Michelle's Reviews > Generals Die in Bed

Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison
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Jan 28, 12

bookshelves: for-school, historical-fiction
Read from January 12 to 13, 2012

(Review originally posted on my livejournal account: http://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com/...)

Why I Read It: This was required reading for Religious Themes in Literature II class (which has emphasis on Buddhism, as opposed to Judeo-Christian themes, which was last semester).

Like Bow Grip (which I reviewed yesterday), this is another Canadian novel that is not at all well-known. This book DID cause a bit of a stir when it was published in 1930 though, mostly because of its very blatant anti-war sentiment and his less than flattering depiction of Canadian generals.

One of the most striking things about this novel, and this isn't wholly original or anything, is its depiction of war as a totally futile endeavour. The novel largely takes place in the trenches of the First World War and are based off Harrison's personal experience with the war (though he didn't actually participate in the war relatively long due to a foot injury) and they show how pointless trench warfare is. There's no actual honour in fighting in the war, at least from the narrator's point-of-view, and this is part of what caused controversy when they novel was first released -- people wanted to believe that war was a noble endeavour, and people who didn't concur with that were obviously not "real" men. Harrison challenged this and did so in a way that wasn't preachy, nor like he was trying to push a personal agenda (though it was something he most likely believed himself).

What was equally striking, and also not groundbreaking (by today's standards anyway) in terms of originality, was how the "enemy" in the novel was depicted. It's WWI, so the obvious enemy is the Germans, but not in the eyes of the narrator. There's this amazing scene in the novel where the narrator has to run through No Man's Land and attack the German trenches and try to take soldiers if possible. The narrator ends up brutally murdering a German soldier and taking two other young German soldiers as his prisoners. But when he's running his two prisoners back to his trenches, there's an obvious sense of solidarity, and he comes to the realization that he's JUST like them: a young kid going to war for glory and finding himself in a pointless war of attrition and mindlessly following orders. Again, it's not incredibly original, but the way it's written is powerful and just.. I don't even know. Maybe it's Harrison's personal experience with the war that's shining through here (even though this is by no means an autobiography) or what, but it's powerful stuff.

Another element of the novel I really want to discuss is how the novel utilizes the grotesque. Being set in the trenches, the narrator is very obviously surrounded by death and there are some VERY gruesome descriptions to be found within the covers of this book. But it never felt like these graphic descriptions were put in the novel to be exploitative, or solely shocking -- it feels much more honest and candid than that. Instead, the revelation of this violence feels like it's just trying to give more insight into what was actually going on in the war (which is a lot of obvious stuff to us, but back then was largely undocumented).

I'm kind of curious why this book hasn't passed the test of time -- it really is quite good, though I can't say how it compared to other war novels as I haven't read a whole lot of them. Either way, I enjoyed this book on its own merits, which I think are many.

Final Judgment: This is a strong emotionally powerful novel about a young man's experience in the trenches and it is so bare and honest that it hurts. This book has a blatant anti-war sentiment without being preachy and I feel like I've gained some kind of insight into the First World War that I didn't have before (which I believe was Harrison's intent when he originally published this.) It has a lot of moments that really resonated with me because of how REAL it felt. I highly recommend this, especially if you're at all interested in war novels.
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