Well, On His Porch They Stretched a Banner That Said ‘Johnny, Welcome Home’*

Returning VeteransThe end of a war doesn’t mean that people go back to whatever passes for ‘normal’ when it’s over. The guns, bombs and so on may stop, but postwar life often involves major upheavals, uncertainty and trouble. We’ve seen that far, far too often in real life, and it’s woven through crime fiction, too. That backdrop of uneasiness and uncertainty can make for a compelling context for a story.

One challenge that any postwar society faces is the reality of returning soldiers. These people have seen unspeakable things, and, sometimes, done them. They are not the same as when they left, and society doesn’t always know how to respond to them. That’s particularly true for those who come back with obvious physical disabilities.

We see this struggle, for instance, in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, which takes place in post-World War I London. In one plot thread of this novel, Maisie, who’s just hung out her shingle as a private investigator, looks into the goings-on at The Retreat. That’s a refuge built especially for injured veterans who’ve found it too difficult to function among ‘regular’ people. They’ve found that most people are too uncomfortable around them because their wounds remind others of the lives lost and the horror of war. I know, I know, fans of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge novels and Bess Crawford novels.

That theme of returning veterans is brought up in Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, which takes place mostly in Glasgow just after World War II. Douglas Brodie has just returned from service and is trying to put his life back together in London when his old friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan asks for his help. Donovan’s been arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the murder of a young boy. He claims he’s innocent, and he wants Brodie to help clear him. One of the facts of life for Donovan is that he was severely wounded in the war. Despite several surgeries, he still has very obvious (and to many people, repulsive) scars and wounds. What’s more, he’s in quite a lot of pain, and has taken up the heroin habit to cope. All of this makes his case all the more difficult. While the focus of the novel isn’t really on Donovan’s service (or Brodie’s, for the matter of that), we do get a sense of the struggle that returning veterans face, especially when they’ve been wounded.

Returning veterans also have the task of fitting in again into a society that often doesn’t want to hear about (and probably wouldn’t understand) what they’ve experienced. War can’t help but leave deep psychological scars, and veterans have to deal with them. That’s one of the things we see in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel. In this, the first of his Charlie Berlin novels, it’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned from war. He has nightmares, flashbacks and other signs of the psychological burden he bears. It doesn’t help matters, either, that he’s been jilted by the woman he’d hoped would wait for him. The main focus of this novel is his investigation into a series of robberies by a motorcycle gang, as well as the death of a teenage girl whose body is found in an alley. But throughout the novel, we see how Berlin has to adjust to peacetime life.

So do Lynn Marchmont and David Hunter in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). They’ve both recently returned from service (the story takes place just after World War II), and both are having their issues adjusting. Hunter is the kind of risk taker who’s invaluable in war, but who can’t adjust to peacetime social expectations and rules. Marchmont thought she longed for home, daily life and so on; but now that she’s back, she finds it hard to re-adjust to the mundane life of her village. The main plot thread of this novel concerns the death of a family patriarch, two other subsequent deaths, and what it all means for the family involved. But throughout the novel we see the difficulty of adapting to peacetime life after the pace of war.

There’s also a look at the economic privations brought on by war. Wars are very, very expensive, even for the victors. And it doesn’t help matters that after the war’s over, all of the industries that supported it must either change to meet the needs of a peacetime economy, or close. In the England of Taken at the Flood, there’s still rationing going on, prices are high, not much food’s available, and everyone feels the pinch. That includes veterans who are looking for jobs.

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests depicts that economic privation too. That novel takes place in 1922 London, where Frances Wray and her mother have suffered heavy economic blows as a result of the war (to say nothing of their grief over the loss of Frances’ brothers Noel and John Arthur, who died in the war). There’s not much money, and even for those who have money, there’s not much to be had. So the Wrays reluctantly decide that their only choice is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism. Len and Lilian Barber like what they see and soon move in, and that choice has drastic and tragic consequences. Throughout the novel, we see how difficult it was for returning soldiers (many of whom can’t get jobs, can’t adjust to peacetime life, and don’t fit in). We also see society’s ambivalence towards them. At the same time as one feels sorry for them and compassionate, they also make people uncomfortable.

All of these novels also depict the uncertainty of post-war society. The war’s over, so what comes now? What are the new rules? It’s not easy for a society to switch its focus from wartime unity of purpose, efforts, and sacrifices to peacetime. And in many cases, there’ve been a lot of major changes in social roles as a result of war. As just one example, many US Blacks served with distinction in the military during World War II and Korea. When they returned, it was to a society that wasn’t ready to accept them as full partners, despite their sacrifices. Some people argue that this had an impact on the Civil Rights movement that started just a few years later. And it wasn’t just in the US. To return to McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel, one of the characters is an Aboriginal former soldier who’s faced with the same paradox: a country that welcomed his wartime service, but now wants him to go back to being a second-class citizen.

