One of the most powerful novels I have ever read about World War I is Erich Maria Remarque's classic novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. Now I can add Sebastian Barry's 2005 novel, A Long, Long Way to that very short list.
The Irish author and playwright sends barely eighteen-year-old Willie Dunne to Flanders in this harrowing account of divided loyalties and the realities of war. Willie's story begins with one of the most beautiful first lines I have ever read: He was born in the dying days. The first chapter follows a simple, short recap of Willie's young life and stops when he sees in love at first with the beautiful young Gretta Lawlor.
Next, it's 1914, and Willie finds himself on the front lines, a Dubliner fighting with the Allied forces against Germany on the Western Front. Readers experience the horrors of life in the trenches and the devastating affects of the gas attacks. Willie has never encountered such violence and such a tragic waste of life. Letters from home and his buddies help keep his spirits bolstered, but as friend after friend becomes a statistic in the wounded and dead toll, Willie struggles to understand the new world around him.
When he does get a leave and goes home, Dublin is much different than when he left. While his sisters are overjoyed he's home, his father is deeply disappointed in some of Willie's views, and his sweetheart, Gretta, has bad news for him. He rushes back to the front, more comfortable with the war and the havoc it wracks than he is at home.
While A Long, Long Way is not a page-turner, it is compulsive reading. It was short listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. Nobel Prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee sums up Barry's work best, A deeply moving story of courage and fidelity" that should be mandatory reading in high school.