By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Recently, I had a discussion with my fourteen- and fifteen-year-old students about war: what purpose it serves, if it can ever be justified, who should be fighting. It was this last question which has stuck with me, because as the debate moved onto women’s roles in the military, one girl said, in utter seriousness, that women shouldn’t be soldiers because their place is in the home. This seems as good a place as any to start a review of Michael Grant’s Front Lines, a YA alternate-history novel which considers the impact allowing women into the military might have had on World War II.
My aghast expression in response to my student’s comment was in large part because, in 2016, we cannot possibly still labor under the misapprehension that only a woman can do housework. In Grant’s 1940s USA, however, this is exactly the belief of most of the characters, even the young women enlisting in the army. This dichotomy between accepted female roles and the ramifications of a military career is initially the key conflict of Front Lines. The novel focuses on a disparate trio of girls on the cusp of adulthood: Rio, a Californian farmgirl, Frangie, an ambitious but pragmatic black girl seeking to support her family, and Rainy, a Jewish New Yorker with a gift for languages. All three girls enlist for different reasons, but at the center of each one’s thinking lies a desire for adventure and challenge, which they find in abundance in their new roles.
“See, Gentle Reader, I know the rules of war stories. I know I’m supposed to present a tale of patriotism, of high-minded motives and brave deeds, hardships endured with a stiff upper lip and a wry grin. I’m supposed to tell you about the brotherhood – and now sisterhood – of soldiers. But there’s one thing I cannot do as I pound these typewriter keys, and that is lie.” (Prologue)
Part One: Volunteers and Draftees focuses on the background to each girl’s enlisting, the family tragedies, financial necessities, and peer pressures which drive young women of seventeen and eighteen years to sign up for war. This first section is devoted to enlistment, basic training, the forming of bonds with other recruits, and a little romance, the last of which is probably the least interesting part of the story. It is adundantly clear not everyone is thrilled with the presence of women in the ranks, and casual sexism is given more dangerous import when battle is imminent. What surprised me is the patronizing and at times offensive attitudes towards women are not the most abhorrent aspect of Grant’s tale, with Frangie facing treatment I found difficult to stomach. I didn’t expect Front Lines to reopen my eyes to the racial injustices previously highlighted by canonical American novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, but that’s exactly what it did.
The novel’s second part, simply subtitled War, is far more harrowing, and the recruits’ sense of extreme displacement is echoed in the reader’s response, as the relative ease of basic training gives way to complex military procedure and intense violence. There are some wince-inducing descriptions of injuries in the latter part of Front Lines which call to mind even the more devastating passages of Wilfred Owen. Front-line combat creates confusion for protagonists and reader alike as the chaotic, unjust, and occasionally nonsensical ways of war become apparent. Reading this book felt like the best primer in military strategy I’ve ever encountered.
Inevitably, some characters are developed at the expense of others. Rio seems to be the focus of a disproportionate number of chapters, giving her the greatest opportunity to grow as a character, while Rainy never receives quite the same degree of focus. Frangie’s stoicism and bravery stole my heart, and I look forward to reading more about her in the next book in the series. Jenou, Rio’s hometown friend, is something of an anomaly, someone who appears to have internalized the lyrics of the ditty, “There’s a Lot to the Said for the Army” from White Christmas but has perhaps never picked up a newspaper. It is, however, intensely refreshing to read a book with such a large number of fascinating female characters; ultimately, it is not even their femaleness which is the main concern of Front Lines, as each becomes an impressive force in her own right.
“It can’t ever have been easy, Rainy thinks, not any war. But the rituals are different now. It has always been that men went off and the women wept and waved. There is no blueprint for what is happening now. There is no easy reference point. People don’t know quite how to behave, and it’s worse for the men in the station who are staying behind and feel conspicuous and ashamed.” – page 100
To describe Front Lines as fun perhaps gives the wrong impression, dealing as it does with big issues like misogyny, racism, and war, but Grant achieves an admirable balance between seriousness and entertainment, ultimately producing a series-starter which perfectly engages the reader. It is a masterpiece of pacing, with the laconic speed of the early chapters ultimately giving way to frenetic descriptions of battle by the end. More than anything else, Grant gives the reader characters they can truly invest in, without creating martyrs or archetypes. Front Lines is an innovative and engaging work.
Front Lines is available now at GPL.