Eleanor Hastings knew from experience that some bombs lie buried for decades before blowing up to hurt someone. Now, forty years after World War II, a cache of faded wartime letters is discovered in a cellar, causing Eleanor’s husband, Frank, to understand that he really was a bastard and sending him on a quest to find out who he really is — and to uncover his family’s long-buried secrets.
“Children of a Good War is like a giant puzzle you think you’ve solved, then find more unsettling pieces. Intelligent and engrossing, hard to put down, London’s best novel to date lingers in your thoughts long after you close it and turn out the lights.”
— Author Joyce Faulkner, winner of the Howard-Johnson Prize for Historical Fiction
Best Novel of the Year — Military Writers Society of America
Best Novel of the South — Willie Morris, Finalist
Best Novel with a Romantic Element — Dear Author, Finalist
When Frank was nine years old he watched Peter shoot a BB gun at birds on a highline wire and wondered, Why don’t they just fly away? and then, Why doesn’t the electricity shock them?
Frank wondered a lot of things. He wondered why Hercules liked to play fetch with him but not with Peter. He wondered why he had a used bike but Tog had a new one. He wondered why there were different churches for just one Bible, and why Tog seemed reasonably happy about not going to any of them. He wondered why he was invisible whenever Peter was present (Sunday school class, junior high band, school cafeteria and assemblies, Saturday night at the movie theater, any time they went to The Corral), and why he had a learning disability (I’m retarded…), a concern raised by the requirement of Bridle High School that all students had to take trigonometry and chemistry, neither of which he intended to use in his grown-up life.
He also wondered why he took little interest in the very things that Peter was so good at, such as football, basketball, track, girls, and Mother’s 1962 Chevrolet. He wondered why he wasn’t kicked off the football team after mooning Peter at the Homecoming game, suspecting (rightly) that the coach knew that Tog depended on Frank to help him pass English and history during the football season. He next wondered why he was disinvited from the school sports banquet after the season was over, suspecting (rightly) that it had to do with mooning Peter at the Homecoming game.
Frank once wondered, on a very cold and cloudless night one week after the sports banquet, why water does not freeze inside a town’s water tower, but when that same water is filled into the bed of Marshall’s pickup and then laid down in sheets on Main Street by driving the pickup back and forth as the water seeps out from the tailgate, it freezes on pavement like ice on a skating rink.
He also wondered why a couple of gallons of very wet chicken manure added to a gallon of gasoline didn’t burn well but when fifteen pounds of dried manure, plus a box of saltpeter from the school cafeteria pantry, were added to gasoline, the mixture would scorch grass, chalk yard lines, dirt, subsoil, and everything beneath it in the shape of the letter ‘S,’ and continue to burn for quite a long time while the coach and superintendent slid around on the ice on Main Street before getting to the school football field to see what that odd glow was, visible in the night sky.
The following Sunday, while squeezed onto a pew between Virginia and Will, listening to a sermon on the fires of Hell, Frank wondered why no one preached the chapter in Luke where Jesus told the multitudes that he had come to bring fire to the earth and wished it already were kindled or, about the Prince of Peace telling the Twelve Apostles in the book of Matthew that he came not to bring peace but a sword. That Jesus sounded like someone interesting.
In his last few months at home, before graduation, Frank wondered whether Tog would ever come back to him. In his first few months at college he wondered why he had to take math and science, which he intended to never use in his grown-up life.
As a sophomore, he wondered why they seemed to be having so much trouble beating Vietnam and, later, after graduation, whythey assigned to his birthday the very first number drawn in the draft lottery, the only lottery that Frank ever won. He soon wondered why he was sent to infantry training and then why he was so bad at it. He wondered if he would live to drive the used Volkswagen that Will had given him for college graduation and, when he did, whether going to graduate school and writing for a newspaper in Austin would give him the skill he
needed to write about what he really saw in Vietnam. Frank soon came to wonder also why no one had told him sooner about live music, the Soap Creek Saloon, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnics, or longneck beers.
