Set in a Mississippi farming town, Steve Yarbrough's new novel is-as the Washington Post said of his Visible Spirits-a "skillful interweaving of complicated relationships to family and history," here related in a story of wars both global and local, and the prisoners of each.
In 1943, Dan Timms awaits being drafted away from the memory of his father's recent suicide, the guilt and sorrow of his mother, and the protection of his enterprising uncle, for whom he and a young black man called L.C. drive a "rolling store" through the Delta, its plantations now worked by German soldiers whose fighting days are over. As they would seem to be for Dan's friend Marty Stark, returned mysteriously from the front and reassigned to guard men he had been trained to kill. But for L.C., a danger more immediate than the one looming overseas is the society into which he was born . . .
With escape a fervent dream shared by almost everyone, Prisoners of War is a vivid examination of an eternal conflict-between the powerful and those with only the pride of the as-yet-unvanquished-and a subtle, disturbing portrait of a nation at war with itself.
- PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
Set in the same small Mississippi town as Yarbrough's critically acclaimed Visible Spirits, this complex WWII-era novel explores questions of morality and social inequity in the rural South when a group of German POWs are quartered at a local camp and sent to work as day laborers on nearby farms. The novel opens with the uncomfortable friendship between young Dan Timms, who drives one of his enterprising Uncle Alvin's "rolling stores" (old school buses boasting all the necessities of country life: sodas, coal-oil lamps, radios), and L.C. Stevens, the black employee who drives the other. While L.C. vainly struggles to make his work partner see the "parallel universe" in which black Americans are trapped, Dan yearns to join the army and escape the fresh memory of his father's recent suicide and his suspicions about his mother's past. But Dan's friend Marty Stark shows him another side of war when he returns damaged and changed from the German theater and is reassigned to help guard the town's German POWs. The story shifts subtly when a Polish prisoner informs Dan of an escape planned by several other prisoners, setting in motion a chain of events that eventually brings Marty's troubled war memories to the surface. Meanwhile, L.C. suffers a beating by an older, powerful white man who, after losing his own son in the war, uses his influence to ensure that the young black man is drafted. The multiple subplots slow the novel's pace, but Yarbrough's warm, measured voice, clean prose and rich character studies make this an unusually tender and accomplished study of the reverberations of war on the home front.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 07, 2005
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Excerpt from Prisoners of War by Steve Yarbrough
The rolling store was one of two old school buses his uncle Alvin had bought after they were deemed unsafe to haul children. The one Dan drove in the summer of 1943 had a couple holes in the floorboard. Half the time the starter wouldn't work, and then he'd have to put the transmission in neutral, get out and turn the hand crank. The rear wheels, which had been pulled off a cotton trailer, were bigger than the ones in front, so the bus always looked like it was headed downhill.
His uncle had outfitted each bus with display cases, candy counters, a soft-drink box and a Deepfreeze. Dan and the other driver, L.C., sold farmers and hoe hands everything from chocolate bars and Nehi sodas to coal-oil lamps and radios. Gas rationing had made the routes more successful than they otherwise might have been, since a lot of folks couldn't get into town very often.
Alvin never had any trouble getting gas, because he never had any trouble getting sugar, something the bootleggers couldn't do without. He traded them hundred-pound sacks of it for cases of bootleg whiskey, which in turn he passed on to the members of the local rationing board. "Seem like making tough decisions gives a fellow a case of cotton mouth," Dan had heard him say. "That's the thirstiest bunch of doctors and lawyers and bankers I ever saw."
His uncle had a special knack for handling people, which usually involved satisfying their appetites. You could tell a lot about a man, he always said, by watching what he put in his mouth.
Dan drove into the lot behind Alvin's country store and parked next to the other bus. L.C. finished first every day. His route was shorter, his bus drove a little better and he generally ignored the thirty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit.
Dan had asked him once if he didn't feel bad about breaking the law when everybody else was trying to conserve gas for the troops, and L.C. had wrinkled his nose, as he was apt to whenever something amused him. "Let me ask you, Dan," he said. "Do your uncle feel bad about breaking the law?"
"He don't break it. He just bends it a little."
L.C. laughed. "For him, it bends. But for a nigger, it just too stiff. We working with a lot less flexibility than y'all are."
L.C. said y'all a lot, and we, constantly calling attention to the differences between them. He also liked to employ a phrase he'd heard last Easter, when his momma made him go to church: parallel universes. "That's what the preacher say we living in, Dan. You got your universe, I got mine. I see you spinning by, you see me, time to time we both wave, say hey. But never the twain shall meet--and that last part come straight from the Bible." When Dan protested that he couldn't see what the parallel-universe theory had to do with Easter, L.C. said, "Course not. Over there in y'all's universe, Easter mean colored eggs. But we ain't got no eggs to color. Sure enough interested in that rising part, though."
Today, as always, L.C. was waiting for him, sitting atop the propane tank, his dusty work shoes lying on the ground and his big toe protruding from a hole in one sock. "How much you sold, Dan?"
"Took in close to thirty dollars."
L.C. whistled. "That's the profitable route. I had me that route, I'd be tempted to steal your old uncle blind."
"You could steal from him anyway, if you got a mind to."
"Naw. I take from him, he might take from me."
"What could he take? You ain't got nothing anyway, far as I can tell."
"Got myself. He could take and give it to the army."
"Army don't want it. They got all the bus drivers they need. Army wants fighting men."
"Army'll make the niggers fight, before it's all said and done. You know old Jeff Davis wanted the same thing in the Civil War, make the niggers march with Robert Lee?"
"Who told you that?"
L.C. looked at him. "Just imagine my granddaddy covering your granddaddy's ass while he go crawling out the bushes toward them Yankees."
"You ain't got a granddaddy."
"Everybody got a granddaddy," L.C. said. You could almost see the curtain falling over his face. Sooner or later, the banter always turned serious, and Dan could never quite figure out when it was going to happen in time to shut his mouth.
L.C. jumped down, all business now, and slipped on his shoes. Together, they carried the small Deepfreezes off the buses and balanced them, one at a time, on a handcart, then rolled them over to the tractor shed that served as his uncle's warehouse and plugged them in. Next day they'd restock them with ice-cream sandwiches, fruit Popsicles, pig tails and neck bones.
After they washed up at the sink, L.C. said he was going home, and he set off down the road. Dan walked around to the front of the store and saw his father's old pickup parked near the porch. He opened the screen door and stepped inside.