War Is Heck
My grandfather was a surgeon in the first field hospital that followed the American troops into Normandy after D-Day. He sent letters home from the front, letters that because of security reasons and his own private nature didn't go into many gory revelations. You had to read between the lines to imagine what hell the soldiers had gone through. The most telling detail my grandfather offered was that sometimes, after standing on his feet through round-the-clock surgeries, he had to be carried from the operating room to his tent because he could no longer walk.
In Articles of War, Nick Arvin fills in many of those blanks with such a sure, steady voice that it's hard to believe the author has never seen war. "Basically, I read as much as possible in memoirs and oral histories of men who'd been there," Arvin explains. "Enough time has passed since the war ended that there's really a great wealth of material."
How a thirty-something engineer whose only other book is In the Electric Eden, a collection of short stories, decided to write a war novel is another story. He was googling for some information on Detroit, where he's originally from, when he stumbled on the story of Private Eddie Slovik, "the only American executed for desertion since the Civil War," Arvin says. "I found it incredibly tragic and moving."
For years he couldn't get Slovik out of his head. "Eventually I decided to write about him as a way of clearing him out of my mind," he says. "It took about three years altogether." But while Slovik makes an appearance in Articles of War -- an appearance as historically accurate as Arvin could make it -- the book focuses on George Tilson, an eighteen-year-old farm boy nicknamed "Heck" because he couldn't even swear when he encountered the hellish conditions in France in 1944.
Arvin's grandfathers were also in the war. "One was German and actually in the German army," he says. "My other grandfather was American, and he was in the army as well. When I was very young, I had the idea that my grandfathers might have killed each other somewhere in Europe and I would never have been born."
Fortunately, he was, and after earning degrees in engineering from the University of Michigan and Stanford, Arvin worked for Ford during the day and wrote by night. "It was rough going," he remembers. "I was sort of living on coffee." Finally, he was accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, then won a grant to write -- which he decided to do in Denver.
"It's an exciting time to be here," he says. "There's a lot going on." He's one reason why.
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