Told that Steve Yarbrough’s Prisoners of War is a World War II novel, you might think you’d open the book and find yourself in Germany or Italy. Instead, you’re in Mississippi. The American War Department did set up some POW camps here and used the prisoners as laborers, in this case, cotton pickers. These Aryan enemies of America were often afforded privileges unavailable to black fighting men. Our soldiers had to watch the men they’d been recently paid to shoot ride on trains, eat in restaurants, and piss in toilets deemed too good for the use of the darker brothers.
Yarbrough doesn’t treat that specific part of the situation, but racism is nevertheless core to Prisoners of War. Its 1943 Mississippi is the essential expression of reconstruction-style Jim Crow. One of the main characters, LC, is beaten bloody for the offense of looking a white man in the eye and telling him to mind his own business, for which assault there is no legal recourse. LC, then, is a prisoner, not directly of WWII, but of segregation. And WWII brings its own special slant to segregation. LC has been granted an exemption from the draft so he can work for a corrupt local businessman. Yet–catch-22–without a draft card, he can’t go anywhere outside the immediate area without near certainty of arrest.
In case I’ve made this sound like a civil rights morality tale with Bull Connor, dogs, and fire hoses, be assured it’s not so. Even the most brutal of the white men are fully drawn beings with torments and sympathetic angles that Yarbrough deserves great credit for making believable. LC is not the only “prisoner” in Loring, Mississippi, and not all the prisoners are black. There are still prisoners of WWI there, and one such veteran commits suicide hoping to keep his son from having to serve in WWII. To one extent or another, everyone in Prisoners of War is controlled by race, war, the memory of war, and/or the idea of war. And into this environment come the Germans.
Imported under the pretense of a labor shortage, they pick cotton at a rate below what the farmers would have to pay other laborers. The army’s line is that they’re not really Nazi’s, that they’d rather be in Mississippi than in a ditch with bullets and shrapnel flying around. So they become part of the community in their own way. Assigned to guard them is a local boy who’s been pulled off the battlefield for some unspecified (at first) psychological imbalance. And the book’s complications ensue.
Interesting as the history, plot and characters of the novel are, I was struck more than anything else by Yarbrough’s language. It’s simple, lyrical, natural-sounding speech is a pleasure to read from first page to the last. On top of all its other virtues, it often has the quality of aphoristic wisdom. some examples:
…they recognized the outsider in her. She was outside whiteness because she was black, and she was outside blackness because she was herself.
You never got so scared you couldn’t be embarrassed, but he wouldn’t know that. He’d assume that if a shell burst nearby, the stain on the seat of your pants would cease to matter once you discovered you were still alive.
“If you think you can’t handle it, then you’d better say so right now.”
“I don’t think I can handle it, sir. In fact, I know I can’t. …
“I appreciate your honesty, private,” he said, “but if there’s anything good about war it’s this. it gives each of us a chance to overcome our limitations.”
“[They] believe that the line between what’s strictly legal and what’s not [is] just a thin streak of bullshit.”
….just trying to keep rhythm with times so irregular, searching hard for a melody and a few simple words that made any sense at all.
We bring ourselves and our characters to any situation–no matter where you go, there you are, as the saying goes. And it is so in Loring. The racism and small time corruption that existed before the war flourishes even more with the injections of military spending. Though power balances shift, the morality is constant. There are so many parallels to Iraq, you can’t stop thinking about them. I will say that the POW camp commandant pays meticulous attention to the Geneva convention, something our present commanders seem reluctant to do.
Mostly, though, the citizens of Prisoners of War are paper patriots who regularly put their financial well-being above democratic principles. One character, in fact, barely thinks of himself as “American,” listing in his mind several other identities first. Tom Brokaw’s great generation takes a bit of a beating from Yarbrough.
Prisoners of War is one of those rare achievements–an artistic entertainment. It’s a novel that can be read for simple diversion, but below its unpretentious surface is a book with a good share of psychological and intellectual profundity. How do you, for example, deal with your confinement in the ugliness of the war that has become the defining event of this decade? Yarbrough might provide a suggestion or two.