Opening-Line Mini-Review: Kathleen Korbel’s A SOLDIER’S HEART, Or Face To the Wall

“The choppers appeared just after the sun.”

Soldier's_HeartHuman beings make sense of experience’s ephemerality by embodying it in art. Maya Lin’s controversial Vietnam Veterans War Memorial was/is integral to healing war’s wounds. It offers solace and remembrance as vets and families, foreigners and natives, bring offerings of flowers, pictures, etc., touch, wonder, and heal as they meditate on the war’s wastes and ravages (war is a universal experience, is it not?). Yusef Komunyakaa’s Vietnam-War-Memorial-set poem, “Facing It” also embodies the war, recounting a vet’s turbulent, ambivalent emotions as he touches and is reflected in the wall, naming loss, anger, and the ever-present American tragedy of race. (Don’t read this humble post, but read and listen to the poem as linked. It’s powerful.) The humble romance genre offers its embodiment in Kathleen Korbel’s A Soldier’s Heart (1994). The novel’s opening line is the prologue’s introduction to nurse Claire Henderson, who held dying Marine Tony Riordan and willed him to live. Twenty-three years later, Tony’s final act of putting his war wounds to rest, psychic where physical are long-healed, is to seek, find, and thank Claire. What he finds in her haunted eyes is the confusion, guilt, and self-destructive impulses of his own struggle with PTSD.

Tony finds Claire at her Virginia restaurant and soon-to-be-restored B&B, still working as a nurse, rearing her two teens, John and Jess, and pushing ghosts and guilt away with bottles and denial. Korbel has fashioned a romance out of the broken, heroic lives of a marine sergeant and army nurse. They’re an older couple with sad memories of first marriages and war-time memories of loss and horror. Korbel’s male soldier, however, is not the broken one. Tony is the wise healer who mentors and guides Claire to her own peace. Do they fall in love along the way? Yes, they do. Does Korbel let Claire’s pain recede for the unicorns and rainbows of romantic love? Tony and Claire’s journey to MissB’s three Cs, culmination, commitment, and celebration, cannot be separated from Claire’s healing. When the time comes for Claire to “face it,” Tony’s gesture is perfect, making the HEA believable and celebratory. Miss Bates easily envisioned a vista of years for Tony and Claire and their wonderful teens.

Korbel uses the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial as Komunyakaa does, to embody the importance of confronting and reconciling with the past. When Tony meets Claire, he’s been “to the Wall,” “donned his old fatigues and held his friends … and … wept for the ones left behind.” The “Wall” offers an opportunity to make peace with memory, to reunite with the dead in its granite face, and to acknowledge one’s own part in the conflict, to “face it”: what one did, saw, what saved and lost. It offers an opportunity to make a healing offering, to bring oneself and say “I remember,” or “You were there. You suffered. I’m here to honour your sacrifice”. Claire had only been to “the Wall” from afar. She told herself she didn’t need to approach; she told herself it was past and forgotten. The more she did so, the harder it was for her to live with herself. Claire’s visit to “the Wall” is commingled with the novel’s HEA. How can it be otherwise? Resurrection is not possible without commemoration.

Miss Bates sought Kathleen Korbel’s A Soldier’s Heart from a used book seller. She read a ratty large-print trade paperback. Sadly, A Soldier’s Heart is not even available digitally. If your favourite online vendor has a copy, buy it and read it. Keep a box of tissues handy. Miss Bates may never be able to pay her respects at the “Wall,” but she’s putting A Soldier’s Heart on her keeper shelf.

The romance genre has done its part to embody the experience of war in the stories of its characters, male and female. What romances have you read that you think have done so with particular skill and sensitivity? Miss Bates offers you Karina Bliss’s about Australian soldiers returned from Afghanistan, Here Comes the Groom, Bring Him Home, and Miss Bates’s favourite, A Prior Engagement. She also recommends Kathy Altman’s The Other Soldier, Barbara Wallace’s Heart Of A Hero, and Donna Alward’s Treasure On Lilac Lane. If you wish to read a historical romance treatment, read Carla Kelly’s Channel Fleet novels, or anything Napoleonic-War-set by Mary Balogh. Miss Bates also loved Marguerite Kaye’s The Soldier’s Dark Secret and The Soldier’s Rebel Lover.

14 thoughts on “Opening-Line Mini-Review: Kathleen Korbel’s A SOLDIER’S HEART, Or Face To the Wall

  1. Reading the scene at the Wall reminded me of a song by the 10,000 Maniacs from 1989, “The Big Parade.” Korbel captures the same feeling, although ultimately hers has healing in it, too. I wept like a baby when I was there.

    I am glad you read this book, because it reminded me to read it. So good.

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    • I know that “the Wall” caused all manner of controversy when it was erected, but I thought, from the get-go, that it was one of the most moving memorials I’d ever seen. The way to really makes you confront war is remarkable. I have no doubt that I would weep buckets too, though my Vietnam war is from the movies, because Canadian and a bit too young to remember its impact on my neighbours to the south. The Deerhunter, however, is the kind of film I’m talking about.

      The closest Canadian equivalent is the bunker-style memorial to the Unknown Soldier in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. It’s bare and stark; it has one marble memorial plaque on the wall (people leave their Remembrance Day poppies on it, or flowers). The windows are mere slits, but designed so that the sun hits the plaque through one slit at exactly 11AM, when the Armistice happened. I like to sit there when I visit the museum for a good long while and remember the dead soldiers, especially in the trenches of the Great War where Canadians both came of age and paid for that loss of innocence with many lost lives for such a small (in pop, not size!) country.

      I’m also really glad I finished the book, so that I can read your review finally!!!

      And, yes, it was moving, beautifully written, everything romance can offer. Really.

