I received this copy of Soldier Girl from Second Story Press when I visited back in June and I slotted it in for Historical Fiction month. I have to say, again, I am loving Historical Fiction month – I’m getting to books that have been on my shelf for far too long, and I am loving them.
Meg took a deep breath. “Hold my hands,” she said quietly.
Meg grasped Ned’s hands and held them firmly. They felt hot. “I will take you to be my husband,” she said.
Ned repeated the vow and gave Meg a questioning look. “Is that all?”
“Well traditionally, I think we would exchange rings. You’ve already given me one. I don’t have a ring for you, but…” Meg’s voice trailed off. She turned to him and unwrapped the small bundle she had hidden in the apron of her skirt. “I want you to take this with you to the front.”
Surprised, Ned looked down to see Meg’s little wooden doll. Only now, it had been painted. Meg had carefully decorated the tiny figure in a soldier’s uniform: khaki trousers and tunic with tiny buttons. There were even painted breast pockets, shoulder straps, and rifle patches.
“I painted it.” Meg’s voice was shy now. “I thought it could be a friend for you. When you feel lonely or afraid. It’s always been a friend for me.” She offered it to him.
Moved, Ned took the wooden doll, staring at its shiny painted bots. “I can’t possibly take this, Meg. Your father made it for you.” He tried to give it back to her.
“Ned, you must.” She pushed the doll back into his hands. “It will comfort me to think Will is with you. And when you look at him, you’ll think of me.”
“Well,” said Ned. He sounded doubtful. “If you really want me to take it, I will. I daresay it will be nice to have some company on the battlefield.” He smiled. “I promise to keep him safe, Meg.” He took the keepsake and tucked it into the breast pocket of his coat.
And so begins the life of the Soldier Doll.
Soldier Doll takes place primarily in 2007 through the third person limited perspective of Elizabeth who has recently been dragged from all that she knew by her military father to Toronto (trust me, I can relate). Elizabeth’s family, in addition to recovering from the move, is preparing for her father’s tour in Iraq. Before he leaves Elizabeth wants to get him a gift for his birthday and that’s when she discovers the Soldier Doll. The story follows Elizabeth as she copes with the changes in her life but is also interrupted by Historical vignettes about the Doll and the many wars it, and humanity, has survived.
This was a really quick read and it accomplished telling the tale of an inanimate object beautifully. I really felt attached to the doll as it took us readers through the characters’ lives it touched. Gold takes us through four major world conflicts and truly questions the justifications of war and yet, while it doesn’t by any means trivialize the horrors and consequences of war, it manages to maintain a hopeful tone. I think this is the part of the book I enjoyed the most, the very human story of hope amidst the equally human story of war and hate.
Despite it’s refreshing tone and the interest following the doll creates — the narrative was just a little over ambitious. Encompassing both Elizabeth’s story in 2007 (told in present tense) and also many characters’ lives, drama, love and death through four world conflicts (told in past tense) was a little bit jarring and sometimes confusing. Honestly, by the end of the book I decided that I could have done without Elizabeth’s story at all. I mean, as a military brat myself it was really nice to relate to Elizabeth in that way, but in terms of story, well, it just felt separate. I found much of what happened to Elizabeth to be happenstance, i.e. she finds the doll (she’s going to give her dad a doll? In 2007?) and then stumbles upon the poem the doll inspired and thus Elizabeth know’s the name of the author and therefore the original owner, etc. etc.. It was just too contrived. For me, the present tense felt stilted and awkward compared to the wonderful flow of the past. I felt that Elizabeth’s story and her loss somehow undercut the focus of the story being on the resolution of the Doll’s own life, and the resolution of all the people who’s stories are war torn and wrapped up with the doll a part of the doll’s story itself. I think that, perhaps, a series of tight knit short stories or vignettes would have really unearthed this story’s potential.
However, I still recommend this book. I think that Gold has told me four great stories, or five including the doll’s, and failed at only one. I thoroughly enjoyed the historical aspects of the book and am still enamoured with the idea of following a Doll, or any inanimate object, through History. The ambience of the historical periods, the character’s mannerisms and attitudes from the past – I stepped into those worlds and really tasted how unfair war is. As a debut novel this one is a wonderful accomplishment and I look forward to whatever Gold comes out with next.