Frank’s curiosity was not purely inward looking. He asked why, whenever anyone believed that if something could be separate but equal, they always wanted it to be separate. He asked his editor why a highway divided East Austin from rich Austin and why Mexican laborers were paid less to roof houses and pour cement than scruffy white guys who didn’t work as hard or do as good a job; his editor said they were good questions. He asked why farmers who depended on government subsidy checks always voted for the candidate who would cut the farm budget, and why anyone thought that it was Ronald Reagan rather than Ayatollah Khomeini and the Fedayeen who really had defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Pat C. Oh said they were rhetorical questions. He genuinely wanted to know why President Reagan thought that death squads for democracy were more likely to work in El Salvador than they had in Vietnam and why a coup in once-British Grenada was an American problem; no one wanted to talk about those questions.
Some of these wonders became files of clippings for stories that were never written. When Frank pitched them, Mr. Burnam said that Frank needed to focus on city council meetings and school board hearings.
Frank was not aware of everything, not even everything that mattered. He was unaware of interest rates, unaware that plastic is not biodegradable, and unaware that security investment regulations usually were enacted after some investment firm had figured out a new way to cheat its investors.
He was completely unaware when, during a graduate seminar on “Reporting Foreign Political Events,” in which he asked why Margaret Thatcher thought that putting huge swaths of coal workers and shipbuilders out of work would make England a better place for them to live on unemployment benefits, that a young woman was passing by the open doorway. He didn’t know for a long time that she heard him question whether the rousing use of a crushing military action against a third-world banana republic would restore dignity to unemployed coal miners in Yorkshire and, hearing no answer to his question, that she stood in the doorway long enough to figure out which one of the people in the room had asked the very point she had read in a three-week-old copy of the Manchester Guardian, which she had stumbled across in the graduate school library reading room. Of course, she was unaware that he had noticed her reading theGuardian and had wanted to find out for himself what interested a person who looked like her.
In short, like younger brothers everywhere, Frank grew up largely invisible but observant, standing out from the crowd more often by doing something that upset someone’s expectations rather by doing something that met them.
Frank Hastings had no clear understanding that the purpose of his life was to be the person who asked why as a means to making the world a more open place, if not a better one. Indeed, the only two people who clearly knew that were Eleanor, who for several weeks after hearing his voice in the seminar room had followed Frank at a discrete distance until he finally discovered her, and his father, Will, who now was dead.
About the Author:
Honored as Author of the Year, MWSA 2011-2012, and winner, Indie Excellence Award, 2013, is the author of the award-winning French Letters fiction series. His novels are praised for their meticulous historical research and ability to capture the language, attitudes, and moral culture of their setting in prose described by reviewers as ‘beautiful, but not pretentious.’
The World War II-era novel Virginia’s War was a Finalist for Best Novel of the South and the Dear Author ‘Novel with a Romantic Element’ contests. His ‘parallel-quel’ novel Engaged in War won the silver medal at the London Book Festival for General Fiction and the Silver prize in the Stars and Flags Historical Fiction competition. It was the Book of the Month by both Good Reads and the Military Writers Society of America and was the book for which the Indie Excellence Award was given to Jack in 2013.
The third volume in the series, Children of a Good War, is on track for publication in 2018. One pre-publication reader wrote “Intelligent and engrossing, it’s hard to put down, (his) best novel to date lingers in your thoughts long after you close it and put out the lights.” Look for pre-order information in the near future.
And, Jack’s non-fiction book on the craft of writing, A Novel Approach, won the e-Lit gold medal for non-fiction books in 2014-2015. It is now the standard work for use by veterans in classes presented by the Military Writers Society of America on the craft of writing fiction.
He has published some thirty literary articles and fifty book reviews, all in addition to a lengthy career as a courtroom lawyer and a forty year writing career as the author of technical legal articles, beginning with his appointment as managing editor during law school of the University of Texas International Law Journal.
Jack shares his love of writing with presentations and lectures at writing conferences throughout the United States and abroad. He has in the past presented at the Historical Novel Society Annual Convention; Military Writers Society of America; Historical Novel Society; Southwest Writers; Writers League of Texas; Central Texas Authors; University of Texas, San Diego State, Stanford, Herriott-Watt University in Edinburg, Scotland, and University of Padua, Italy, as well as US DOD schools and Navy bases in Europe. He teaches writing classes to veterans who want to learn the conventions and devices of fiction writing so that they, too, can write their stories.
