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The Power of Poetry to Survive War - an Editorial Review of "War Sonnets"

Updated: May 15, 2023

Book Blurb:

In the sweltering jungles of the Philippines, a young American Soldier and a Japanese fighter use the power of poetry to survive the World War II Battle for Luzon.

Leo Baldwin does not want to be his father, but he believes he has no choice. In the impoverished farming country of the 1930s, there are few alternatives for a young man with neither money nor experience. When he is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious university he sees his chance. But Uncle Sam comes calling and Leal is sent to train in Kansas and Texas, eventually ending up in the South Pacific at the height of the war with Japan.

Thirty-one-year-old Tadashi Abukara loves farming, believing it brings him closer to the Shinto spirits. He has married and has a newborn son when Emperor Hirohito calls upon him to defend Japan from the U.S and their allies. Tadashi desires to serve his emperor honorably, even if that means self-sacrifice, but he finds himself fighting a losing battle with enemy soldiers, nature, starvation, and disease. All his efforts focus on returning to the infant son he barely knows.

When Leal and Tadashi meet in the jungles of Luzon, only one will survive. But their poetry will live forever.

War Sonnets is a dual-POV WWII narrative connected with haikus and sonnets written by an actual WWII veteran.

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Editorial Review:

War Sonnets is a powerful and insightful novel that is set during the Japanese conflict of World War II. It begins with a prologue that takes place in Luzon, Philippines - where most of the fighting occurs - in July 1945. This gives us a glimpse of the war and foreshadowing of future events, definitely lays out an engaging introduction, and provides an inducement to continue reading.

There are many lifelike characters, but the story primarily follows the adventures and misadventures of American Sargent Leo Baldwin and Japanese Corporal Abukara Tadashi. Although they come from different cultures and are fighting on different sides, they are surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) similar, which helps to highlight the underlying theme of humanity in the face of adversity. There are several chapters interspersed that depict each man at home with their family prior to the war, and the fact that each was drafted shows that neither is eager to participate in the army. Both men use poetry to help themselves cope with the horrific events they witness and the things they are forced to do.

The novel is told from alternating viewpoints, and each chapter heading has the character, location, and time which ensures that the reader is following the story. I find this alternating to be helpful in seeing things from each character’s perspective, and also in holding the reader’s interest throughout the novel. That is not to say that the novel is uninteresting! The settings and events are vividly described, which combined with the lifelike characters make this a very compelling story.

Leo Baldwin (Leal only to his family) grew up on his family’s farm in upstate New York and is expected to take it over. The problem with that is that he has no interest in being a farmer, and wants to be a writer instead. With the help of his high school teacher, Leo gets a full scholarship to Cornell University and receives his parents’ blessing to attend. Two days before he is supposed to leave, however, he receives his “ORDER TO REPORT FOR INDUCTION.” So he gets his wish to leave the farm but not nearly in the way he had hoped or planned.

“The move from farming to the Army was jarring at first—like throwing a city boy on an unbroken stallion—but he’d adjusted, worked his way up to Drill Sergeant, and was now in the business of getting boys who should still be boys ready for war.” Leo adjusts to his new role and works his way up in the army, but it is not without difficulty. He struggles with the fighting itself, and also with some of the men in his command, and with the larger problem of missing his home and family, all while wondering what his future life will look like.

Abukara Tadashi is also a farmer, and is married with an infant child, when he receives his orders. He does not want to leave his family or his farm but finds himself with no alternative. “Tadashi remembered his compulsory military service eleven years ago. He was nineteen years old then, had never left his family home. The training was rigorous, the officers strict, and swift with harsh punishment for the smallest infraction. He had returned home stronger in both body and spirit…This life was everything Tadashi wanted. Money and possessions were unimportant. But today that life had been turned upside-down, perhaps forever. With tears in his eyes, he gently kissed his wife and child, and headed to the shed where the ox patiently waited.” His only saving grace is that his best friend - they refer to themselves as brothers - is called up with him and they end up together for the duration of their military service.

The lesser characters are also described in detail; their past, their feelings about the war, and their goals for the future. The author does an amazing job capturing the emotions and interactions of the people involved as well as the historical facts about the war. This gives a lifelike quality to the novel and helps to put the reader in the story.

There are some graphic parts, which I believe can be expected in a novel about war, and I feel that they add to the story rather than detract from it. None of the violence is gratuitous, and the descriptiveness is important to both the plot and character development.

Another unique characteristic of this novel is that many of the chapters are prefaced by a poem - a haiku for the Tadashi chapters and a sonnet for the Baldwin chapters. These poems offer insight into each character’s feelings at the current point in the story and are a creative way of providing more depth to each man’s personality and humanity.


December 1945

Home! Going home! I’m going home today.

War’s brutal horrors past, I’ve lived to see

The happy faces of my family;

But I am not the boy you sent away.

I am a well-trained killer; I have seen

Men die in fearful agony, while I

Have killed in turn, so that I might not die.

I am a killer. I am just nineteen.

I have no other marketable skill.

I went from high school straight into the war.

Now I am going home, to fight no more.

Now I must learn the work of shop and mill.

And leave behind the bayonet and gun.

A killer, yes; but I am still your son.

The novel ends with one final sonnet, above, which is universal to the plight of the majority of young men returning from the war. It also ends the story on a confident note, while acknowledging the horrors that have been faced and overcome. Overall this is an amazing story, and one that I think everyone should read.

Side note from the author: WAR SONNETS is based on the true story of the former WWII sergeant who wrote the poems, with permission to use them in the story.


“War Sonnets” by Susannah Willey receives five stars from The Historical Fiction Company and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence


Author Bio:

Susannah Willey is a baby boomer, mother of four, grandmother of three, and a recovering nerd. To facilitate her healing, she writes novels. In past lives she has been an office assistant, stay-at-home-mom, Special Education Teaching Assistant, School Technology Coordinator, and Emergency Medical Technician. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Instructional Computing from S.U.N.Y. Empire State College, and a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design from Boise State University. She grew up in the New York boondocks and currently lives in Central New York with her companion, Charlie, their three dogs, and Jelly Bean the cat.

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1 comentário

Malve von Hassell
Malve von Hassell
04 de ago. de 2022

It's great to see this!

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