ROSE FROM THE ASHES by Christine Keleny is an example of premiere World War II fiction. This is the third novel of Keleny’s amazing Rose Series. Having finished the book, I wish there were more!
Pregnant and newly widowed, army nurse Rose Krantz returns to her family’s Wisconsin farm. For Rose it’s a place of sanctity where her late husband Malcolm’s funeral takes place but also discrimination. Accompanied home by her best friend, Lilly Mae, who is black, Rose resents a racially charged comment against her. Having been through thick and thin with Lilly Mae (in prior books of the series) Rose struggles with prevailing attitudes of the 1940s.
The public supports men who suffer battle fatigue while ignoring women who endured hardship under fire, caught diseases, and risked their lives to care for the wounded. Rose’s nightmares and flashbacks have equal impact, but the public’s reaction is shallow. Rose no longer sees the world through rose-colored glasses. There’s nothing like war to turn the world upside-down.
At the beginning of his four-week leave, former boyfriend Earl visits Rose during the time of Malcolm’s funeral but remains at a respectful distance. Any reader would admire Earl for his genuine and empathetic nature. Accepting his condolences, Rose walks the perimeter of fields with him. Neither let down their guards, mindful of gossip spilling over the party-line. Slated for the war in the Pacific, Rose doesn’t want another man she adores to die on her again. She tells him she’ll keep in touch through friends and doesn’t tell him of her pregnancy. The beautiful and complex woman lets him down easy. When Earl leaves on a motorcycle, he hopes she hasn’t given up on him. Will he find a way to start over with Rose? The war has put miles on both their hearts.
Rose from the Ashes by Christine Keleny resonated with me and will remain forever on my Kindle. I look forward to repeat performances as the book transports me back to this pivotal period. Descriptions such as her sister Gerty’s apartment are superb: “It’s got two bedrooms and stays nice and warm all wintr with Ferrell’s drug store just below us. They only turn off the heat on Sundays. And we’re close enough to the river that we get a nice breeze in the summer.” Keleny’s characters representative of America’s Heartland, but Rose’ story is captivating
Let me tell you about Christine’s many talents. She is a writer, reader, author, editor, book designer and publisher. She is a mother of two, mostly grown, children and a wife. She likes working with my hands, so when the need or desire arises, she will crochet, sew, tile, paint, cross stitch, frame pictures, stain furniture, cut and split fire wood, x-country ski…
But her main loves are writing and helping others publish the book of their dreams. She started writing in college (a while ago!) and hasn’t stopped since. Her publishing company is at http://www.ckbookspublishing.com. Her book blog is at http://www.ckbooksblog.wordpress.com. She is having the time of her life!
Here is an excerpt from Chapter One, Rose from the Ashes:
With her eyes shut tight against the smoke, Rose covered her head with her hands in a feeble attempt to protect herself from falling debris. All Rose could think was: Is this it? After all this time, has my luck finally run out?
Rose could feel the body lying next to hers without opening her eyes. She could hear the breathing. It was deep and heavy. It obviously wasn’t a fellow nurse; it was a man breathing. Alfee must have been walking me to the mess tent, she thought absentmindedly as she waited for the next blast to come. I really should have brought my helmet, came the quick afterthought. Bea will spit tacks if I die from a piece of shrapnel to my head. She hates it when soldiers are brought in with head wounds ʼcause they didn’t put their helmet on. It just burns her britches, as she would say in her funny Texas drawl. Rose smirked at the thought, even though she knew she was not in a funny situation. It all seemed funny in a sick sort of way after a while.
Rose let her eyes open a slit. The smoke was starting to clear but something larger was blocking the sun from her face. She opened her eyes completely and saw a pair of boots standing in front of her. Those aren’t Army regulation. And they were peeking out from under a pair of denim pants, worn and tattered on the bottom.
Rose sighed and closed her eyes again.
When she finally got the gumption to open them again, she looked at the man who had been lying next to her. He had risen to his knees. She didn’t look up into his face, she was too embarrassed. He was wearing his dress greens, but he didn’t have Alfee’s slender frame. This man was stocky and well built.
At least I wasn’t the only one who hit the dirt, she thought—her only solace as she envisioned how she must look laying face down in the grass in her black mourning dress.
“Rose? Are you okay?” came the familiar voice of her father, the owner of the boots and the well-worn overalls that covered them.
Rose pushed herself to her knees and looked at the two men who were now both looking down at her. They both held out a hand. She didn’t know which one to take, so she took them both. “I’m fine,” she said, not looking either man in the eye.
