The story of Tarnished Brass is the war; the characters within are somewhat peripheral but do serve to soften the edges of what could easily convert to a nonfiction piece.
I was most appreciative that the author not only included a glossary of military terminology, but he tells readers first thing that it’s at the back of the book. (I never think to look first.) While it is most helpful for those of us not in-the-know, the book is still full of military acronyms and jargon that are defined once and used often – and I found myself flipping back to figure out what was what and who was who. Those who are students of history and politics and military ops won’t have any issues and will probably enjoy that the book has a more factual, less fictional slant.
As a more informed, but still ridiculously under-informed adult, reading Tarnished Brass helped me tie current headlines to the past. It was particularly interesting to learn the origins of MS-13, the now international criminal gang that started as a group to protect Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles. Following character Antonio’s grim but realistic story was eye-opening and the most powerful of the stories in Tarnished Brass. It was in Antonio’s story that I saw glimpses of Knight’s storytelling and characterization prowess that he showed in Palo Duro.
Tarnished Brass educates readers of not only an important piece of world history, but also the impact of the United States’s foreign policy, then and now. Intelligently written, Tarnished Brass is a quick way to get informed while also fulfilling a reader’s need to escape into fiction.