Post-war life is challenging enough for a society that supports a war. It’s even more so for an unpopular war. Vietnam, the Falklands conflict, and the wars in the Middle East have not at all had the support that other wars have had. This has made life extremely difficult for returning veterans of those wars. And we see that reflected in crime fiction, too. For example, in one plot thread of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night, we learn the back story of octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, who’s recently moved from his native New York to Norway to be closer to his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband. Her father, Saul, died during his second mission to Vietnam, and parts of the novel describe his visit home between missions. He doesn’t really fit in, and has to deal with people who bitterly opposed US involvement in the war. And part of Horowitz’ later burden is guilt over encouraging Saul to enlist in the first place.

Just because the guns are put down and the bombs stop doesn’t mean that trouble ends after a war. There are often real and difficult struggles that societies face when they return to peacetime life. And veterans and their families have their own difficult burdens to bear, even when they’re no longer fighting.

This post is dedicated to those who served, and continue to serve, their countries in the military, and to their families. They’ve made sacrifices many of us wouldn’t be willing to make. I truly hope the time will come when no more young men and women in uniform will be lost to war. poppy




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Shut Out the Light.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Todd, Derek B. Miller, Gordon Ferris, Sarah Waters

32 responses to “Well, On His Porch They Stretched a Banner That Said ‘Johnny, Welcome Home’*

  1. My father was gone for four years and they had terrible readjustment issues. MAISIE DOBBS was a terrific debut.

  2. Did you hear about the teacher who removed all the desks in her classroom to teach kids about Veterans Day? My friend Garry wrote a post about in The Huffington Post. As each new class entered her room she asked what gave them the right to have a desk in a comfy classroom. No one knew the answer. This continued throughout the day, with not one child knowing why. Until the last class entered. She posed the same question and was met with the same blank expressions. Then, one by one retired vets lugged in desk after desk until the entire room was full (with media and the entire school looking on). It was then that Martha, this phenomenal teacher, told the kids that these fine veterans paid the price for their freedom, to live, to go to school, and yes, to have a desk in a classroom. For if it weren’t for the ones who served, we’d all live in a very different world.

    • I did read that story, Sue, and I think it was a powerful and innovative way to teach the lesson the teacher wanted to teach. I’m sure those students will not forget it, and I’m glad you shared it here. And you’re right; we would have a very different world without the sacrifices of those who’ve served in the military.

  3. A very timely post for Armistice Day over here, Margot. I’ll add a couple to your list – Mudbound by Hilary Jordan looks at the issue you raised of black soldiers returning to the US and being expected to go back to the subordinate position they held before WW2. And, again as you point out, the Falklands War was divisive over here with the result that returned servicemen were often met with ambivalence at best over the part they had played – well examined in Tom Vowler’s fine novel That Dark Remembered Day.

    • Thanks, FictionFan. And thanks for the additions. I’ve actually had the Vowler on my radar for a while and haven’t (yet) got to it *embarrassed.* I will, though. And the Jordan sounds like a good ‘un, too. I think those cases where either the war is not popular or the soldiers are disenfranchised must be all the worse for those who want to serve their countries.

  4. Col

    A timely post Margot. I’m looking forward to Ferris and McGeachin’s work at some point.

  5. Margot: It is Remembrance Day in Canada.

    During the summer I read The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson which has at its core the horrific treatment of a black veteran returning home to Mississippi.

    In real life in Canada it was just revealed that from our modest deployment of soldiers in Afghanistan there have 59 suicides since they returned home.

    • Oh, yes, Bill, I remember your excellent review of The Secret of Magic. It certainly sounds like a start example of the sort of thing I had in mind with the post, so I’m glad you mentioned it.
      I am terribly sorry to hear of the soldiers who have committed suicide. It’s a devastating loss, and it reflects the difficulties that too many soldiers have re-adjusting after they’ve seen combat.

  6. I’m with Fiction Fan in A Dark Remembered Day the effects that the Falklands War has on one man is vividly portrayed.

  7. Margot, a timely and excellent post as ever. A career in the armed force is probably the most difficult of all.

  8. Lovely post, Margot and a very apt subject. Thank you.

  9. A great post on this topic, Margot. I have read books by Jacqueline Winspear and Ferris, and have some of the others and plan to read them. I am currently reading The Hour of the Cat by Peter Quinn. It is set in 1938, so not about post-war years specifically, but almost all of the characters have connections because of serving in World War I together, and it does cover the relationships forged in wartime.