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  2. Lovely review. It’s on my TBR, but judging from your advice to keep the tissues handy, this sounds like a very emotionally draining reading experience. Having just finished a LaVyrle Spencer book that left me twisted in knots for days, I’ve been grabbing books that are light, fluffy, and funny. But I will get to A Soldier’s Heart as soon as I find my composure again.

    Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey is one war romance I reread from time to time and is a remarkable example of an ‘Everyman’ character in Jess who is, in fact, as impactful a hero as those on the front lines. Jess is a hero not for the action he sees, the number of enemies he kills, nor for grandiose acts of courage and bravery. He’s not particularly large nor commanding in his presence. Actually he’s quiet ma, an army surgeon who’s rather shy and of a slight stature. Instead, he’s heroic because of his dogged determination to do whatever it takes to get the Marching Hospital #8 from Burgos to Portugal. His heroism is a simpler, quieter, gentler variety. Carla Kelly doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of war on this journey either. The inhumanity of war in the deplorable conditions, the deaths, the horrific wounds, the betrayals, the emotional price of survival is juxtaposed against the humanity of healing, compassion, and integrity.

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    • Oh, I do hope you read Soldier’s Heart once you regain some equanimity after the LS experience. I read Morning Glory years ago and it immediately went down as one of my favourite roms ever. Have you read it? It’s wonderful. There’s a moving sequence of letters that the MCs exchange when he’s stationed overseas during WWII and a lovely one-day reunion in a hotel room when he’s home on leave.

      I’m so glad you added another Carla Kelly to our list here. I love The Surgeon’s Lady! Other than the delight of a doctor-hero named Philemon, the novel is as you describe The Wedding Journey, which, by the way, is in my TBR. Wounds are vivid and unpretty and young men die, sometimes in agony, but Philemon is a true healer, saving lives, yes, but also giving comfort, encouragement, purpose. This is exactly what he does for the desultory Lady Laura; he teaches her (and loves her and kisses her too) that important, even difficult work can give a life purpose. I hope you read it if you haven’t, you’d really enjoy it!

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      • I have indeed read The Surgeon’s Lady several years ago and am so glad you reminded me of Philemon so that I can pull him from keeper shelf and reread.

        Oh Morning Glory! I’ve read it and wept copious tears while doing so especially that scene when they say goodbye as he leaves to go to war. I was crying so hard I was hiccuping at the same time. I’m not a pretty crier and the effects, well, linger, shall we say. Anyway, my hubby saw my face hours later and wanted to know who’d died. Which set me off again. 🙂

        The LS that had me twisted this time was Vows. She really knows how to wrestle every bit of emotion out of this poor reader. Bless her heart! And I mean that in a good how-could-you-do-this-to-me-AGAIN way. It’s all in the context and tone of voice like Donnie Brasco’s “forget about it” 😉

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        • LOL! I’m not a pretty crier either. I can’t manage to cry without weird facial contortions, not like in rom novels and movies where the heroine’s face remains impassive, just pretty tears flowing down the cheeks. No, it’s face contortions and nose-blowing … quite a show!

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  3. I would also out Mary Jo Putney’s Napoleonic books here, beginning with Shattered Rainbows. One Perfect Rose is a great example of dealing with PTSD.

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  4. I always find magic in a well-done category romance, and this book (while not without faults) is pure magic from beginning to end. What Korbel does with these characters, with this story, in that word count is really amazing.

    I’m a sucker for a nurse heroine and another really, really great one is A Reason to Live by Maureen McKade. It’s a historical western and the heroine worked in field hospitals during the Civil War. Originally published by Berkley (so cheap used copies are fairly easy to come by), the author has since self-published it digitally, so you can find it in e too 🙂

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    • I agree. Korbel’s novel suffered from Idealized-Perfect-Hero Syndrome, but really, with a heroine so vulnerable and in such pain, what else could he be? I would love to know what you’d consider its “faults”.

      I have A Reason To Live in my Tottering TBR!!!

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      • The big one for me was I felt that the heroine’s issues with alcohol weren’t fully addressed – which I mostly chalked up to word count restrictions. I also felt that, at times, the romance took a back seat to the weighty issues going on around the couple – but, given the subject matter, that’s to be expected. In the end I think all that knocked my grade down an an A-. So yeah. In the end the faults I felt were there weren’t enough to diminish my overall enjoyment of the story.

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        • I would also say that the romance “hovered” a lot in this novel. And, at times, this did make this rom-spoiled reader restless, but I never wavered in my appreciation. Overall, yes, issues were minor and this novel is a major rom achievement. 🙂

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  5. This is a wonderful review and on its strength I ordered a used paperback copy of A Soldier’s Heart. My copy has not yet arrived but I look forward to reading it. And, along those lines, and, in keeping with other’s recommendations, there are several of Carla Kelly’s historical Napoleonic wars books on my frequent reread list. The Wedding Journey is one. One Good Turn is another. The third in the Channel Fleet series and my favorite, Marrying the Royal Marine, tops my list. All of these books are fascinating, heart wrenching, and ultimately uplifting stories that do not glorify war, do portray the human cost (military and civilian) quite realistically, and also tell a lovely story of romance with enough substance to be believable with the promise (premise) of a well-earned HEA.

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    • Thank you so much, Wendy! :-*)

      You’re the second commentator to mention Carla Kelly and particularly The Wedding Journey. I agree with you about the Channel Fleet series. I admit I haven’t read the third one, doing some kind of weird reader hoard of it. I also think your description of what Kelly conveys and accomplishes is spot on: reality is stark and war is not romanticized, but she still makes you believe in the humanity and compassion of her characters. And there’s a lovely does of black humour too, which I love.

      I really hope you enjoy A Soldier’s Heart: it’s really quite an accomplishment.

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