Icebergs, by Rebecca Johns

The lost heroes of America
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The Independent Culture

There have been reams written about the massive disruption caused by the servicemen who returned home after long absences during the Second World War. For many children, their father was only a photograph on the mantelpiece until his jarring reality came back. After the war, divorce rates soared. There were also the thousands who didn't return, or came back nursing deep mental or physical wounds. But Rebecca Johns's tautly written debut novel looks at how those effects lingered into the next generation, with often devastating consequences.

Icebergs opens as a Liberator aircraft with a Canadian crew, heading from Iceland in 1944, is shot down over the wilderness of Labrador, killing the pilot and tailgunner. Alistair Clark, the navigator, and Walt Dunmore, the wireless air gunner, survive the crash into dense forest in midwinter. Walt suffers burns to his hands but does what he can to keep his mate alive despite the freezing temperatures. Finally, a trapper finds them but by then Alistair is dead, and Walt's hands so severely frost-bitten he will lose seven fingers.

In the morgue, Walt removes a photograph and letter that would have incriminated Alistair's reputation as a dutiful husband. Back home, Walt's young wife Dottie waits for the return of a virtual stranger. From there, the couple must carve out a new life together. When they move to Chicago with their two sons, Adele, Alistair's widow, and daughter Caroline join them. But Adele's life is blighted by this early loss, despite the support of Walt and Dottie.

Johns explores in gritty detail the corroding effect this has on Caroline, shaping her attachments and ambitions. Walt's sons also come of age during the Vietnam War and his eldest, Sam, drops out of university to repeat the cycle and enlist with the US army. When Sam is deployed, he remembers his father's caution that "the only true war story... is one in which you are never the hero. It is never about what happened but about the shock of finding yourself alive on the other side of it."

Johns has drawn the domestic parallel with wives and children affected by that shock. She also explores that rare territory of Canadian experience, life in the US - where, unlike Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slavs, Greeks or Jews, they had no identifiable neighbourhood. "They blended." So too have their individual histories, which Johns has shaped into a powerful narrative about the complicated ties that bind.

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