Michael Grant’s latest novel is a classic WWII story with a captivating addition—women in the ranks.
In many ways, Grant’s latest feels like an old-fashioned war novel—it begins with the soon-to-be soldiers at home, worrying about what they are going to face, and saying good-bye to family. Then they arrive at boot camp, building both combat skills and bonhomie. Finally, they find themselves in the thick of it, unprepared for the gravity of death, both witnessing it and serving it, while tapping heretofore unknown reserves of fortitude, resilience, and stony-eyed vengeance.
The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that women are in the battle ranks. Though women are not yet being conscripted in this alternate history of WWII, Rio, Jenou, Frangie, and Rainy sign up anyway. Rio’s feeling a bit listless after her sister dies in the battle of Pearl Harbor, and her best friend, Jenou, makes a convincing case for signing up. Jenou says she wants to meet handsome officers, though in truth, she is desperate to escape her rocky home life. Frangie, an African American girl in Oklahoma, sees enlisting as an opportunity to get medical training she otherwise wouldn’t be eligible for. Jewish Rainy is smart, capable, fluent in German, and wants to kill Nazis.
Just because women are permitted to enlist, however, doesn’t mean they are treated any more fairly. It’s abundantly clear that Grant has done an impressive amount of research, not only into battle movements and period details—which are exhaustive, vivid, and clearly, grippingly written—but also the prevailing attitudes. In keeping with the historical period, the women face down plenty of prejudice, and Grant doesn’t shy away from ugly language, particularly regarding Frangie, who endures a deluge of hateful slurs and more than one threat of rape. While there are enough military men open to women in their ranks, enlisting alone can’t change deeply ingrained beliefs. There’s no magical eraser for racism or misogyny here, except the rigors of the battlefield, where they prove their mettle.
The history is certainly illuminating and fascinating, but where Grant excels even more is in the tight, propulsive, and immersive storytelling and compelling bonds among the multifaceted characters. Grant alternates among the four young women, interspersing their stories with letters and news bulletin–like summaries of historical events, framing the whole thing with commentary from the unnamed narrator, who sits typing the story in a military hospital, offering brief glimpses of the near future. Most of the pages are dedicated to Rio and Jenou, who blessedly get to stay together, ending up in a mixed-company platoon in North Africa. Rainy leaves New York with a stopover in intelligence training before heading to Tunisia to translate incoming communiqués. Frangie heads to North Africa as a medic with an all-black battalion. Finally, the four women meet at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, grittier, bloodier, and tougher than when they set out.
If their concerns occasionally seem girlish,
it’s because they are girls, and the boys,
frankly, are no different.
Though it’s an epic story with a page count to match, the dynamic characters and urgent plot never get lost in the enormity of the historical moment. Grant’s writing is remarkably tidy, cultivating a staggering amount of feeling out of only a few lines, and imbuing each figure with such depth and personality that, even if a character gets less than two total pages of attention, his or her death is utterly, completely devastating. This is a story about soldiers, and those soldiers never take a backseat to history.
Given current headlines about women in combat, it’s natural to assume this novel has an agenda, but Grant trumpets no cause, and while he makes a huge change to WWII history, he so unobtrusively weaves it throughout the story it’s easy to forget that, except in a few special cases, women weren’t fighting alongside men. Rio and Jenou drink and smoke and trash talk just as much as the men in their company, and while there are a few flutters of romance, they are always superseded by the grim realities of battle. If their concerns occasionally seem girlish, it’s because they are girls, and the boys, frankly, are no different. Grant treats each of those youthful, terrified, sensitive moments with deep compassion—each soldier has the capacity to be petty, brave, scared, witty, ruthless, and emotional. Just as classic war novels demonstrate how war can reveal common humanity, Grant’s exploration of women in battle is no different. Fraught as it is with terror, fighting together breeds deep loyalty, regardless of gender.
This review first appeared in the October 15, 2015, issue of Booklist.