February 17, 2022
A Soldier of the Great War – Book Review by Scott Forney
Helprin, Mark. A Soldier of the Great War. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991.
What originally inspired you to read this book?
Andy Crouch is an author whom I have enjoyed reading during the last decade in both Culture Making and The Tech-Wise Family. In seeking out some of the influential books in his life, I came across his recommendation to read Mark Helprin’s works, with the 800 page A Soldier of the Great War being a primary target for consideration. Having never been a voracious reader–more of a plodder–I’ve nevertheless tried to make it an effort over the past decade to keep something beside the bed or as an audiobook for shave listening; Helprin’s work got the latter designation originally. Finding myself with a wandering mind during the audio, I found a hardback copy of the A Soldier of the Great War and decided to live with it. It took about a year given a few pages each night and a 100+ page marathon the last couple days, but it was worth it.
What is the basic premise of the book?
One man’s journey in seeing the beautiful amidst the context of war.
Where or how do you see it connecting to Mason’s philosophy or methods?
In a basic way, A Soldier of the Great War portrays Italian history from the turn of the 20th century through World War I through the personal eyes of the protagonist—this is always a noted aspect of Charlotte Mason’s idea of a living book where the story brings something like history or geography to life in our imaginations. However, in a much deeper manner, the book is about life. We are allowed to walk with the protagonist’s gut-wrenching realities, unresolved tragedies, and supernatural redemptions that force us to carefully consider his journey, our own journey, and the journeys of those we walk with each day. In this manner, the book has a life or soul of its own that lives with you far beyond the actual time of reading, and its message is woven into your being. In multiple ways, A Soldier of the Great War fits the definition of a living book.
One note: the book has an ungratuitous and not unexpected degree of coarseness given the life of a soldier. Yet, at the same time, this soldier was formerly a professor of aesthetics and so we have a tension throughout where he considers life and works to see promote and extract the beautiful amidst ideas and circumstances which are not binary–something a multiple-choice, true-false, right-answer approach to life and education will but touch on lightly.
A favorite quote or two?
The book is full of memorable lines and wonderful word pictures, but the quote I frequently share in association with the book is a reflection from Andy Crouch after he sat in silence for half an hour after finishing the book:
“I thought later, and still am tempted to think, that I would never fully trust any pastor who had not read it. That seems unreasonable, though, given all the worthy and unread books in the world. Put it this way: I do not think I can trust anyone to tell me the truth about God, myself, and the world if I suspect they wouldn’t care if they did read A Solider of the Great War. There is just too much tragedy and terror, as well as beauty and grace, in Helprin’s story for anyone entrusted with others’ souls to treat it carelessly” (Small Screens, Big World).
Scott is a “Charlotte Mason father,” having experienced Charlotte Mason with and through his wife, Kerri, for many years as they have homeschooled their five children near Raleigh, NC.
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