Author Jane McCarthy’s new self-published book, “The Faces of War,” uses historical fiction to bring readers inside the hearts, minds and lives of two young men — American John Conway and German Karl Baum — on opposite sides in World War II.
There’s love, drama, death, conflict and decisions to be made. There’s also perspective — the viewpoints of Baum and Conway whose experiences create a glimpse of the turmoil and struggles those in real-life situations faced by soldiers, families and others on both sides.
“The relationship of the American and the German is key to the book and how they come across to each other and the devastating effect of war,” said McCarthy, a Narragansett resident, in an interview with The Independent. The book was published last week.
She’s worked on the book for the last two years doing research about historical facts as she wove together among them these two fictional characters, their lives, their families, their tragedies and their emotions.
“For the German aspect, the book is through the eyes of a young German boy who never served in the army. It was about what life was like then (1941-1946) for a German family living in the small villages,” she said.
On the other side of both the world and the war’s political line is an American whose brother was killed in the war, his anger and desire to avenge that killing by joining the war effort himself. From him comes another perspective - the horror of the front lines and even seeing a friend get an explosive bullet to the head, she said.
What’s not in the book, though, is the riveting emotional experience of McCarthy and her husband, Gerald, visiting in 2014 Luxembourg with US Veterans Friends. She and her husband toured the La Cambe German war Cemetery.
“But spending five days in Normandy combing the beaches and visiting the museums inspired me to write ‘The Faces of War,’” she said about retracing steps of soldiers, imagining battles and visiting historic places, inspirations for writing the book.
One of the stories she heard was about two German brothers, one of whom moved to the United States. He enlisted in the U.S. Army while his brother served in the Heer division of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of the Third Reich.
Both were killed and one is buried on the American side of the cemetery while the other is on the German side.
“The whole thing was just so affecting to me,” said the 83-year-old author who spent her career as a nurse and also wrote “All the Rest of Her Days” about an adopted child’s search for his birth mother.
In writing “The Faces of War,” her research on the war took her into depth on actual events, places and experiences of those who both served in the military and lived in countries affected by the battles on their own soil. It also brought her to examine life in Prisoner-of-War camps in the United States.
“The prisoners had it better than our own citizens. They had mean, eggs, hot coffee because (U.S. President Franklin) Roosevelt wanted them treated well,” she said.
Many prisoners had living conditions better than as civilians in cold-water flats in Germany. The prisoners were provided with writing materials, art supplies, woodworking utensils, and musical instruments and were allowed regular correspondence with family in Germany, according to various books on the subject.
Outside of the historical facts, McCarthy lets her mind unwind in the creation of dramatic details that can both engage, entertain and even enrage a reader. She has a simple style:
Approaching a clearing, they saw a soldier sitting up with his chin leaning on his chest, clutching a rifle. His pant leg was soaked with blood. Two dead bodies lay sprawled in the dirt.
Walter grabbed Karl’s arm. “Let’s get out of here. This could be trouble for us. There is nothing we can do here. We must not get involved.”
“Wait. He’s breathing.”
The soldier’s breaths were shallow and rapid. He fumbled with his rifle, but couldn’t raise it and slumped back against the tree.
Karl bent down. “What is your name?”
In a voice above a whisper, the soldier replied, “Serial number . . . can’t remember.”
“He’s American. We could be shot. Let’s go,” hissed Walter. “We can’t leave him here!”
“Yes, we can!” Walter paced, trying to avoid the scene they had come upon. He returned to Karl, stooped down, and said in a low menacing voice, “We’ve killed a German and now we are saving an American.” He tugged Karl’s arm. “If we help him, do you know what this means? What if we get caught?”
“He’ll die if we leave him here.” The site of the dead bodies was revolting for Karl. How many other young men had faced a violent death?
McCarthy said that scenes like this and others came from letting her imagination allow the characters and their situations become real to her along with their own thoughts and reactions.
“You wake up thinking about these characters. When I finished the book, I missed them. They get inside your head. The characters become part of your family,” she said with a laugh.
Reality Meets Fiction
While the characters are entirely fictional, parts of her own life have been inspirations for thoughts or ideas about them. For instance, there was her Uncle Richard.
“I remember a little about the early part of the war and how my uncle, who was too old to go, came back, hit the bottle and died eight years later. I remember how much he suffered during that time and wasn’t the same man,” she said.
McCarthy added, after a pause, “I also remember how my mother and father suffered with it, too, because they were his caretakers.”
And character John Conway in her book also comes back scarred from the war and develops an addiction.
Looking at the big-picture purpose for writing the book, McCarthy has a clear answer.
“The best part of (writing the book) was hoping that people could see the effects that war has on people,” she said.
The “The Faces of War” was self-published with the help of I. Michael Grossman, owner of Ebook Bakery in South Kingstown. Soft-cover editions for $20 are available for shipping from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.