Chris Helvey’s excellent and moving historical novel, Violets for Sergeant Schiller, is a fast-paced story full of drama and adventure about WWI told from the point of view of a young German soldier, who is also a poet.
The book is reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front (1928), sometimes acclaimed as the greatest war novel of all time. That’s a bit like being compared to Shakespeare perhaps, but both books do describe the horror and suffering of German soldiers, their enemies, and civilians during the “war to end all wars,” including how the survivors’ lives are forever changed.
Readers may wonder why an American writer like Helvey, a Spalding U. MFA grad, would choose such a daunting and seemingly unlikely topic—the bloody trench warfare in Europe that ended over a century ago—for his fifth novel. Perhaps it was the challenge of humanizing the enemy soldier, or the need to remind us of the staggering destructiveness of a war that produced some forty million military and civilian casualties.
In any case, Helvey does both quite well. It is an earnestly told tale, occasionally leavened by protagonist Karl Schiller’s ironic humor about war’s absurdity, and also by a few lines of his moving poetry.
The story begins with the introduction of the popular poet who is in Paris at the war’s outbreak. Schiller soon finds himself in the Kaiser’s army and thrust into battle at the front. Hardly a stereotypical bloodthirsty Hun, he is rather an idealistic soul with a strong sense of duty who becomes deeply scarred by the death and destruction he faces continuously. Gradually, he becomes aware that he is no longer the man he was at war's outset.
The novel gains momentum—along with Schiller’s transformation—with the German army’s headlong rush through Belgium. Cut off from his unit and seeking shelter for the night, Karl discovers a likely looking barn. Concealed inside it is a frightened, angry widow named Sanne, who is hiding from the marauding Germans ransacking her farm and the entire countryside. The tense romantic scene that follows could easily have become farcical, but it does not, a tribute to the writer's skill.
For the rest of the novel, Schiller thinks about Sanne and the unlikely prospect of someday returning to her. She might not even want him, he thinks, but that hope keeps him going through his darkest moments.
As they advance swiftly, the German soldiers are confident—overconfident, as it turns out–that it will all be over soon with the capture of Paris, which will knock France out of the war. Of course, that does not happen. Instead, the advance stalls and the soldiers wind up in horrible trenches for months. Schiller’s companions—including his three brothers—are wounded or killed until he is among the few remaining “originals” still fighting.
Eventually wounded, Schiller is hospitalized. He mends, only to return to combat once more. He dodges artillery blasts and machine gun enfilades, occasionally engaging bravely in fierce hand-to-hand combat—all of it rendered with admirable realistic detail and tautness. The fighting goes on and on until the by now combat-hardened veteran sergeant is captured by the British. Freed by fortune, however, he decides it is time to make a separate peace.
Schiller attempts to return from France to Belgium and Sanne, if she is still alive and will have him. His long flight from battle is both suspenseful and grueling. Along the way, his encounters with the enemy demonstrate their mutual humanity and prove the futility of their undertaking. All this feels completely genuine and ends with a release of emotion that is deeply affecting.
Violets for Sergeant Schiller is a triumph for Helvey, who has also published two short story collections and edits Trajectory
Published by Wings ePress, Newton, Kansas, 2020, www.wingsepress.com
Chris Helvey's short stories have been published by numerous reviews and journals, and he is the author of the novels Yard Man and Dancing on the Rim, Snapshot, and Whose Name I Did Not Know, plus the short story collections One More found and Claw Hammer.