When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Review by Daniel Charles Ross
When I first saw the cover of this novel, I immediately remembered one of my favorite movies, "Summer of '42." The movie brilliantly details the adolescent lives and times of two boys too young to go off to WW II, the heartbreak of a young war widow, and how those life streams connect.
The brilliance of Marjorie's based-on-a-true-story novel is that, like the movie did, it distills the life and times of people facing far-off WW II into a local conflict that they must battle hand to hand. The primary battle is sexism: protagonist Tylene (a real person) is the best choice to be the school's football coach, but the men in the decision chain are skeptical—and her opposing coaches are rudely dismissive.
We look back through our long lenses to those days and just shake our heads today. But this was another time and place that Majorie has reborn and given life.
Tylene was a real person in the Texas school football continuum, and her "factional" depiction is fully realized as a caring, football-loving teacher and school supporter who just wants to do the best thing for everyone. She infuses even her skeptical football team with energy and directs them with skill, finally overcoming the last barrier when a teammate's brother, a former school football stand-out now injured, gives his support.
In the end, they lose the Big Game, but they are victorious in pride and self-worth.
This is "Friday Night Lights" crossed with DNA from "Summer of '42." It has a little Sisyphean top-spin, with tasks that are both laborious and futile. The coaching trials compete with Tylene's effort to rescue a former student and football star from the life-eroding effects of his war wounds; with keeping her marriage happy and functioning; and occasionally, with her own self-doubt.
This is a finely tuned, lyrical story that evokes a time long past but mostly fondly remembered, the war years when Americans all pulled together to fight the Hun while mostly ignoring the social battles on the home front because that's what they always did then. The Greatest Generation at war sometimes wasn't so great back home.
Marjorie's seminal work will one day be taught in high school English Lit classes. Full disclosure: I'm proud to say I shared the Mountainview MFA program with her for a time, but it's clear she paid closer attention than I did. I'm told this story has been optioned for a movie, and that's great news.
But like one often says, the book is better.
Five Stars: One for any writer facing the anxiety of a blank page; one for an ignored story uncovered and illuminated well; one for finely drawn characters who come to life on the page and in the reader’s mind; one for a terrific cover; and one because I'm happy to think this is just the start of a wonderful career full of great reading for us all. Strongly, unequivocally recommended.
Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—was a Mountainview MFA student in 2015. The thriller that was to be his thesis, Force No One, comes out in the fall.