“It happens to me all the time,” the soldier next to Rose said. “But it hurts a bit more when you do it out of a sound sleep and flop onto a hard wood floor!” he chuckled.
Rose smiled and nodded in acknowledgement. That hadn’t happened to her yet. She hadn’t been sleeping very well since…well, since her husband, Malcolm, had been killed in Germany over a month ago now. She did duck at loud sounds, but, strangely to Rose, not at someone’s unexpected touch. She had lost that reflex after a conversation with a strange Indian soldier in Germany one cold January night.
Rose looked at the man in uniform standing smartly next to her, and she grinned.
“I’m sorry I startled you…you both.” Rose’s father hesitated as he looked at the young soldier that he didn’t know but who looked familiar to him somehow.
Rose caught his questioning tone.
“I’m sorry, Dad. This is Earl. You remember Earl Hadwig?”
Her father cocked his head.
“He helped Lilly Mae and me when we went in the ditch that night after the fireworks,” she said, jogging his memory with a night she thought he would surely remember.
She would never forget it, and a soft blush filled her cheeks as she glanced at Earl, thinking of that night, their embrace, their kiss on the kitchen porch, just a few feet from where they now stood but so many more experiences further away.
Karl’s face brightened, and he extended a hand to the relieved soldier.
“Of course! Earl! Welcome! Welcome back, son!” he said, placing his free hand on Earl’s shoulder. “Sorry about that truck. Carburetor needs cleaning, but I never seem to get around to it. I’ll make sure I warn you next time I start it up.”
“That’s all right, sir. I think my jumpiness is getting better,” he lied. “Hopefully, in a couple more weeks…”
He trailed off then looked at Rose. He didn’t believe it himself, but he wondered if Rose did or if she had nightmares, too.
The nightmares hadn’t eased anymore than the duck-and-cover reaction he still had to loud noises. But the dreams were worse, in Earl’s eyes. They were so real; the screaming of incoming mortars filling his ears and burrowing into his brain; the feel of dirt on his lips as he buried his face in the ground, wondering if he had time to dig a trench, just a shallow depression, anything to get him out of the open. But most easily his dreams brought up the acrid taste of fear, the wrenching in his gut, the sweat on his brow, or the stream of perspiration running down his back while he hoped and prayed that bomb, that bullet, that piece of shrapnel didn’t have his name on it.
But what Earl feared even more than being killed was being wounded, wounded so badly that he would lose an arm or a leg and be returned home as just part of a man. He had seen plenty of that in his own unit and, like most of the men, he felt he’d rather be dead than live like that.
The thing that Earl just couldn’t get over about the war was the randomness of it all. You could be sitting next to your jeep, having a smoke, and suddenly, the guy next to you stops talking. You look over at him and his head is bent to his chest and there is a dark, wet stain building on the front of his shirt. Or when you get up in the night to take a leak and a shell lands on the tank you were just sleeping under and it goes up like a Ronson―they would all joke—just like the lighter.
Earl knew you had to laugh sometimes and make fun of the absurdity of it all. You had to laugh or you would break down and cry, or worse, go off your nut like some of the guys did and start shooting at anything that moved or just curl up in a ball and fade away.
He hoped Rose didn’t have dreams like he had. She couldn’t, Earl thought. She was too lovely to have such bad dreams. He looked over at Rose and smiled warmly. He had thought a lot about Rose over there. In between the skirmishes, there were long, boring marches or just times when they sat around waiting for things to happen. Those were times when it was easy to think about home, about Rose: the wave in her auburn hair, her crystal blue eyes, the lavender scent she always wore. It got him through many a long night. And now he was standing next to her again. He couldn’t believe his luck. But a lot of things had happened between the last time he had seen her and now. At the moment his innate optimism was wrestling with his trepidation, and he was determined it would win. Earl wasn’t going to squander the opportunity they’d both been given.
Rose smiled sheepishly back at Earl then looked down at the ground. His eyes seemed to bore right through her.
As they stood in awkward silence, the wind changed direction, and the small group was engulfed in smoke once more.
“Here, let’s step out of the path of this smoke. I’m burning garbage and the wind’s blowin’ every which way. I should have waited until evening to do this when the wind dies down. Sorry ʼbout that,” Karl said.
“No problem, Mr. Krantz. It’ll give us a good reason to take a walk.”
Rose looked up. “Walk? Sure! We…we can head out the field road,” she said with some hesitation. Nervous, she headed between the barn and the house, not waiting to see if Earl was following.
