Great Hour Struck: On Eagles' Wings: Part One, The
Author: Gary Varner
Publisher: iUniverse (2008)
Binding: Paperback, 484 pages
As the inferno of World War II engulfs 101st Airborne Division paratrooper Lieutenant Sam Henry, the scholar-turned-soldier is thrust on a collision course with the embodiment of beauty-and the horrors of combat. Training and awaiting D-Day in England, Sam's can-do Yank confidence suffers the harsh realities of a war-weary nation under siege as well as a tyrannical platoon leader. His fascination with the beautiful British schoolteacher, Maggie Elliott, sustains his hopes and softens the bite of military life but cannot erase the dread of Sam's upcoming mission. When that fateful day arrives, June 6, 1944, Sam embarks on one of the most dangerous missions of the war. But the massive parachute night drop behind Hitler's Atlantic Wall disintegrates into pockets of fractured units and individuals locked in kill-or-be-killed close combat chaos, testing Sam's optimistic intellectualism to the breaking point. His personal mission becomes nothing more than getting his beloved men out-alive. Yet, with the D-Day airborne objectives nearly secured, an unforeseen clash against a Russian Front hardened storm trooper, Helmut Behr, threatens to destroy Sam's sanity-and his life.
MWSA 2010 Silver Medal for Fiction, Historical
Gary Varner's The Great Hour Struck is an awful book.
I mean "awful" in the original meaning of the term "to fill you with awe and wonder" I have never read a finer piece of pure military fiction, and I sincerely doubt that you or anyone else will find a novel in the genre that is the equal of this tour de force.
Varner's protagonist, Second Lieutenant Sam Henry is a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne in the period immediately before, during and after the D-Day invasion. To this scholar and intellectual, war is more than just killing; it is the start of a journey of exploration into his very soul and those around him. As Henry is caught up in the maelstrom of combat, interpersonal relation and experiences the very complicated and terrible reality of life in combat, he quickly learns that General William Tecumseh Sherman's, comment that "war is all hell," was a gross understatement. Hell, Henry discovers, is what war puts inside of you.
Henry is one of those cocky, can do types, who come to England with a soul that is relatively unscarred by life. He finds England, and the English a fascinating please, but quickly discovers that the gray of the English sky is matched by the bland emptiness of the English soul, torn at by four long years of a war that seems to have no end in sight.
The first of Henry's misfortunes is being placed under the command of First Lieutenant Nelson Pettigrew. Pettigrew is, an arrogant, upper class, snooty martinet who dislikes Henry, much as he seems to dislike everyone whose family didn't arrive on the Mayflower and have a mother who went to Vassar. Varner's portrayal of this borderline psychotic is powerful enough that on more than one occasion I wished I had a grenade to roll under his cot. We have all known and have worked for, someone like this ferret, and Varner does an excellent job reminding the reader what Henry is going through without having to be obvious about it.
Henry learns to cope with Pettigrew the Proud but Pettigrew is only the first demon to claw away at his original boyish enthusiasm and optimism. There are many more to come.
Henry meets and falls in love with Maggie Elliott, a beautiful schoolteacher who has her own problems with a martinet of a headmaster at her school. Their romance predictably blossoms. It also helps them both keep an eye on the future and better life after the war. Neither Pettigrew nor Headmaster Hampton have figured out how to kill hope, yet.
This is all the lead up to the main focus of the book, which is Henry's preparation for combat and his participation in the June 6th parachute assault on Normandy. As anyone vaguely familiar with the events of that dreadful night is well aware, very little went according to plan, the assault force quickly disorganized and forced to initially fight as small pockets of men, or as individuals forced into kill or be killed situations.
Henry manages to survive by focusing on getting the men under his command through this hellish nightmare alive, but the demons of war were not done with Henry yet. Helmut Behr, a Russian Front veteran and SS storm trooper has his own mission and the encounter between Behr and Henry, and their mutually exclusive goals gives rise to some of the most exciting scenes in the book as good meets pure evil.
While the end of the book can be considered predictable with Maggie and Sam reunited after the invasion, Varner makes it clear in his epilogue that the clash between Behr and Henry is far from over.
If you don't already own this book, you should. Once you've read it, you'll find it difficult to enjoy anything that hews to a lower standard.
Frazee served in the Army and California Army National Guard. He spent nearly a year with the 8th Infantry Division ad Bad Kreuznach, Germany followed by a tour in Vietnam. He currently teaches social sciences in Sacramento, California.
Reviewed by: David Tschanz (2009)