We sat outside in a sort of silence. Everything else made noise — the black birds growled, the trees rattled in a wind that stuttered, then died — while Hilary ran her fingers round and round the moistened rim of the glass we had drunk from. It screamed despite its thickness and heft, proving its value. I’d proved mine, I thought, by standing for the toast to the hero my father had helped to betray. I disproved mine, I thought, by sitting with the hero’s daughter whom I probably would betray. What I wanted was her history. What she offered me was all the rest. I’d taken some of each. I wanted more.
(from War Babies, page 49)
In War Babies, Frederick Busch emphasizes how war wounds the children of soldiers long into adulthood. Peter Santore is an American lawyer whose father was jailed for being a traitor during the Korean War. While in a POW camp, Peter’s father worked with the Peace Fighters Battalion in coercing confessions out of American and English soldiers. He never really knew his father — why he did what he did, whether he really had converted to the side of the enemy — and he has spent much of his life searching for answers.
Peter thinks Hilary Pennels, a bookstore owner in Salisbury, has the answers he seeks, so he goes to England to track her down and learn how his father played a role in the death of her father, the “hero” lieutenant. In an oh-so-convenient fashion, Peter finds Hilary almost immediately after he arrives, and the pair right away commence a very weird, very sexual relationship.
Through Hilary, Peter meets a Mr. Fox, who was in the same POW camp as their fathers and has a strange obsession with Hilary; one can’t tell whether he wants to be her lover or her father figure. Readers learn what happened in the POW camp through Mr. Fox’s bitter, exaggerated, and even romanticized narrative.
War Babies is a short novel, but its disjointed narrative makes it a bit of chore to read. In fact, if Serena and I hadn’t been reading it for a readalong on War Through the Generations (click here and here for our discussions, beware of spoilers), I doubt I would have finished it. I couldn’t connect with the characters; they spent most of their time together in bed, the dialogue was just odd, their whole meeting felt contrived, and I felt like I was missing something essential about them. What I did take away from the story was a sense of pain and loss. Mr. Fox’s war story speaks for itself, but both Peter and Hilary were wounded in different ways by their fathers, especially Hilary, who doesn’t see her father so much as a hero but as the man who chose not to come home.
War Babies is an intriguing novel, but Busch spends too much time on Peter and Hilary’s “relationship” yet barely scratches the surface of the most interesting (and arguable most complicated) character — Mr. Fox. It’s probably not a book to pick up if you know very little about the Korean war (like me) or want a more traditional war novel (like me). However, War Babies is worth giving a try if quirky characters are your thing or you have an interest in character studies dealing with the effects of war.
Disclosure: I borrowed War Babies from the public library.
© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.