Saturday, September 04, 2010

America at War: Within the New England Fiction of Katherine Towler

What a delight to finally read the concluding volume in the Snow Island trilogy from New Hampshire author Katherine ("Katie") Towler. From Snow Island to Evening Ferry to Island Light, Towler carries her characters through the trauma and triumphs of America's wars, as well as evoking the tender (if sometimes claustrophobic) community life of an island off the New England coast.

Because the mysteries of Charles Todd, James R. Benn, and Jacqueline Winspear have recently drawn attention to how wartime shapes people's choices and possibilities, we asked Katherine Towler to share with us her approach to this powerful area of American history in her novels. Welcome, Katie!

War became the backdrop for the three novels in my Snow Island trilogy because it’s a fact of human existence I cannot understand. At heart I’m an idealist and an optimist. I accept that wiser minds than mine have grappled with this topic and concluded that war will always be with us in some form.  I like to think this is not true. Maybe I am just na├»ve. War became a theme in my books because the question of why human beings continue to kill each other in sanctioned combat kept troubling me, kept asking to be explored.
I grew up hearing stories about World War II from my father, who was stationed in the Pacific. I heard stories as well about my grandfather, who served as an ambulance driver in France during World War I and left a scrapbook of photos and letters with haunting accounts of his experience. I drew on this family history in the first volume of my trilogy, Snow Island, which features a World War I veteran and is set during World War II. In the second volume, set in 1965 and ’66, I looked at the attitudes of the isolated island community toward the growing involvement in Vietnam. The third volume takes place in 1990 and ’91 and chronicles the uneasy months leading up to the first Gulf War.
In addition to telling the stories of a linked collection of characters through the three books, I was interested in the distinct natures of the three wars and their impact on the isolated island community. World War II swept up the entire population in a patriotic fervor and energetic response, evidenced by the children who serve as airplane spotters and collect rubber on the island. Though in 1965 the war in Vietnam enjoyed widespread support, the signs of trouble to come were already visible. The first Gulf War had its critics, but for the most part, the American people (and my islanders) watched the war on television and remained mute. Through the three books, I chronicle the shift as the military is transformed into a professional operation and the American people become detached from the wars fought in their name. During World War II, every family felt the impact of the war directly. In the first Gulf War – and today in Iraq and Afghanistan – the U.S. involvement has had virtually no effect on our daily lives, though we may pay a long term price in a changed economy.

My books look at key moments in time during the second half of the 20th century and use the lens of one small community through which to view them.  I reach no conclusions – my purpose is to tell stories – but I hope that my characters and their island home will make readers think about the toll war takes both on those who go off to fight and those left behind.

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