By Carol Fisher Saller
There was a moment when I was writing Eddie’s War when it occurred to me that I had a cast of thousands (well, dozens), interacting and overlapping like the characters in an Altman film, in a collection of little scenes that was speedily adding up to . . . not much. “You have a handful of pearls,” my editor told me, “but it’s not anywhere close to being a necklace.”
The problem lay in my method. Instead of outlining a proper plot (because I couldn’t think of one), I had mentally put myself on a farm in central Illinois during World War II and had started writing little scenes, or vignettes. Random, unrelated, related—whatever came to mind went into the collection.
But no plot.
I didn’t really have a main character, either, although there were several characters who turned up more often than others, and I was keeping an eye on them. Eddie seemed promising, but he was too young to go to war. His older brother Thomas and Thomas’s friends were hogging the spotlight by enlisting and shipping out. And Thomas’s girlfriend Pauline kept demanding more scenes, along with her brother Howard, who had already come home from the war wounded—maybe with a little PTSD. The stage was getting crowded even before Jozef turned up. Jozef, a refugee gypsy from Poland, was becoming an important symbol of the war in Europe.
And then there was Leo. Between Eddie and Thomas in age, Leo was having entirely too much fun in a novel that was not, on the whole, supposed to be about having fun. And I was pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be about Leo. The thing about Leo was that he was maybe—I was never sure—gay. I was sure that he was extravagant and effeminate. He was smart and competent and literate among townspeople who generally were not. He was Eddie’s mentor and idol.
And finally, he had to go.
There were several reasons. First, I came to realize that Eddie was the essence of the book, never mind that he didn’t have much flash. Eddie’s quiet ability to observe and reflect evolved into the first-person narrative I wanted. Second, Leo was becoming an “issue” in a book that already had enough issues. Was he gay? Even if he wasn’t, would he be bullied and persecuted for who he seemed to be? Could a book be about the war, and about xenophobia, and about domestic abuse, and about Leo and homophobia?
When I began to hone and trim and find plotlines in my patchwork of vignettes, it was easy to cut Howard; a cinch demoting Pauline to a cipher. But cutting Leo’s scenes from the book made me sad. I sensed his disappointment, and I still do. In the published book he appears only in cameo in one scene (and it’s a doozy—involving something like a striptease at a church social), but I cut everything else, including his greatest moment of triumph. For in my mind, Leo was a hero on the battlefield in France and present in Paris on Liberation Day.
So to somehow make up for letting him go, I’m giving him his fifteen minutes of fame here. Thank you, Prairie Wind, for the opportunity! Go on, Leo—make me proud.
From Leo in Paris
Chère Mère et Père,
I’m coming home!
Things are mad here in Paris,
but I’ll soon be on my way—
I can’t wait to get back
and see you both,
feel that good old Illinois soil
under my feet.
Yesterday, Paris was the center of the universe—
if only you could have been here
to see us celebrate.
I have to say,
it’s the biggest thing
that ever happened to me.
The avenues were roaring—
people, soldiers, children, bikes and cars
all in one big mash.
Church bells ringing, music blaring,
people laughing and cheering,
dancing in the streets.
Every ten steps, it seemed,
someone spotted my uniform,
had to slap me on the shoulder,
give me a bear hug.
I quit counting the number of women
who kissed me—
and they were all beautiful!
“Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!” they shouted.
I lost my buddies in the crowd,
but it didn’t matter—
the whole of Paris was my buddy yesterday.
Some GIs shouted at me,
De Gaulle and Eisenhower are in the parade!”
I started to go with them—
but then I saw the Arch of Triumph
just like the postcards—
a huge, stone mass
against a brilliant blue sky,
giant flags hanging from it,
and crowds of people on the roof
shouting and waving.
It had to be the best view in Paris,
and I had to see it.
I wish I’d thought to count the steps—
there must have been hundreds.
People were coming down and going up,
so it was quite a crush.
Just when I thought I’d be trapped on the stairs forever,
I felt the fresh air from the top,
and then I was there,
stepping out onto the roof.
The second I did,
a man in a top hat and tails
handed me a glass of champagne.
“Mon ami americain!” he cried,
and kissed me on both cheeks,
sloshing champagne all over me.
I was a mess, but all choked up, too.
I wished I knew more French.
All I could say was “Merci! Merci!”
for the thousandth time that day.
When I finally elbowed my way
into a place by the rail,
I was stunned by the view:
even that high, I could hear the cheers
of the masses below.
In every direction as far as I could see,
the streets were teeming with revelers,
the whole of Paris,
packed to overflowing with shouting
You could just feel the pride and joy,
that the fighting was over,
that the boys were coming home.
I could have stayed there forever,
but it began to get dark, and I knew
I needed to find my outfit
and that it might be tricky
getting through the streets.
But as I pressed through the crowd
toward the stairs
I heard people around me gasp,
and everyone began pointing and shouting,
“Voici les lumières!”
Mom and Dad,
you wouldn’t have believed your eyes
if you’d seen it.
In the dusk, the lights of Paris
were blinking on.
darkened by the blackout,
and now they began to twinkle.
Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Louvre.
And shooting straight out
from under the Arch where I was standing,
the great avenue Champs Elysées,
more than a mile of it!
all of a sudden grand and gleaming
Then the crowd roared again—
“La tour Eiffel!”
There it was—
the most famous sight in the world,
lights blazing, fireworks popping
along the river Seine,
the people around me
weeping with joy.
I didn’t even try to fight the tears.
I thought of home, of you both,
of good old Ellisville,
and I wished you were all here
I thought my heart
would break with happiness
Soon I’ll be home again.
Until then, I remain,
with much, much love,
Carol Fisher Saller’s middle-grade novel Eddie’s War (namelos, August 2011) was recently named a Best Children’s Book for 2011 by Kirkus Reviews. Carol is a manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press and blogs at Lingua Franca for the Chronicle of Higher Education.