Rose didn’t want to walk on the road. Someone might see them, then rumors would start to fly. “Her husband’s not even dead a month, and she’s walking with some stranger―and a soldier no less!” “I saw Rose Krantz walking with a young man the other day, and they were alone!” She could hear the party line a buzz with the news.
Frankly, it was surprising news to her as well. Rose hadn’t thought much about Earl since Malcolm had told her he had come across him on his way back from England. Earl had been wounded, and he was waiting in France for a plane to take him to England. Malcolm had been on his way back from his own time in a hospital on the British isle.
That’s a safe topic of conversation, Rose thought cheerfully, other than the weather, but they had already talked about that.
“I hear you were wounded,” she said.
Earl looked at her a little surprised. He remembered coming across Malcolm in an airplane hangar that day. Earl hesitated, knowing he should say something, but not wanting to bring up a sore subject: Rose’s dead husband.
Earl had wanted to tell Rose how sorry he was about Malcolm’s death. He had practiced saying it a hundred times before he knocked on their door that morning, but he thought he’d have time to warm Rose up to the touchy subject by talking about nicer things, other things.
Earl couldn’t believe Rose’s bad luck, both her and Malcolm being hit by a sniper while on their honeymoon in Germany. He wondered if the story was true, that Malcolm had caught it right in the neck and that the same bullet grazed Rose before it went into him. But he had to answer her. There was no way of getting around it.
He sighed. “Yeah, I suppose Malcolm told you about that,” he said slowly. “It was quite a surprise to meet him there. The world is a small place sometimes.”
He stopped walking and turned to face Rose.
“I’m so sorry, Rose. Sorry about your loss,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I came by as soon as I heard. Mrs. Ripp called my folks when she heard you were on your way home and told them what had happened. She filled in all the details, of course. You can be sure that hasn’t changed; she’s still the biggest busybody in Crawford County.”
Rose grinned and started walking again.
Earl brightened at her reaction and stepped up next to her, chattering away like a nervous magpie.
“I’m not sure what I thought I could do, coming here, but I just had to tell you how sorry I am. I couldn’t talk to you on the phone; I knew you had a party line, and a letter didn’t seem right.”
Rose didn’t answer right away, she was trying to think of something to say. She had said “thank you” to so many people now, she was losing count.
It had started at the hospital. Nurses and doctors she hadn’t even known apologized for what they had no control over. That was a little easier to take, really. It was when she had to face her comrades of the 95th Evacuation Hospital that the sorrys were harder to swallow. And when she saw Alfee, a corpsman and a good friend, for the first time after Malcolm had died, she cried so long on his shoulder he had to not only change his shirt but his tee shirt underneath.
Dory, Mo, and Bea, her close friends and tentmates, had all taken turns sitting by her bedside as she recuperated from her own wound, and they had done their share of comforting her when crying jags would overcome her for what she thought were the most ludicrous reasons. Sometimes it was as minor as a nurse speaking French, reminding Rose of the Creole Malcolm would so innocently mix with his English. That singsong accent was one of the things she loved about him; she could listen to him talk for hours.
Then there were the soldiers on the ship on the way home. Most had wounds of their own or were missing part of an arm or a leg, so when they saw a lone nurse with a black band around her arm, most knew better than to ask her about her sad story. They all had sad stories of their own they were trying to forget.
Once back in the states, most people on the train didn’t know what the black band on her arm meant, so they chatted happily with the pretty lady in uniform, assuming Rose had been stationed in the states somewhere, and was just going home on leave. It was easier for Rose to go along with their assumptions then bring up the whole mess. It was actually a load off her mind to pretend she had served somewhere else, not seen what she had seen, not endured what she had endured.
Then there had been all those people at the train station in Prairie. Her family had rushed her past most of them, allowing only a polite nod or a quick “Hello.” But during the three days she had been home, most of the neighbors or family friends had found some excuse to visit the farm. They seemed to want to see the poor, young widow themselves, and politely squeeze any details out of her about what had happened. And if Rose wasn’t up to the task, her mother, Lilly, would discreetly fill in the gaps.
Rose almost felt guilty about it all. But she wanted to forget about that night, if she could, though her dreams were making that hard to do. They had intensified as of late. She wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe there were fewer things to occupy her mind since she had been home. She kept herself busy during the day, but at night, the quiet chirping of the frogs and the cricket’s raspy song was all that came between her and her vivid memory of that awful night.