Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of Army of Worn Soles by Scott Bury, an extraordinary novelized memoir of a Canadian citizen forcibly inducted into the army of the Soviet Union during World War II.
Characters: This remarkable true account centers on Canadian Maurice Bury, who lived with relatives as a young man while going to school in Poland. Though told in 3rd person by son-in-law and professional writer Scott, the story lets readers see clearly through Maurice’s eyes. Here, in the book’s beginning, Maurice meets Bohdan, who will become Maurice’s best friend, and who will play a pivotal role in Maurice’s life.
“You want a cigarette?”
Maurice looked up at a thin man his own age, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He held a pack of cigarettes toward Maurice. “You look like you need one.”
Maurice drew one from the pack. “Thanks,” he said, and dug matches out of his pocket.
The young man shook a cigarette loose for himself and let Maurice light it, then sat on the step beside him. “I’m Bohdan.” He held out his hand.
“I’m Maurice. Where are you from?”
“Here. Peremyshl. You?”
“Nastaciv. A little village near Ternopyl.”
“You nervous about Brother Michael’s chemistry class? I don’t blame you. The Brother is a tough bastard.”
“Chemistry is not my strongest subject. I’m better with languages.”
Scott’s dialogue, in particular, brings the characters to life.
Plot: After graduating from school and getting a teaching job, Maurice receives a Red Army induction notice. Canadian birth certificate in hand, he dutifully reports. In Scott’s retelling, I imagine I can almost hear Maurice’s reminiscence of that chilling bureaucratic moment:
Maurice felt sure he had a better argument than the man in front of him, who said his employer, a machine shop, absolutely could not do without him. “Wonderful, comrade,” the officer said. “The army needs skilled machinists like you. You will ship out today.” The shocked machinist sputtered incoherently as a soldier took his arm and led him to join the other recruits at the train station.
Maurice stepped to the table. “Good morning, sir. I know you’re busy, so I would like to quickly help you resolve an error— my draft letter is a mistake.” He put it on the table in front of the officer. The officer looked up, arching one eyebrow. “That’s a new one. What kind of mistake?”
“I am not eligible for service, as I am not a citizen of the Soviet Union. I’m a Canadian.” He showed his birth certificate.
The officer struggled to sound out the Roman lettering. “Doh-meen-i-yon off Kanada,” he read. He frowned, then shook his head and looked Maurice straight in the eyes. “You are still required to report for duty, comrade.”
“But I’m a Canadian citizen.”
“It doesn’t matter, tovarisch. You live here now and you must help defend the Motherland.” He was already looking at the next man in line. “Report to the train station by seven tomorrow morning or you’ll be arrested. Next.”
The young teacher is then catapulted into the maelstrom of war and experiences that take their toll on the souls of Maurice and his fellow troops as much as on the soles of their boots.
Setting: The story takes place in parts of Poland and the Ukraine. While there’s not much description of overall landscape and architecture, Scott always does a nice job of showing the immediate scene as witnessed by Maurice. Here’s the station where Maurice catches the train to take him to boot camp:
The train station was surrounded by military policemen carrying rifles. Maurice also saw other men in peaked caps with maroon bands— the NKVD, the Soviet security police. They strutted, ordering people around in rough and guttural Russian, smoking and looking officious.
The platform was crowded with young men and their families saying goodbye. Like Hanya and Tekla, all the inductees’ parents fussed over them. Mothers wept, fathers gave their sons brave smiles and manful kisses on each cheek.
Maurice thought of his father in Canada and wondered whether he worried about his family in Russian-dominated Ukraine.
What I thought could be done better: Although Scott does a great job of showing everyone and everything from Maurice’s point of view, I don’t recall ever getting details of Maurice’s own appearance. I’m guessing he was of average size and appearance. It’s hard, I know, to describe your protagonist without going outside his or her point of view, and without resorting to the “mirror” cliche.
I also wouldn’t have minded a little overall description of landscapes and architecture, but I’m sure those details weren’t on Maurice’s mind as he fought to keep himself and the men of his anti-tank unit alive.
What I thought was good: This is a war story, and Scott’s recounting of Maurice’s memories, filled in with research, ring true.
“Pull back,” Maurice yelled, and the boys picked up the guns and ammunition and ran, crouching low as they could to the next trench, where they joined several other odalenje. Maurice’s boys hurriedly set up the guns and aimed at the Panzers.
They were too late.
The tanks swept past them, crushing wounded men under their treads. Andrei and Nikolai swung their gun around. “Aim at its back,” Maurice said. “FIRE!”
The gun whooshed and the shell hit the Panzer’s cylindrical fuel tank, oddly exposed on its rear deck behind the turret. The tank’s rear end lifted high and Maurice thought it would flip over. Shards of metal flew in every direction and the tank’s hull split and burned. The explosion rang in Maurice’s ears for minutes.
I also liked how Scott shows the overall picture of what’s going on.
Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union had been on a scale the world had never seen. Millions of men, hundreds of thousands of tanks and trucks and airplanes swept across the plains of eastern Poland, Ukraine and Belorussia, and then into Russia itself. Outgunned, undertrained, lacking almost everything except sheer numbers of men, the Red Army retreated until they were surrounded and destroyed or captured. The Germans boasted about capturing whole armies, hundreds of thousands of men.
Most prisoners did not survive until the end of the war.
One of those prisoners was Maurice. Here’s the POW camp.
Within a week, Maurice’s uniform was stinking, stiff, caked with dirt and cordite and tattered. Lice crawled on his scalp and the shrapnel scar on his left knee ached. His hands stung from breaking rocks into gravel for the Germans to make new roads. The only thing that kept him from weeping was knowing his men, and the hundreds of thousands of other Red Army conscripts around him, suffered even more from starvation rations, cold and forced labour. Starving and exhausted, they had no energy, privacy nor time to even dream of escape.
Maurice dropped his sledgehammer and joined the lineup for supper. The sun was already down and the air was chill. No one had the energy to complain. They shuffled ahead to where a German private ladled soup from a barrel into small metal bowls. Fish heads floating in water, that’s what the Germans called soup for the prisoners on the eastern front.
When the prisoners staggered back to the camp the next day, Maurice could barely hold onto his sledgehammer. Supper was more generous, a piece of dry bread, another bowl of soup, but this time it was a little thicker, with a piece of strange-tasting meat. Maurice wondered about that. It was tough and tasted bad, but he ate it. That night, he had no trouble falling asleep.
He learned about the meat a week later.
I think what I like most about this story is Scott’s simple, straight-forward, unpretentious telling. He uses his art, craft and expertise to let the events and experiences speak for themselves, almost as if Maurice himself was telling the story.
Overall: This true story is a must-read for so many reasons. One is the old addage — “those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it.” A quick glance at the news reports about Ukraine today show that many of the same kinds of tensions that convulsed the region in the late 1930s still simmer, closer than ever to boiling over.
More than that, Army of Worn Souls is the personal perspective of an ordinary soul swept up in cataclysmic events. It’s told simply and without pretention. Maurice, the protagonist, is gone now, but Scott has set down this memoir as part of his family history, that this story might not be forgotten.
The story is worth telling and should be read because it’s our family history too, for we’re all in the family of man.
Good job, Scott!
Honest Indie Book Reviews will take a brief sabbatical following these reviews, while I focus on completing ROGUE GODDESSES, sequel to AMERICAN GODDESSES. I expect to be back on the indie review trail before the end of the year.