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Reviewed by:
  • Prisoners of War
  • Michael Piafsky
Prisoners of War by Steve YarbroughKnopf, 2004, 285 pp., $23

In Prisoners of War, Steve Yarbrough takes us to Loring, a small Mississippi town conscripted to host German prisoners of war during World War II. The war is a looming presence in the novel, but we see battlefields only obliquely, through memories. Yarbrough mainly restricts our vision to the changes that the war forces upon the town and its inhabitants.

Loring is a town trapped in the past, its race relations still mired in Civil War prejudice and hatred. It remains the sort of town where black men are called "boy," where a black man honking his horn risks a beating. But change is imminent, and as its young men are sacrificed to the war in Europe, to return damaged if at all, the town's inhabitants are forced to deal with an emerging national identity—what it is to be an American, defining oneself by a scale larger than black or white, Yankee or Southerner. For the white townsfolk, this identity is convoluted by the hierarchy that has dominated its society: the German prisoners of war, whatever their crimes, are afforded a respect denied to the black workers. For a black man of Loring, this emerging national identity comes down to a single question: whether the America he's seen is worth preserving, whether it is sensible "to die like a dog for folks who thought he was a mule."

Through the book's roving narrator, we come to know some of the town's inhabitants better than others. The three most prevalent voices are those of Dan Timms, the seventeen-year-old boy managing his family cotton farm and counting the months until he turns eighteen and can volunteer; Marty Stark, the soldier returning home to work at the prison camp; and L. C., the talented black guitarist who works the canteen for Dan's uncle Alvin, the local black-market goods supplier. But more than these men, or the many others whose voices populate the novel, the main character is the town of Loring, reluctantly modernized by war needs, its diners soon to turn to full-service restaurants, its agrarian economy replaced by factories.

At times this roving narrator creates problems for Yarbrough. There is an early disorientation as we wait for characters we have invested in to return and complete their stories. Certain details are never resolved: Frank Holder's revelation about his son's death, Shirley Timms's musings on her relationship with her late husband's brother. There are many strings, and too many people even in the small town of Loring [End Page 201] for the novel to entirely succeed at the broad coverage it attempts. The narrative technique makes it difficult for us to get close enough to Dan, Marty and L. C. to develop the relationships we need and want at the novel's conclusion.

But Yarbrough's considerable talents as a writer are too strong to allow the novel to fail. His writing is so clean, so precise, that we forgive the book its flaws. His humor, slow and easy for his white characters, biting for his black ones, can be seen throughout. He moves us into this world, submerges us in it, and so we come to know it perfectly. These are men whose eyes have been opened to experiences larger than they could have imagined, women waiting for their chance to "put things back together," a town of people "just trying to keep rhythm with times so irregular, searching hard for a melody and a few simple words that made any sense at all."



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pp. 201-202
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