In Flanders, the seemingly unstoppable upward spiral of Patricia Anthony's extraordinary career has managed to hit a high water mark. Few modern fantasies can match the subtle yet authoritative impact this violent and gentle story has on its readers. Bearing in many ways a passing resemblance to the classic All Quiet on the Western Front, Flanders is a lyrical and deeply felt rumination on life, death, love, war, and what may lie beyond this mortal coil. Anthony utilizes some supernatural elements to underline her heartfelt humanistic convictions, much in the same way she uses aliens in her SF works.
Set during World War I (and telling the tale with historical fidelity; this is not another entry in today's "alternate history" sweepstakes), Flanders is the tale of Travis Lee Stanhope, a young Texan who finds himself in France in 1916 fighting in a British company. Travis is no callow youth with romantic notions of gallantry in battle. But he is of course painfully naive about the realities of trench warfare. Once in it up to his neck, he seeks refuge in drink and finds himself plagued by dreams in which he wanders a lonely yet peaceful cemetery where the bodies of his fallen comrades lie peacefully under glass, watched over by a mysterious girl in a calico dress.
And occasionally images from these dreams invade Travis's waking hours; apparitions ("ghosties") of war dead appear to him in the trenches. As Travis's skills at sharpshooting enhance his standing in the company, the fact remains that death is ever near at hand and it is often difficult to tell if he can trust his own fellow soldiers. Miller, his captain, is both gay and Jewish, and Travis alone witnesses one of his trysts and carries the man's secret. LeBlanc, a Canadian soldier thrown in with the platoon seems at first a man Travis can relate to, until he proves himself to be a dangerous, unscrupulous scumbag. And Father O'Shaughnessy, the chaplain, consistently tries to prod Travis's spiritual soft spots, winning over only a cautious trust on Travis's part.
As in the Remarque novel, the thrust of the story is deeply personal. (Though All Quiet had more graphic battle scenes and was thematically less hopeful.) Stanhope, whose story is told in the form of letters written to a brother back home with whom he is not terribly close, is fighting his own private war, principally against an alcoholic father. Having come within a hair's breadth of shooting his father back home, Stanhope at first gets a bit of catharsis through his sharpshooting. But soon the enormity of the war hits him with all the force of a mortar. The reality that the world is full of vile injustices against which his father's transgressions (for which the man makes a final futile attempt at apologizing before his own death) seem a feeble thing. LeBlanc turns out to be a brutal rapist, ravaging a couple of young girls in towns near the front. Yet as he is so highly decorated, he easily evades proper punishment for his crimes. Miller finds himself in the position of having to order his company on a suicidal raid, as none of his Gentile superiors want to be embarrassed by having a Jewish — not to mention gay — captain be more successful in battle than they are. Madness.
Desperately, Stanhope looks for some meaning to it all, some answer as to what it is that gives human life purpose. Within his dreams, where he speaks to the ghosts of his fallen comrades, hints of answers suggest themselves.
A story like this could very easily go over the edge into sentimentality and maudlin whining in a heartbeat. Anthony avoids the easy road, yet her story is made poignant primarily because its philosophical underpinnings are so heartfelt and simple. Flanders isn't a pretentious book that wants to be a profound statement on the human condition. It addresses in a breathtakingly straightforward way why people manage to survive even the most numbing of all horrors, how the simple love between friends or family can, many times, be just enough, and other times never enough at all. Once again, a talented writer demonstrates that the easiest way to write a truly great story is not to try overly hard to do so.
Speaking as a man who was still relatively young when he read this, war stories both true and fictional hold a certain relevance for me, the old "there but for the grace of ghod go I" thing. It's always something of a rush to realize how my generation avoided a global war, that if I had been born 30 or 40 years before I actually was, I might have ended up in a trench or on a beach, blown in half before my 20th birthday. I'd like to think that if it ever came down to it and I found myself fighting for my life with shells buzzing millimeters above my head, I'd acquit myself nicely. No telling, though. Perhaps I'd be a lot like Travis Lee, with all his anger and failings, still finding some means to soldier on. In any event, I have to tip my hat to Patricia Anthony. Sobering to think she may know things about me that I don't.