Book review: ‘Margaret’s War’ by Bill Stokes

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

World War II was well underway, and 13-year-old Billy Forrest was missing it. He had no chance to be a war hero, and what chance would he have with the girls when the heroes returned?

There were more immediate problems. His uncle Jeff had joined the service, leaving behind his new bride, Margaret (Zander) Forrest. Margaret was Billy’s friend and secret crush. The crush was made no easier by the fact that Margaret counted on young Billy to be her confidant in this time of need. So, along with Margaret, Billy had to fear what was happening to Jeff all the while envying him the chance to be a hero. Billy’s desire for heroic action was countered by his friend and mentor, Cy Butler. Cy was educated; in fact, he was a lawyer. But he also was seldom sober, and he made a great effort to explain the stupidity of war to anyone and everyone, particularly the veterans.

We see the story unfold through Billy’s eyes. Consequently, we also see the world of a 13-year-old boy unfold. Billy works at Cliff’s service station, a full-service station unlike today’s self-service. Your windows will be washed, your oil checked and even your tires if you wish. He and his dog Toby also frequent a large, nearby swamp. But currently Billy’s mind is on the war, his Uncle Jeff and Jeff’s new wife Margaret. This is mostly because Margaret’s mind is on little else and she lays many of her concerns on Billy. Billy prayed for Jeff and wondered about God’s role in war.

The recent addition of a German POW camp to the area doesn’t help. Bringing the Nazi prisoners to Oxbow to harvest peas may seem helpful to some, but these are the guys who are killing our boys. Their arrival brings the war a little too close for many. It’s now that Margaret learns that Jeff is missing in action. She is beside herself with worry, and her actions become less than rational. In fact, she decides that the right thing to do would be to kill a captured German soldier. And she demands this of Billy.

Billy’s often inebriated friend, Cy, manages to hold her off by saying that he has an even more effective plan in development. Cy is convinced that the plan is brilliant and that it is just unique enough that it might work. Mothers of Prisoners, or MOP, has the unique feature that it stresses the feelings that mothers have regarding their sons and war. First, we write Eleanor Roosevelt and enlist her help; she gets things done. Then we get Jeff’s mother to sign a letter written to a German mother offering to trade her son for Jeff. Among the many difficulties, of course, is obtaining one of the POWs.

Margaret reluctantly accepts the plan, but she is so anxious to get it underway that she forces its beginning before the seemingly long-delayed letter from Eleanor Roosevelt comes. A POW working for a local farmer is captured with little problem. It was made much easier by the fact that the German spoke English and vehemently denied being a Nazi. Billy knows of the remnants of an abandoned lumber camp in the swamp, and that’s where they hold the prisoner. So now they have the prisoner but no clear idea of what to do with him while they wait for the other half of the plan to fall in place. And Margaret is seeming less and less stable. How long will it take for the army to notice a POW missing? And how long can they count on Margaret remaining somewhat rational?

Cy hasn’t been seen for several days, and he is the mastermind for this whole thing. He should be dealing with this, not Billy. When Cy does show up, he introduces Billy to his new bride, a black woman, the only black woman in Oxbow, and one more than most want. There are complications to be addressed before this story ends.

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