“…And the picture rose in his mind of a child, standing there of giant’s size with dangerous playthings in its hands, and boastfully declaring, ‘I can thunder over the earth, dive in the ocean, soar on the clouds! I can shiver to atoms a mountain, I can drench whole lands with blood! I can look up and laugh at God!'”
The Great War has come. I’d thought it was a non-factor in the book (which thus far made no mention of what year it was) because it didn’t concern these people in their private lives, far away from the battle…but no, Roger picked up the paper, July 30, 1914, and now everything has changed. The petty childishness of the family (commented on before) is now dwarfed, in Roger’s eyes, by the childishness of the human race. Seeing, as I do, from the benefit of a century’s hindsight, it is hard not to read a phrase like “I can shiver to atoms a mountain” and not feel Roger (and Ernest Poole, who conceived of him) eerily looking through time to the horrors of the mushroom cloud.
The war and private tragedy are combining to crush this little family that I have come to care about (even though their weaknesses are on full display…perhaps never more so than now in the first months of the war). It’s hard to read this book in context–I look at a passage like Roger’s watching his young grandchildren and asking himself what kind of world will be left, asking himself if they can escape war and poverty. And I cannot help but think that George and Elizabeth will be young and married when the market crashes. They will raise children in the Great Depression only to see their sons go off to Normandy’s beaches or fly to their deaths in the Coral Sea, to see their daughters tend Victory Gardens and dance at the USO and pray their loved one returns safely home. The century ahead, which Roger looks to with hope–hope that it will prove to be all that the dreams of progress promise it will be–is hard to see in that light. But maybe I’m making the 20th Century out to be more grim than it truly was–Roger was too early to understand it, and I was too late.
As the family pulls together (and not easily) to survive the winter of 1914-1915, Deborah (the idealist school principal) turns to her father and says “Every nation at war is doing it, Dad–become like one big family–with everyone helping, doing his share. Must a nation be at war to do that? Can’t we be brothers without the guns?”
Can’t we, indeed. I wonder. It seems like fear is all that speaks to our hearts in a voice loud enough to bring us together. Is Deborah too idealistic…can anyone point to a time where people pulled together without the threat of violence (if not war)? And if not, what does that say about humanity? I’m near the end, now: the next post will probably be my review of His Family. Whether or not I can find an answer that satisfies me, I hope I can find Ernest Poole’s–he wrote this before the war had ended. What did he see in their future?