And, apart from literature, Jack also is the co-author of two of the most widely published and essential books for trial lawyers, the Pattern Jury Charge series for Business and Deceptive Practices and for Professional Negligence, Products Liability, and Premises.
Jack is a reader as well as a writer. His cheeky, much-loved series of book reviews, ‘On the Nightstand,’ is on this website. Jack reviews the books we all read, from New York Times best sellers to under-the-radar releases and the classics and rates them based on how well they keep him awake — a 100 watt book is a real page-turner and a 20 watt book helps Jack sleep by conking him out pretty quickly. Click on the the tab for On the Nightstand and find some great reads.
And, Jack still is a student. He is learning more of the craft of creative writing student at Rewley College, Oxford University, under his tutor, Dr. Jonathan Miles, who also is a critically acclaimed author.
Jack grew up in small town Texas before earning degrees at the University of Texas and West Texas State University and earning certificates at the Fiction Academy, St. Céré, France and Ecole Francaise, Trois Ponts, France. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Alice, and Junebug the writing cat.
Author Guest Post
Share the first sentence (or first three sentences) of the book and comment on it
“There was a minor commotion in the street and she realized that she had no choice but to follow him outside. It was a relief, she felt, although she knew it was only a postponement. Miss Herald had gone to Faversham to tell Eldred Potts that she would no longer walk out with him, as it then was called.”
I set out to create a world for a woman named ‘Miss Herald.’ Who is she? She lived somewhere close to Faversham, which is an ancient village in England, ten miles or so from Canterbury and on the Roman road where the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales spent their last night before arriving in Canterbury proper. And, since she didn’t live in Faversham, where did she live? We soon learn that she lives in Canterbury where she attends the local ‘new’ university and studies archaeology. We also learn that Faversham is the site of a mostly-demolished ruin where in the 1100’s an English queen and king were patrons of the church and were buried; Miss Herald has undergraduate fantasies of fame from discovering their remains or unearthing some other hidden relic of the past.
So, what was she doing in Faversham when the book begins? Rather than an archaeological dig at the monastery, she was there to tell her boyfriend that she was through with him. I tried to infuse a bit of ‘bygonese’ into the paragraph by using the term ‘walk out’ as both a British term for dating and as a term that is now out of fashion.
Their names are clues. A ‘Herald’ is someone who brings news or is the sign that something is about to happen. I added another clue to the fact something was about to happen by saying her following Potts into the street because of a minor commotion was a ‘postponement.’ Potts is a reference to what most archaeological digs yield, shards of pottery.
What is it that she heralds? Her presence heralds that buried bombs can explode to injure people long after they’ve been forgotten. That is one of the major themes of the novel. And, before long, Potts is no longer with us, the victim of a cow that stepped on a buried bomb from World War II and landed on him. And, on a more intimate scale, she is not invited to Potts’ funeral; the locals said that his unfortunate demise was what might be expected as Potts “should not have been trying to court Miss Herald in the first place, but should have stayed with ‘his own kind.’”
Miss Herald is indeed different, and things are about to happen.
Author Q & A
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to race sports cars until I was about 14, then wanted to be a basketball player. Then I wanted to be a history professor. I always wanted to be a writer.
What is your education/career background?
Groom High School; BA in History and Foreign Relations at West Texas State University; jurisdoctor of law degree at the University of Texas; Certificat at Academy of Fiction, St. Séré, France; presently in graduate school in creative writing at Rewley College, Oxford.
When you are struggling to write/have writer’s block, what are some ways that help you find your creative muse again?
I dig out one of several novels that just light my fires. Larry McMurtry teaches creative writing with every sentence. I read almost anything by Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell. John Lanchester and Hilary Mantel are creative and inspiring.
What do you think makes a good story?
A flawed protagonist, a conflict, a solution, then disaster.
Do you have any interesting writing habits or superstitions?
Probably not. I believe that when working on fiction, you should attempt 1000 words a day. I also believe that you should begin by reading what you wrote yesterday, edit and revise it, then move on to a fresh 1000 words. Repeat tomorrow.