Sep 20 2016

When All the World Was Young by Ferrol Sams

When All the World Was Young wraps up Ferrol Sams’ semi-autobiographical bildungsroman trilogy that began in Run With the Horsemen and continued in The Whisper of the River. It follows Porter Osborne, Jr., from his entrance into the medical school at Emory University six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor through his service in the US Army until he heads home in early 1945.

The first book told of a childhood both privileged and circumscribed, with Porter growing up as the son of a cotton planter in rural, early 20th century Georgia. It was a world still close to the soil, ruled by the rhythms of the seasons and by the near-feudal social relations of the Jim Crow South. Porter’s name was seldom used; within the closed cosmos of the county, everyone knew who he was. The second book carried him through his college years, a time of learning and exploring, marked by professors, girls, and pranks. Names play a role there, too, as he learns to juggle the identities marked by his full name, his childhood moniker (Sambo), and nicknames bestowed on him by friends. His world is bigger, but still protected by his social standing and his status as a college student.

Medical school will be different for him, above all because of the World War that America has now joined. “The eyes and forefinger of Uncle Sam, in heroic proportion, pointed from poster and billboard and proclaimed that he wanted You. The eyes followed the observer everywhere. So did the finger.” (p. 3) Porter feels called to duty, but also afraid of what that mean, and ashamed that he is afraid, and more so because his place in medical school carries with it an exemption from the draft. His father, who served as a captain in the First World War, tries to set him straight. “They [the Army] think they need doctors and need them desperately. Do you know that they cut off the general draft age at thirty but keep on drafting doctors until they’re forty-five? Did you know that? … The Army knows where you are. They need you as a skilled physician, not as just another dog face. You’re doing your part for the war as much as anybody else.” (p. 4–5)

Though the work load in medical is crushing, the thought that he should be taking a more active role in the war never leaves Porter. Sams recreates life as a student in the big city, at a big-name university. The professors teach and terrify, although some of them turn out to be human as well. Sams captures the rigors of entering a profession, the in-between status of someone who is no longer an undergrad but not just yet a peer of the men and women educating them with the aim of making them peers in a brief time. In this case, the time is made even briefer by the war, which lurks behind almost every interaction.

Eventually, it is not just Porter who is interested in the war; the war takes an interest in him, in its impersonal and bureaucratic way. Porter spends his first weeks of Army training in the wintry plains of Illinois, seemingly a world away from the close confines of his Georgia home. He meets a cast of characters that will be familiar in its outlines from many war movies, but one that also reflects how people from America’s diverse regions and cultures really were thrown together as GIs. Seventy years ago, the mental and cultural distances that people traveled upon enlistment were much greater than they are today.

Porter continues to have issues with authority, something that does not go over very well in the Army. But he’s also smart and astute, and never quite gets irretrievably caught. Sams does not hide the absurdities of Army life, but neither is this a biting satire in the mold of Catch-22. He also does well with the problem of scale in writing a novel of World War Two. Some characters reappear, unexpectedly, washed back into Porter’s life by the tides of history and bureaucracy. Others, including one or two I dearly wished he would see again, disappear just as handily, and it is not always wartime death that takes them. The Army’s medical corps in Europe is not so vast that seeing people again seems absurd, but not so small that a limited cast of characters could encompass it all; the approach Sams takes struck a good balance.

As fits with the end of a bildungsroman, the characters Porter encounters are more complex than the people he knew when he was younger. Maybe the hard-ass, clueless Army major really does have a point about the choices Porter is making. Maybe the young woman so taken with him has ulterior motives. Maybe the entitled jerk from medical school is carrying his own burdens. Sams’ strength as a storyteller lets readers work these notions out for themselves. Porter grows, sees more of the world, experiences the horrors and contradictions of war.

The series comes to a fitting conclusion, but I can’t help liking the first book best. Maybe it’s because that Porter, as many people do, becomes more like everyone else as he grows and learns. Maybe it’s the artistic tightness of the Run With the Horsemen, as contrasted to the slightly sprawling 600 pages of the last volume. Maybe it’s the clear sense of time and space, of an apparent timelessness bound to the very specific conditions of a particular time. Looking back through When All the World Was Young to write this short piece, I fell easily into re-reading a page or two of the incidents Sams recounts from the war years. But when I think over all three books, it’s the singular world of Run With the Horsemen that I think am most likely to return to.

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