Book Review 2007-015
The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck
2007 by Milkweed, 192 pages
While Matthew Eck served in the U.S. Army, during the mid-90's, in both Somalia and Haiti, he doesn't specify exactly where his protagonist, Joshua Stantz, and his five 'battle buddies' are serving beyond coastal Africa. As the novel progresses, and the situations and fates that befell these young men occur, it becomes clear that it was a conscious decision on Eck's part to not refer to a specific recent war or conflict too closely - that he was writing more about modern warfare, and to an extent, even more generally, about the day to day battles each of us encounters.
The novel begins with Stantz and his fellow soldiers on top of a building in a city being run ragged by warlords. They are recon - letting even more soldiers know how close they are coming to hitting thier targets when bombing the city - the thought process being if the U.S. and U.N. drop enough tonnage of explosives in the area, the warlords will let peaceful times back into daily lives for the citizens of the area.
An incident in the very beginning of the book, involving the deaths of two local children, puts these young men in a completely different path, that of trying to find their way out of the city safely. The incident is loud and their location now known, they are no longer safe.
Eck's writing is spare, and while I don't think for a minute the book would ever be categorized as a thriller, The Farther Shore truly is a page turner. As the first chapter ends, Eck writes:
"The bombing seemed to be subsiding. I wondered whether the grand strategy would really work. Maybe you really could scare a city into submission. We'll just wait here, I thought, and they'll come for us soon enough. The night was giving way to daylight, to a full-fledged Sunday morning.
My ears hummed and my head felt heavy. I leaned forward and rested my head in my hands. So this was what combat is like, to engage the enemy and fire your weapon. I felt renewed in the world, alive and well. The heat of my sickness was gone, replaced by a sensation of light and power. I leaned further forward, smiling."
There is this lack of moralizing throughout Eck's writing. Stantz and his men really aren't portrayed as heroes, and, in fact, at times one might even lean in the other direction. As the men realize that "they'll come for us soon enough" isn't going to happen and begin to attempt to find their way out of the city, the real action begins.
Eck captures Stantz' travels in all their perspiration filled, heat-spurred dizzyness. Where there is certainly a physical toll in being constantly on the move, carrying everything they have with them, extreme heat and lack of sleep - listening in on the conversations and thoughts of Stantz and the others, Eck makes it clear that the mental toll is even more strenuous. Not everybody makes it out alive, there is confusion, and death, and disorientation, and Eck confidently places his readers right alongside these men in their journey.