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Two Views of a Son at the Front

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I’m Lynne Hewes of Cimarron, KS.  Edith Wharton’s WWI novel, A Son at the Front, is packed full of those messages literature teachers call themes or lessons about life.  When we read the book, we learn about the role of art in society, the tragedies of divorce, the importance of standing up for what we believe in, the differences between young people and adults, and more than a little about the horrors of war—even though Wharton never actually takes us to the “front.”

One of the tests of a good book is whether we can apply its lessons to our own lives.  While much of Wharton’s novel feels dated, and life in France feels a bit irrelevant, we are able to come away from the book with one timeless and universal application:  How parents feel when a child chooses to join the military, especially during a time of armed conflict.

When George decides it’s his “duty,” to join the infantry, his parents are terrified.  Wharton does an excellent job of portraying views from the younger generation, enamored with their “duty” to fight and the glamor and bravery they perceive as they prepare for battle at the front. 

She also takes us into the minds and hearts of John and Julia, George’s parents, who, although they are divorced, share their terror at the thought of the reality of war and what it will mean for their son.

Andrew Taylor, a high school student from Wheatland, Kansas, recently spoke eloquently about another novel in HPPR’s Spring Reads about WWI.  The book Taylor chose to comment on is WAR HORSE.    In his insightful book byte, which you can hear on the Radio Reader’s website, he says, “Not to make light of the grave conditions of war, but sports make a relatable comparison for people who haven’t gone through what soldiers have. Football players try as hard as they can to crush the people lined up in front of them, and then pick them back up after the play is over. Players on the basketball court leave their aggression behind after the game is over to talk with the other team.” 

Andrew Taylor talks about fierce competitions—and then friendship, an idea brought out in War Horse.   He is respectful of soldiers and their experiences in combat, but his youth helps him understand combat in terms of sports rivalries, and he makes an excellent comparison of a Christmas truce scene in the book to the high school team tradition of good sportsmanship.

His comparison is brilliant, but I’m not sure parents, when faced with a child going to war, would be able to think in those terms. Parents might be more familiar with Herbert Hoover’s quote, “Older men declare war, but it is the youth who must fight and die.”

Andrew Taylor was thoughtful when he commented that he didn’t want his comparison of war and sports to “make light of war.”  But his message does emphasize the fact that most young people do not see war the same way as adults do. 

To parents, winning, or the final score doesn’t mean much at all—especially if our children become casualties of the conflict.