Saturday, May 23, 2020

Book Review: Simon Tolkien's "No Man's Land"

I went to Eighth Day Books (no longer a "bookeasy" with secret knocks at the back door or curbside service) on Thursday this week to browse. I stopped inside the front door to glance at the growing collection of books by and about Flannery O'Connor. Just to the right of them I saw two copies of the paperback edition of Simon Tolkien's World War I/Mining novel, No Man's Land, one of which I purchased (along with an edition of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical introduced by Etienne Gilson, an Image paperback (The Church Speaks to the Modern World: The Social Encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII). I have been wanting to own and read both of these books for quite some time. Eighth Day Books had just received them recently so my timing was good.

My late husband Mark had in fact discovered the Tolkien novel among the new/future releases advertised by our local public library on his Kindle. He'd reserved the Ebook and the paperback in 2017 but it had never come through. He wanted me to read it out loud to him: we enjoyed sharing books that way.

So I started reading it immediately when I arrived home before going to Mass for Ascension Thursday (Extraordinary Form), continued it when I came home after Mass, and finished it yesterday morning. It was hard to put down. According to the publisher, Penguin Random House:

London, 1910: young Adam Raine’s impoverished childhood becomes even darker when his mother is killed in a workers’ protest march. His grieving father, Daniel, seeks a second chance for them in a coal mining town, where he begins working for the miners’ union. But tensions escalate between the miners and their employer, Sir John Scarsdale, and finally explode with tragic consequences.

In the aftermath, Adam is brought into the opulent Scarsdale family home where Sir John’s son subjects Adam to a succession of petty cruelties for daring to step above his station. When, despite everything, Adam finds love with the beautiful parson’s daughter and wins a scholarship to Oxford, he starts to feel that his life is finally coming together—until the outbreak of war threatens to tear everything apart. Inspired by the real-life war experiences of the author’s grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien,
No Man’s Land delivers a Dickensian, page-turning novel of Edwardian England and World War I.

As I read the novel, however, I thought less of Dickens and more of A.J. Cronin. I see the Dickensian aspects of the story in the descriptions of poverty and horrific living conditions in London and in the labor issues in the mining community of Scarsdale, but the spirit is more like A.J. Cronin's novels of young men fighting against the odds, encountering great loss and suffering, and finding their way to happiness and success, personally, not socially defined. I've read several of A.J. Cronin's novels: The Citadel, The Keys of the Kingdom, The Green Years, Shannon's Way, The Stars Look Down, and his autobiography, Adventures in Two Worlds (he was a doctor before he became a very successful novelist). Several of his books were made into movies or television mini-series.

Adam Raine is a Cronin-style protagonist: orphaned, always feeling separate from the people he lives with whether in London, Scarsdale, Oxford, or No Man's Land, encountering and overcoming many dangers--especially from conniving and morally-blunted people--absorbing loss and grief, and by the end of the novel he wants to be a writer because he wants the dead soldiers of World War I to speak beyond the grave. He wants the people of England to know what it was like to fight in the trenches. The novel ends with Adam on the way to the publisher with his manuscript!

Tolkien's omniscient narrator describes Adam's thoughts and recounts the events of his life vividly. Perhaps the best twist in the novel is that the term No Man's Land applies not only to aspects of his wartime experience at the Somme and even on leave during the war but also to his antagonist's situation, as Brice Scarsdale, the son of his mentor Sir John Scarsdale who is described above as "subject[ing] Adam to a succession of petty cruelties for daring to step above his station" has both succeeded in obtaining everything he wanted but also has failed to enjoy or benefit from it because of one horrific action, or rather his actions after that action (not giving away much the plot, I hope!).

Simon Tolkien dedicated this novel to J.R.R. Tolkien: "This book honours the memory of my grandfather, J.R.R. Tolkien, who fought on the Somme between July and October 1916." The novel certainly does honour Tolkien, and I highly recommend it. I think that Mark would have liked the book, and it's so appropriate that I read it before the Memorial Day weekend. If you want a copy, there's still one on the shelf at Eighth Day Books!

The only thing that I wished for was for Adam to find faith in Jesus Christ, which the elder Tolkien so devoutly lived.

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