Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason
I'm sitting here watching Star Wars with my youngest son, and trying to think of a way that it relates to this book on the dynamics of men who fight for their country and those they leave behind, all woven within the melodious sounds of trumpets blaring and lasers blasting. Nothing inspires war like a rousing soundtrack.
I thought this book would be about England in the 18th and 19th century and their quest to dominate Africa and the surrounding countries, but truly it was hardly about war at all. Not war itself anyway, but the effects of war on its soldiers and their loved ones.
Harry Feversham is the child of many glorious war heroes. Much is expected of him when he joins the British Army, but when actual war in Africa is imminent, the newly engaged Harry opts out to relieve his fiance from having to be without him for several years, and because basically, he believes himself unequal to the task. In a nutshell: He's afraid.
Three of his Army friends find this unacceptable and they answer his resignation with the universal symbols of cowardice: three white feathers. His fiance Ethne, upon finding out he has resigned from the Army, breaks off their engagement and gives him the fourth feather. Harry is crushed, and upon his shame reaching its pinnacle he makes a decision: He means to redeem himself and restore his honor by saving the life of his three friends who are currently serving in Africa.
I haven't mentioned a fourth friend, Captain Jack Durrance. On the sidelines he is Harry's greatest ally and also in love with his fiance, Ethne. Unlike the recent movie version with Heath Ledger remaining the hero throughout, the bulk of the actual story is from the point of view of Captain Durrance who has no idea why Harry has resigned, nor that anyone has accused him of being a coward as he is steadfastly defending England's interests in the Sudan until he becomes permanently injured and must return home where he and Ethne reunite. While recovering from his injury, he begins to piece together what has happened to Harry who seems to have disappeared, and with the help of some of Harry's remaining friends, makes a steadfast resolve to hear news of him in Africa and help him however possible from England.
This book, in all actuality, is about sacrifice. Durrance's physical sacrifice for the country of his birth, as well as giving up the woman he loves for his best friend. Harry's sacrifice of giving up six years of his life for Ethne and the three friends he feels he must prove his worth to. It is also about honor in war. There once was a time, probably up until the end of WWII, that service to one's country was of paramount importance. If you did not jump at the chance to live, and die, at your nation's defense, you were looked down upon. Not just in England. I would say here in America too. Having seen the pictures of the lines of people cheering along homeward bound railways, being at war was a national effort, a means of pride and ownership of the task at hand.
Does it seem that way now to you? Here in America, serving in the military is no longer a requirement, and if you chose not to do it, no one really cares. Why is that I wonder. Are we different as a nation? As a world population? The answer is obvious. Yes. We are a different generation, who up until recently haven't had to give up much for our country, and it shows.
Even Star Wars isn't just about war between the Alliance and the Empire, or how cute Han Solo is, or Princess Leia's cinnabon hair (although that stuff is important!). It's about people. It's about what friends will do for each other in a time of crisis. Even that show is about honor. No matter what we do, we can't quite get away from it. Do we want to?
Classics Reading Challenge