“The choppers appeared just after the sun.”
Human 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.