- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

THE SOLDIER'S RETURN

By Melvyn Bragg


Arcade, $24.95, 346 pagesClose to the halfway point in Melvyn Bragg's novel, Sam, for whom "The Soldier's Return" is titled, is feeling restless. His semi-skilled job in a paper factory in the northern English town of Wigton (where the author was born, it's close to Carlisle and the Scottish border) is repetitive and tiring, his home life with his wife and little boy in a one-up, one-down house with outside communal privy and water tap is developing tensions, and while he doesn't want to be one of the ex-servicemen who complain:

"He had felt a fuller man in uniform. He had felt more certain of himself even in those long boring stretches between actions. Something else he did not want to admit to himself was that he had felt a purpose and known what he valued then much more clearly over in Burma than back in Blighty."

Sam is recently home from a four-year absence from wife and child and home town. He has been fighting in the Border Regiment, long recruited from fierce fighting stock ancestrally associated with the hundreds of years of English-Scots conflicts. The battalion was part of Gen. William Slim's 14th or so-called "Forgotten Army." These British soldiers in addition to their beloved Lee Enfield rifles, carried Ghurka kukri knives on their belts and sported Australian-style slouch hats. They fought the Japanese at close quarters in extraordinarily savage jungle conditions, and they won. Now, they will never see anything so exciting again.

Sam's believed he was fighting in order to get back home to his wife Ellen he kept her letters wrapped in oilskin in his kitbag a physically lovely woman with pale skin and a mane of rich, black hair. Ellen is good-natured, an optimist inclined to see the best side of almost any situation. But she also got used to her unexpected independence during the war, went to work in a factory and in a harmless way enjoyed her girlfriends' company socially.

As for little Joe, who really has no recollections of his father before he went away, he becomes very attached to his "Mammy," including getting to sleep in her bed much of the time. Britain must have been full of little boys like that in 1945 when the troops came marching home (I was one of them), and it was a difficult adjustment for all concerned.

The men, so excited to be returning home victorious from the conflict, were soon disappointed and confused by poor employment prospects, housing shortages and familial abrasions they seemed to be triggering. Their wives didn't know what to make of the changed in Sam's case, severer than before husbands who expected them to give up their jobs to which they had become accustomed. The little boys, who had been through the blitz with their mothers, simply were furious and fearful, and wished their fathers would go away again and stay away.

Mr. Bragg's novel, which brings to life the language (have "a dekko") and feelings and other details of those years in Britain gas mantles, clothing coupons, rationing, popular songs like "Cruising Down the River on a Sunday Afternoon," the film version of Emlyn Williams' play "The Corn Is Green" playing at the local cinema opens with the train bringing the soldiers home haltingly making its way toward the town. The men are wearing their new government-issue civilian suits, and Sam is with his old comrade Jackie, who will later recede into what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder and have to be institutionalized: He sees Japanese soldiers coming at him from everywhere.

The reunion of Sam with his family it takes place early in the morning is at first euphoric, little Joe thrown up into the air, Ellen undressing to take her husband to bed. The housing situation, as I mentioned, is miserable, and mother and child are living with Ellen's Aunt Grace and her husband, Leonard. Grace has a lodger, Mr. Kneale a retired schoolteacher, and she also takes in commercial travelers passing through the town.

Grace and Leonard are reasonable enough people. Leonard likes to go up the street with Sam for a pint or two at one of the pubs and a flutter on the horses: The Grand National is coming up, so it must be 1946, a reminder of Sam's unit coming home late from the war, after the victory celebrations are over and the bunting has been taken down.

After enjoying a few days off, Sam takes the bus to Carlisle to reclaim his prewar job, but is denied it on the technicality that he volunteered for the Army rather than being conscripted. So he settles for the paper factory in Wigton. Soon too, the young couple will be wanting a home of their own. New Council housing is going up on the south side of town facing the mountains of the Lake District, but Sam and Ellen have not put their names down. Matters go on from there.

The town of Wigton is central to the plot. It is a small, closed community where everyone knows everyone else more or less. It has its pubs, its Saturday night dances, and in the course of the story there is a carnival for the town's children to which Sam and Ellen contribute their services. Sam goes to Carlisle for a regimental reunion, the description of which will touch any old soldier's heart, but by and large Wigton is where the action of the novel takes place.

The dilemma, or complication as one says in the case of a drama, develops between Sam and Ellen as time goes by. Sam increasingly feels that the world to which he has come home offers so much less than he had expected. He is, moreover, conscious of the relations between Britain's haves and have-nots. And he is self-conscious about his lack of education. He passed the examination to enter a grammar school (university track high school) but hadn't been able to go because his parents lacked the money for uniforms, books, etc.) Above all, he feels trapped in Wigton and afraid that he will never do anything more adventurous or ambitious for the rest of his life.

For Ellen, on the other hand, Wigton is like an umbilical chord. She loves the town, has her own sort of "addiction" to it, and is quite content there. Never ambitious, seeking only to be ordinary, she has settled for work in a clothing factory, shops and cleaning other people's houses. She is close to her friend Sadie. The thought of leaving Wigton is one with which she simply can't cope. The threatened conflict between husband and wife over the question of whether to move away or stay put is exacerbated by their new inability to talk to each about the things that matter most to them contrary to their easy rapport prewar.

Things go from bad to worse. Sam, to his shame, finds himself jealous of the other people in Ellen's life; and something hard in his nature tells him that he just has to get away. Ellen turns out to be quite strong and resolute. Little Joe, who reaches the age of seven in the course of the novel's pages, starts wetting the bed and, because his father works shifts, doesn't develop much in the way of shared activities with him. Sam wants to make a man of his son, but increasingly is resented (although he will not be without his occasional successes, as when Joe gets picked upon by a neighborhood gang of bullies).

There is talk of perhaps going to Australia, to which virtually free travel is being offered under an Australian government program (my parents discussed it briefly), and it is upon this that the novel's denouement turns. It is a surprising one, maybe a little neat, but stimulating. Above all, Mr. Bragg's novel reenacts vividly a period of British life that deserves to be remembered.

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