As Steve Yarbrough proves in his engrossing new novel, great war stories don’t have to be set on the front lines. Prisoners of War takes place almost entirely in rural Mississippi in 1943, but it features several pointed elements of a good war tale: an eager young enlistee, a morose draft dodger, a mentally disturbed veteran, plus plenty of suspicion, tension and gunfire. And because this is a book about World War II, there are plenty of Germans here, too.
Specifically, the Germans in this book are the prisoners of war, captured in battle and impressed into a somewhat relaxed labor camp in a fictional Mississippi farming community. (The camps themselves are not fictional. Nearly half a million POWs were detained across the U.S. during World War II.) The prisoners in Yarbrough’s book at first seem resigned to their fate, waiting out the remainder of the war by picking cotton in the blistering Mississippi sun.
Assigned to guard detail at the camp is a local boy, Marty Stark, just returned from a tour of heavy fighting and discharged for mysterious reasons. War has transformed the previously congenial Marty into a broken, reckless figure, prone to flashbacks and nightmares. His daily duties keep him in dangerously close proximity to men he has learned to think of only as “the enemy,” and this combination of character and circumstance create a rising sense of impending violence in the novel.
In contrast to Marty, though in some ways equally tragic, is Marty’s childhood friend: Dan Timms is wide-eyed, nearly 18 and itching for his call to combat as a one-way ticket out of his seemingly oppressive home life. Dan’s father is dead of suicide; his alcoholic mother is equal parts distant and controlling; his work, selling his war-profiteering Uncle Alvin’s wares on a school bus turned rolling store, is thankless and boring. Adding more depth and dimension to this layered take on war is Dan’s fellow employee, L.C., a black teen, just over the draft age, whose view of the current world conflict differs sharply from either Marty’s or Dan’s. For L.C., warfare is being waged in Mississippi against minorities every day, and he challenges Dan over the inherent hypocrisy of drafting blacks for the fighting overseas. In truth, L.C. is already a prisoner of war.
There are a lot of threads here, but Yarbrough deftly weaves them together through unfailingly clear prose. Each subplot is well-paced, and extended tangents such as Marty’s tortured recasting of events from the front are vivid and free of sentiment. If there’s a misstep at all, it’s Yarbrough’s fondness for the vernacular of the region and the period. He tends to revel a bit too long in the nostalgic tone.
Still, the story rarely loses momentum. And when it becomes clear that the POWs are plotting to escape, Yarbrough’s narration becomes clipped, even explosive. The effect, as with the novel on the whole, is a knockout.
The author reads 6 p.m. Feb. 9 at Davis-Kidd.
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