A Powerful New Novel Of The First World War By A Powerful New Author
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
A 12-year-old girl is led out into the town square and flogged mercilessly, to the chants of “Spy!” and “Traitor!” shouted by frenzied onlookers, until her clothes and her very skin hang in shreds. This scene from Linda Steele’s novel Random Acts captures the madness that so often typifies human behavior once reason and compassion are surrendered to the spiritual anesthesia of the mob, when societal mores are forsaken during times of uproar such as war, plague, and economic collapse, and the veneer of civilization evaporates. The scene captures the madness of World War I as effectively as Hemingway’s “Retreat from Caporetto,” and reflects such real atrocities as the massacres at Mỹ Lai and Katyn, the witch trials of old New England, and the concremation of Joan of Arc.
The setting is an Italian village during the course of the “War to End All Wars,” the “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy,” even the “Great War” when compared to previous conflicts by those without a clue that a second global cataclysm lurked only a few decades in the future.
The young woman’s journey into the heart of the darkness of the human spirit is by no means typical. Growing up among kindly Pennsylvania Dutch farmers in rural northern Ohio, Susanna Strashoffer Von Helldorf would seem unprepared for the ordeals she is to face as her travels take her to the tiny European nation of Luxembourg to spend time with her biological grandfather, unaware that the world is about to erupt in flames.
Susannah’s journey across the darkling plain of war-torn Europe begins when her grandfather accompanies her to the imagined peace and safety of a lonely cabin in the hills of northern Italy. There, ensconced in a remote natural sanctuary, all should have been well. However, the grandfather soon succumbs to a massive heart attack, leaving young Susannah alone and friendless in a strange land, with her terrier dog Minnie her only companion.
How does a 12-year-old go about surviving under such circumstances? Fortunately, having grown up in the rural Midwest, Susannah is not without resources. A bit of a tomboy, Susannah, a sharpshooter who cringes inwardly at the very thought of taking an animal’s life, soon bags rabbits and even a deer. She also has some knowledge of preserving meat and providing such wilderness foods as bannock. Taking the life of the deer troubled her the most, but her wise grandfather had explained to her that shooting a rabbit only provides food for one day but bagging a deer could keep her going for a month. Minnie is a hunter by nature and a vital companion in her passion for survival.
When Susannah finds her grandfather’s corpse has been chewed on by rodents, she moves him by sled to a nearby cave, where no further such outrages will occur. All too much, one would think, for such a young person, but one will do what one must, drawing upon strengths one is unaware of, when trapped in a life-or-death situation.
Susannah had been cautioned by her grandfather to avoid the soldiers of all armies, that in wartime men will sometimes do terrible things, particularly to women. His words turned out to be prophetic. While believing that she is safe in the mountains, Susannah is attacked, grabbed from behind, by a group of unkempt, unruly men who attempt to tear her clothes off. In the middle of the fray, a shot is fired, and another group of men come to her rescue, knocking one of her attackers unconscious. The day had been saved by the intervention of an Italian officer, Major Alltoviti, and his men.
However, Susannah’s troubles are far from over. Major Alltoviti informs her that the war between Italy and the forces of Hapsburg Austria-Hungary is headed right in her direction and that she cannot remain where she is. After being turned away even from an orphanage by an evil nun, Susannah has no alternative other than to spend freezing winter months in a cave, hunting for her food, and living like Neolithic humans.
When Susannah comes upon a piano, she begins to play, attracting the attention of those nearby. Given that she once attended the Cleveland Conservatory of Music, back in Ohio, she survives by evolving into the sophisticated “Luciana,” providing entertainment for soldiers and civilians in and around the Italian town of Verona.
The action in Random Acts fluctuates from rural Ohio to war-torn Europe and back again, detailing Susannah’s life as a gifted female in an age when so many roles were denied woman.
The horrible realities of modern combat during World War I came as a shock to many, dispelling any delusions spawned by 19th century jingoism. Mankind had not experienced such weaponry as the machine gun, air power, or poison gas on such a scale before. Some of our most powerful works of fiction arose in the aftermath of that conflict, resulting in the Lost Generation of young people disillusioned and at sea in a world no one any longer understood.
The names of writers who left their stamp on that period, exposing the grit and grime, the blood and guts of that first great modern war need no introduction. Dalton Trumbo, Erich Maria Remarque, Ernest Hemingway, and such powerful poets as Siegfried Sassoon, Alan Seeger, and Wilfred Owen come to mind. To that list can be added the name of Linda Steele, whose powerful historical novel Random Acts approaches the conflict from a unique vantage point, that of a 12-year-old girl who is orphaned and lost in a world gone mad.
As this is being penned, the world is being rocked by yet another wave of inhumanity as the innocent people of Ukraine reel before the onslaught of the latest blitzkrieg, this one meted out by the hands of the stone cold, sociopathic Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. The cruelties endured by Susannah in Linda Steele’s novel are mirrored in the frightened eyes of thousands of Ukrainian children.
Steele’s novel and its sequel Out of the Valley, detailing Susannah’s efforts to overcome the prejudices of the day and become a licensed physician and serve in Europe in the medical corps during the twentieth century’s second great cataclysm, is particularly timely. No citizen of the Lost Generation, Susannah’s story is a tale of determination and survival against all odds. Random Acts and Out of the Valley are both available through Amazon in both paperback and electronic versions.
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- March 2023 Issue - February 28, 2023
- March 2023 – Articles - February 28, 2023
- March 2023 - February 28, 2023