I’ve known Carley for at least a decade, now (I think), and have followed the evolution of her as an author all the way from her first novel. Gassed is her best work, so far.
My knowledge of WWI is slim and sketchy. I always seem to remember what sparked that war, the infamous assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, right? But I don’t know much more than that.
But while this book is set during that war, and events surrounding it. I don’t think it’s really about that war. This book is about humanity and love. That’s what I got out of it, at least.
We follow the life of a young soldier named James Allen Lawton. As the book begins, he is already suffering from the results of a mustard gas bomb that hit his group of soldiers. He was unable to get his mask on quick enough, and is temporarily blinded.
But then we flash back. Back to his childhood, back to his entry into this war. Back and forth we go as we explore the life of this young soldier, and what made him the person he is.
His mother died during childbirth, so the entirety of his youth is spent with only a father, who did the best he could to raised his son. My favorite chapter in the book is the one where his father, at some considerable expense, bought young James Allen a ukulele for his birthday. James Allen didn’t quite know what to do with it, at first, but eventually learned to play it well, and then graduated to guitar, at which he excelled.
His experiences in the war are heart-rending, as he meets and loses companions in the horror that is war. As I read this book, I was reminded of the opening themes of all of the Fallout video games. “War. War never changes.” Eventually, James Allen decides that he would rather not even know the names of the other men with whom he is serving, because they probably won’t be around very long, anyway.
After James Allen is hit with the mustard gas, he is transported to a medical unit. James Allen’s injuries are serious enough that he is given an honorable discharge and sent back to the States, where he is placed in a rehabilitation hospital where a number of people are being treated for various illnesses.
Earlier in the book, there is a seemingly random chapter about a young girl named Julie, growing up with a somewhat abusive mother and a father who loves her dearly. Eventually, the father dies of what was then called “Consumption.” We know it now as Tuberculosis. Unfortunately, Julie is infected with it, as well. Her mother, not caring in the least for her, dumps her at the doctor’s office and leaves. The local doctor cares greatly for Julie and pays for her to be placed in the same hospital where James Allen winds up.
James Allen and Julie meet, soon after he arrives, although he cannot yet see her. They become friends, and she leads him on walks through the outdoor surroundings at the hospital, describing the scenery to him. She always wears gloves and a mask, for fear of infecting him.
Within a few weeks, he recovers his sight, and continues to fall for Julie. Even though she is dying, he asks her to marry him, to which she agrees.
That’s as far as I will go in telling the story. Too many spoilers, already, I guess. But I was captivated by the character of James Allen, and then by Julie, as well. As I stated earlier, I believe this to be Carley’s best novel, so far. The only criticism that I might have at all is the placement of the final chapter. I wonder if it might have been better to end with the previous chapter, that concludes with james Allen finally singing the song that he had been trying to write for Julie.
Read this book. I think it deserves to be a best-seller. I can even see it as a movie. Maybe Ryan Gosling plays james Allen, and Rachel McAdams could play Julie. I know. They’ve already done The Notebook together. But still . . .