World War I ended one hundred years ago. Over fifteen million soldiers and civilians were killed, countries laid waste, survivors left with permanent scars. The flu epidemic killed fifty million more, over six hundred thousand in the United States alone.
These happened long ago, but they were current events for Emilie Loring.
Emilie sent two sons to World War I. Her younger son, Selden, delivered ammunition to the front of fronts in ten campaigns in France. He wrote home,
“Having been blessed with orchestra seats for the whole show, I have been forced to observe at close quarters most of the methods of modern warfare and have been included in nearly all the offensives both Allied and German.”
Emilie Loring saw first-hand the ravages of “shell shock”–what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder–in returning soldiers. She recruited community members to take shell-shocked and gassed veterans away from their hospitals for drives in the country. “Do you care?” she challenged in a newspaper article. “Then say it with automobiles.”
She chose shell shock for the theme of her second novel, The Princess and the Pilgrim. This wasn’t the feel-good romance her publisher expected. The personal costs of war–mental illness, physical disability, broken relationships, and lackluster job opportunities–were too close to bear. Shell shock was still poorly understood, and there were no accepted treatment strategies.
“Got captured in some battle–told me where but I can’t pronounce it–and was in a prison camp for months. And, by the Lord, he found his own brother in the same camp! How about that? … The brother was in bad shape, though, Al told us. Shell shock? Something like that?” He looked inquiringly at Scott.
“Shell shock, battle fatigue–call it anything. It’s hell!”
Her publisher wouldn’t take it.
The Princess and the Pilgrim sat untouched among Emilie Loring’s “on hand” stories for three decades, through the Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. In 1957, her sons resurrected the manuscript and published it under a new title, Look to the Stars. They knew its importance; they had served and seen shell shock firsthand.
Little rewriting was required. The war and flu epidemic were made less distinct–it could be any war, any epidemic–but the theme remained. The continued effect of war on returned soldiers and their families was shown by characters Scott Pelham, Johnny Tinker, Ace Daley, and Ken Randolph.
Obediently Tinker sank into the comfortable armchair beside the fireplace. Dusk was shadowing the room so that Scott saw him dimly as he snapped his lighter, from long habit cupping his hands close to hide the glow from enemy watchers. How many more years, Scott wondered, would that caution govern him? Invariably it woke the memory of a narrow valley between ragged hills, and the whole ablaze with crimson and orange fire and the searing white flare of bursting shells. Tinker had saved Scott’s life that night; what return could he ever make that would begin to balance that debt?
… After Tinker had saved his captain in that nightmare battle for a miserable hill, Scott found him in a base hospital. Could he ever forget the wracking ordeal of that visit? Johnny Tinker, of reckless ferocity in a raid or mop-up, this ghost-pale, dazed boy who lay mumbling and shaking on a tumbled cot? Suffering from wounds and battle fatigue when he reached the hospital, he had collapsed heart and soul after a careless medic read him a letter from home.
Not a letter from his mother, this time, but from a doctor who fumbled in vain for gentle words to tell him that his whole family, mother, father and sister, had been wiped out by an epidemic.
Scott left the hospital swearing at a fate which could heartlessly batter a helpless man. A few years later, the same revulsion sickened him when he met the ghost of Johnny Tinker, gaunt, unshaven and close to prostration, stumbling along a downtown street… From that meeting on, Tink had a home and Scott Pelham a devotee, servant and friend.
Scott felt a warm surge of pity and admiration. The man whom Daley claimed was one hundred percent improved still suffered through spells of reliving the frightful months in an enemy stockade. Still knew the agonizing hope of escape, relying on his only friend. And yet, with all this he was unselfish and brave enough to multiply the risks by taking another prisoner with him.
“… Her letters were always full of ‘little Ken’s’ doings; she adored the boy.” Nancy stood up, moved to the mantel and needlessly straightened a silver candlestick. “Then Ken went in the Army, went overseas, saw action–” Her voice choked; in a moment she whispered, “Then word came that he was gone–nothing came back but a decoration.”
Frustration with care for the as-yet-poorly-understood shell shock took current care to task:
“You know the government will do everything possible for a soldier disabled in any way.”
“I’d rather do it myself! I’ve looked after him ever since I found him… He’s a good kid–and smart in his way. Suppose I’d let the Army stick him in one of their hospitals with a lot of guys who were really off? It would have finished him! Alone, in a crowd of nuts–nobody knowing who he was– … He’s staying with me! … The minute we hit the U.S. he begun to look different; all of them foreign places worried him, sort of. Why, right now he’s keepin’ my books–I’m my own manager, see?–and can he keep books! And he made that sign downstairs. He’s smart, Captain.”
The “smart kid” turned out to be Faith Randolph’s brother: missing in action, presumed dead, and now recovering.
“Think of him coming back to us after all this time; it’s unbelievable.” Her voice lowered in sudden apprehension. “He will be all right, won’t he? Dr. Paddock didn’t say that just to comfort us?”
“No, he told me the same. And before I left, Kendall had awakened and seemed perfectly normal–and very cheerful.”
All of Emilie Loring’s stories have themes about conscience and character. Look to the Stars is distinct because it struck too close to home when first written. The other characteristics we love in her novels are certainly present.
There is a love story with temporary complications:
Slowly understanding flowed into him. This was the girl he loved, no matter what her name, and she was not engaged to Tink! The color rushed back into his face and his eyes flamed as he took an impetuous step toward her.
And because this was the first novel she set in Boston(!), it’s almost a travelogue of her neighborhood:
Minutes later he hurried along Beacon Street, heading for the Common. The Park Street Church clanged a solemn quarter-hour warning. Better give up hope of a ride and cut straight across to Tremont, then down Winter, on foot. At the head of the Guild steps, which led from Beacon Street onto the Common, a jovial hail forced him to pause again.
Finally, an uplifting passage provides the title:
She looked up into the storm. “I can’t look to the stars for guidance now.”
“Why not?” Scott encouraged. “They’re still there, above the clouds, ready to give you counsel.”
“So they are! What a comforting thought that they are always twinkling messages of hope, no matter how clouded one’s own world.”
Thirty-four years after it was written, six years after Emilie Loring died, The Princess and the Pilgrim became Look to the Stars, and we have a thirty-first novel to consider her own. I thank her sons for that!
If you have a chance, visit the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. It is well worth the visit, and you will learn more than you imagine. Click here for more information.