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The Beardless Warriors: A Novel of World War II Paperback – May 4, 2001
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From Publishers Weekly
Originally published in 1960, this early novel by bestseller-list veteran Matheson (What Dreams May Come; I Am Legend) was probably inappropriately classified upon its original publication as just another post-WWII potboiler. Read again 40 years later, in the wake of more cynical and sophisticated literary responses to subsequent wars, it becomes evident what a marvelous character study it is. Pvt. Everett Hackermeyer arrives on the western front of the Allied advance into Germany on December 8, 1944. The Americans are preparing to storm the infamous Siegfried Line and advance into the Reich, knowing that they will meet their stiffest resistance yet. In the course of the next 14 days, Hack is transformed from a bewildered, somewhat indifferent teenager into a battle-scarred veteran. Gradually, he develops into a first-rate soldier, then into an almost maniacal killer of Germans, and finally into a reliable leader as he wrestles with his "inner war" and comes to terms with life, death and the meaning of human compassion. Guided by his squad leader, Sergeant Cooley, a believably drawn and nonstock father figure, Hack lives a full lifetime in less than two weeks and emerges from his "baptism by fire" as a fully developed man, warrior and hero but one without illusions. This is a sensitive and carefully wrought study in character, not only of the troubled protagonist, but also of the other squad members, each of whom must face his personal demons even as death and destruction rain all around.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
“Not just another war novel; it is one of the finest books that has come out of World War II or any other.” ―The Detroit News
“One of the most shocking accounts of war ever written . . . reminiscent of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.” ―Miami News
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It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that chokes me up, but as I neared the end of The Beardless Warriors, it took some effort to hold back the tears. Richard Matheson, probably best known for his science fiction work (I Am Legend as well as writing for film and television), strung together the right words to cement the gravity of the material.
Young Hackermeyer joins a squad of fellow beardless warriors, each with their own distinct personalities, fears, and backgrounds. We see some fall to appendicitis and exploding mortars. We also see some make it through, though hardly unscathed. One thing is for certain: everyone is remade by the events.
The relationship between Hackermeyer and his proto-father, Sergeant Cooley, is one that will be hard to forget. Maybe it sparked thoughts of my relationship with my own father (a Vietnam veteran), or reflections of my journey into fatherhood. Whatever the reason, even as I write this review, the power of Matheson’s story still haunt me. I can only imagine experiencing what these soldiers did, and I hope that I will only have to imagine it. I’m no longer of that ripe combat age, but it does make me nervous for my son’s future.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a pacifist and neither is Matheson, but the horrors of war are real and it may be that The Beardless Warriors is the author’s way of spreading his own experiences to those who may be privileged enough to live far from those realities. It did, after all, take him fifteen years after his own experiences to write this.
If you’re looking for a breezy read, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. But this book was powerful. I can’t recommend it enough for those that want a page-turning, fictional experience.
If you have any interest in WWII, this book is must reading!! I have read it a number of times, and can't put it down.
I won't go over the plot or characters - that is for the reader's enjoyment, the delight of discovery. But his style is worth mentioning. Although some would say it is merely straightforward, it is really much more complex. Matheson's choice of telling this very personal story in a third person narrative is genius. Even in 1960, self absorption and self imortance emerged as the natural offspring of self awareness in fiction. As "self" asserted its place as the center of the universe, fictionalized personal accounts became almost exclusively first person tales. It is so prevalant now it is hard to imagine a time when such accounts were rare. Matheson purposely uses the third person effectively to maintain an esthetic distance to his story in general and the main character (Hackermeyer) in particular. Knowing that he waited 15 years to write this novel, Matheson obviously needed an outsider's perspective to understand the young man he was, the things he did, and the tragedies he witnessed. He made it more personal by relating it in the third person.
Like any great writer, Matheson puts us in the story as he takes himself out - his journey become our journey. This is where the third person technique works its magic - a character isn't telling us how he feels or how we should feel, we experience those feelings through that character. We discover things as he does - this is especially true when Hackermeyer is looking for Cooley in the hotel/hospital. Only after we have finished the novel do we understand it has been a cycle - arrival, initiation, trial, and triumph. When the cycle is complete - the novice is now the teacher and the cycle resumes.
As Hackermeyer becomes more "human" and less a killing machine, he becomes as vulnerable as those he had disdained, but also becomes aware of the emotions he's hidden from himself. He feels a greater kinship to those who have died and in living, he is able to tell their story. Matheson allows us to relive it in the telling. This is one to pass along to your kids and grandkids.