Since You Went Away
Deseret Book , 1997. Hardcover:
Suggested retail price: $17.95 (US)
Since You Went Away, the second volume of Dean Hughes' Children of the Promse series, picks up where the first volume, Rumors of War, left off chronicling the the trials and tragedies of the Second World War as seen through the eyes of a Utah family, the Thomases of Sugar House, and of a German family, the Stolzes of Frankfurt. Since You Went Away covers the period of the war from early 1942 after the Fall of Corrigedor through D-Day and late 1944 (just prior the Battle of the Bulge).
It's not easy being a sequel. Especially when a first book is so excellent and powerful -- as Rumors of War (the first volume of Dean Hughes' Children of the Promsie series) was. That leads to heightened expectations so high that a perfectly good book, like Since You Went Away (Volume Two), just can't measure up.
Since You Went Away sadly doesn't.
Now, to be fair, a second book in a trilogy has a particularly rough time; the first book has the joy of discovering the author's characters and world, the last book the (hopefully) exciting resolution and validation. The poor second book is pretty much left vamping in place.
I wish I could pin my disappointment solely on the "sequel factor," but I can't. I previously wrote a glowing review of Volume One for the List where I said (go ahead and smile, Edgar -- I'm going to quote myself!):
Hughes has found the formula of writing faithful LDS literature -- fiction that succeeds in being just as faithful to the precepts of good storytelling as to the Gospel.
I don't know whether Hughes lost the secret formula or it was classified "for the duration," or just what, but the first volume's crackle of electricity was definitely missing.
In the first volume, the main characters -- the Thomas and Stolz families -- all experience personal problems, foibles, and doubts that ring true. President Thomas is a well meaning earnest father, but comes down hard on his children with ham-fisted patriarchy. Bobbi Thomas seriously considers marrying a non-member -- and for a while it actually looks like the best thing to do. Wally rebels and runs off to join the service before the war to escape the confines of Mormon life. The Stolz family is also undergoing the strains of both personal challenges of accepting and then adhering to their new Mormon faith at the same time as trying to survive the ever-increasing strictures of life in Nazi Germany. And so on.
In the second volume, almost all of the Thomas family main characters have cast out their inner daemons and are serving as shining examples to their peers. Wally is a new-found tower of strength to his fellow POWs in the Japanese-occupied Philippines. Bobbi lectures her fellow Mormon nurse about the evils of dating outside the Church. Papa Thomas is still gruff, but keenly sensitive to his former errant ways. Alex and Gene Thomas are the paragons of virtue for their more worldly barracks-mates. And so on. For me, only the desperate straits of the Stolz family dodging the Gestapo seemed gripping.
There could be several explanations for this, ranging from a cynical remark that perhaps the second book had been correlated by editorial fiat to a sympathetic guess that Hughes seems to truly care for his characters and perhaps didn't want to put them through the wringer -- fighting the war is bad enough.
As an writer, though, I'm stumped at the very dramatic lessening of inner conflict at this stage in the series. There's still (at least) one more book to go. A standard three-volume story arc would place the characters hip-deep in their inner angst -- not pretty much resolved it as the Thomas characters seem to have. Perhaps Hughes wants to show folks putting aside personal concerns for the war effort -- a valid enough action for some, but not all the characters. Perhaps Hughes had counted on the dramatic outer conflicts of the war being enough. I could understand it of Hughes counterbalanced the Thomas' newfound strengths by introducing new main characters to act as foils and to go through their own new crisii -- or if Hughes would do more with secondary characters such as Mits or Lorraine or the new naval officer Bobbi starts dating. But Hughes doesn't. The very powerful, moving, very real conflicts the first book contained are all sadly missing.
Then there is the preachifying. The first book was exquisitely balanced. I wrote:
His Mormons characters are Mormons. They do Mormons things for Mormon reasons. They react as Mormons do .& .& . God lives and directly intervenes in the affairs of men. Yet Hughes is able to tell his story without preaching, without expository correlation. He simply tells the story. The actions and thoughts and beliefs of his characters are simply part of the narrative flow.
Since You Went Away's flow was repeated interrupted by impromptu lectures by the Thomas characters. Oddly enough, however, the least obtrusive Gospel moment was the most blatant. One of the Thomas family is killed in the second book, and David O. McKay speaks at the funeral. His remarks (added on top of President Thomas' own remarks) are extremely moving, spiritual and aesthetically right and proper. I just wish Hughes had been able to maintain this aesthetic rightness throughout the rest of this book.
Then there is the pacing. The first book was very nicely paced, stretching from before the war until the fall of Corregidor. The second book, however, is very oddly paced. It stretches out early 1942 for a good chunk of the book, then zooms very quickly through most of the rest of the war to D-Day (June 1944) and ends just short of Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge. It rather feels like Hughes had planned for a four book series, but for some reason the series got cut to only three books. Disconcerting. And disappointing. There's so much more time he could have spent with the home front, especially.
This is not to say that Since You Went Away is a poor book. The Stoltz family sections are riveting. I enjoyed the brief look at Utah during the war (Hughes even manages to slip in the infamous Coon's chicken place). Hughes makes a stab at trying to deal with Mormons going off to war to kill but not hate the enemy.
Of particular interest for me were the scenes dealing with members' ambiguous feelings about the Japanese. Hughes partially points out that Utah (ironically site of the Topaz camp) had many Japanese-Americans (many of them members) and tries to play that with the "Kill the Japs" sentiment that Pearl Harbor sadly fostered.
My aunt's Bear River High yearbooks during the war shows Japanese-American kids winning the American Legion essay contests and listing under the photos that many of these young men went into the service before graduation. The prophet at the time, President Grant, after all, had headed up the Church's missionary efforts in Japan earlier. Hughes had much more material than he has used so far, but I look forward to seeing if he expands the theme in the next book.
So bottom line is, the first book was brilliant. Since You Went Away has to make do with being only good. It has to make do (like the folks on the home front) without some of the meat or sugar or spices that made the first volume such a triumph. Still, it's a solid, good book. I encourage folks to pick it up and I look forward to the next book in the series.
© 1997 Lee Allred