I have read many novels of World War II, but none like Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy. Ambitious in scope, this sweeping epic not only immerses the reader into the events that took place during these tumultuous years, but connects them emotionally with the pain, suffering, tragedies and triumphs of ordinary people. Her lens into the horrors of this monumental conflict is unique. Told from a woman’s perspective, it emphasizes the struggles of the Jewish people and their resilience. In passages that are heartbreaking, compelling, and unsparing in their detail, she describes the horrors of the concentration camps… Hitler’s Final Solution. With the rise of antisemitism some seventy-five years after Germany’s surrender to Allied forces, it is both a somber reflection on the Holocaust and the survival of the human spirit in spite of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, as well as a sobering reminder that such discrimination and persecution continue today.
But Piercy goes way beyond the stories of those who perished or inexplicably survived the death camps, to give voice to those who waited for word of their loved ones. It took resilience to continue living without any information about fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers who were either fighting the Nazis across Europe or the Japanese in the South Pacific, or who found themselves caught in the middle between opposing armies. Piercy gives us flesh and blood characters whose strengths and flaws are given equal shrift, and whose hopes and dreams and daily realities mirror our own.
Just as life is not straight forward, Piercy’s story involves multiple characters whose different stories and experiences all converge or overlap in a sprawling 769 page narrative. It definitely took me awhile to wade through this voluminous novel, but I was engaged throughout and totally engrossed in the fate of each and every person regardless of how vile or good, their occupation or social status, wealth or impoverishment, ambitions or insecurities, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. I was emotionally involved and genuinely cared about them.
Such a response to the written word is a testament to Marge Piercy’s ability as an author. Her strong female characters challenge traditional gender roles yet Gone to Soldiers is not just geared towards a female audience. The women give voice and unique perspective to World War II that isn’t found in other literary works.
These were extraordinary times experienced by extraordinary people, many of them women. Their stories are just as relevant as the men’s, and Piercy captures both.