    • Oh, that sounds really interesting, Tracy. I hope that you’re enjoying the book. And it addresses a really important fact for many veterans: the bonds they form with others who understand what they’re going through as they re-adjust. Some of those bonds come from friendships formed in the field, and some don’t. But either way, those bonds are important. Thanks for the example, and for the kind words.

  10. An important day for us to remember. The Elly Griffiths book Zig Zag Girl, which you mentioned recently, also deals with the aftermath of WW2 and the effects it had on some of the participants.

  11. Kathy D.

    What a theme of the day and its history. Millions of lives lost. Today countries destroyed, millions of migrants fleeing war, soldiers with terrible injuries, many with post-traumatic-stress disorder. Vietnam still has damage from Agent Orange; there are still landmines there and in Cambodia.
    Many veterans are homeless and jobless here, and we know that the Veterans Administration has callously left many without health or mental health care or it’s inadequate or too late.
    Looking at the suicide rate of veterans is a reality check. A very high rate, and what many forget to say is that women veterans are also committing suicide at an astounding rate – a huge percentage more than nonveteran women and at a young age, in their 20s. Of course, with women an added injury is sexual assault by other soldiers. A large number experience this.
    I read last night of some women who were victims of such assaults and committed suicide.
    I wish every day that peace would come, but see wars widening, more bombings, more drones, more migrants. Afghan refugees are joining their Iraqi and Syrian sisters and brothers in fleeing their countries’ war zones.
    Let’s work for peace to break out.

    • You’re quite right, Kathy, that this isn’t a ‘long ago’ topic. There are many, many after-effects of war in today’s world. As you say, there are landmines and other evidence of war in places such as Cambodia. There is also the devastating loss of life from the Vietnam War and the Pol Pot years. All of that has left scars in Southeast Asia. Folks, Andrew Nette depicts that very effectively in Ghost Money.

      It’s also quite true that many veterans don’t get the health care and other services they need, and not just in the US. That’s not a topic for which I had room in this post, but it is an important one, so I’m glad you mentioned it.

      I hope, too, that peace will break out so that we don’t have to continue to try to heal. As you say, it doesn’t magically appear. We need to work for it.

  12. Really interesting to note the varied responses from such different authoirs – from the Golden Age one tends to imagine its all about hardboiled amnesia plots but it clearly registered much more widely. Thanks Margot.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Sergio. I think it’s interesting, too, the way that different authors have depicted the case of the returning veteran. There’s a lot of vareity in veterans’ situations, and I’m glad that diversity’s captured in the stories about them.

  13. Kathy D.

    Glad you mentioned the sympathy towards WWI veterans in The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Another book that stresses this is Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers by Welsh writer, Mari Strachan, author of The Earth Hums in B-Flat. It appears that there were no government programs then to help veterans.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Kathy. There weren’t coordinated programs for WWI veterans. What’s more, psychology and psychiatry weren’t as developed as they are now. So there weren’t the opportunities for veterans that there are now.

  14. Kathy D.

    True and there were tens of thousands who had what was then called “shell shock,” but which we call post-traumatic-stress disorder. i don’t think there were jobs for veterans either or housing, as Sarah Waters and Mari Strachan point out.
    Oh, well, here there are many homeless and jobless veterans now.

    • There certainly are, Kathy. And as you say, that was a problem after WWI, too. At that time, we had even less understanding of PTSD than we do now, so it was much harder to address.

  15. Kathy D.

    Oh, and a friend of mine who is a wounded Vietnam war veteran with shrapnal in his legs and PTSD. He was drafted and his going to war wasn’t a choice. He said he didn’t find as much “hostility” to veterans as some people claim. Nor did his VA buddies. He said it’s played up in movies and books, but it was not that prevalent.
    When he got out of the military he joined the anti-war movement then.
    His slogan as he recently reminded me was, “Support the veterans, not the war.” I think it’s a good one.

  16. Keishon

    Excellent post Margot and you mention some great novels. I’ve always wanted to read Jacqueline Winspear’s novels. Never was the point hammered home more to me than watching the movie, Hurt Locker about what life is like in the war and after they leave the war. That difference is so stark and I understand why some return because in that world they are important and have an important job/mission to do and not to mention the camaraderie and respect they have but at home. . . .they feel like they are not so important and are not needed. It’s sad. I won’t even go into the problems that veterans have when they return home. It’s a mess.

    • It really is, Keishon. I think we need a comprehensive and systematic way to meet the needs of our returning veterans. As you say, even those who aren’t physically injured have a lot of adjustment issues with which they have to cope. They have completely different roles when they return from service, and they’ve been through an intense, sometimes awful experience. Little wonder some of them have so many challenges.

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