Friday, July 30, 2010

Forgotten Books: Combat General - William Chamberlain

When I was a kid in school, I loved it when the teacher would pass out the book order forms from Scholastic Book Services. I always found a lot of books I wanted, and I would order as many as my parents were willing to pay for. Even better were the days when the books actually arrived and the teacher gave us the ones we had ordered. I still remember racing home to read THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES in the Scholastic edition.


One book that I remember buying at school like that was COMBAT GENERAL by William Chamberlain. But for some reason I never read it, even though it sat on my shelf for years. I lost track of it and my other Scholastic books over the years. They were already gone before the fire wiped out my library.


However, I recently came across a copy of COMBAT GENERAL in the Nostalgia section at Half Price books, and I didn’t hesitate to pick it up, figuring it was finally time to read it, forty-five years after I bought it the first time.


I’ve always liked war novels. As you might expect from a book published by Scholastic, COMBAT GENERAL doesn’t have any real cussing or sex, but I’m not sure it really qualifies as a young adult novel, either. More than anything else it reminded me of the sort of war movie that was made in the Forties. Those didn’t have any cussing or graphic violence, either, but they still managed to tell some fairly gritty stories. So does COMBAT GENERAL. The protagonist is Brigadier General Miles Boone, who has spent the first few years of World War II stuck at a desk in Washington, so that he has a reputation as a “Pentagon general”. He’s finally transferred to a command position in an armored division and finds himself assuming his new post near the front lines in Belgium in the middle of December 1944.


Mid-December 1944? Uh-oh. You guessed it. Boone, with no combat experience, finds himself smack-dab in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge almost as soon as he arrives at his new command. Throw in a superior officer with whom Boone has been feuding since their days at West Point, a reckless colonel with more ambition than tactical skills, a little romance with the American widow of a French officer, a wise-cracking sergeant to drive Boone around, and you’ve got a Forties movie, all right. Randolph Scott would have made a great Miles Boone. And as a novel, Chamberlain’s yarn, while predictable, is very well-written and highly entertaining. The history seems accurate to me, and so do the characterizations.


Which is not surprising considering that William Chamberlain was a career army officer, retiring as a general himself in 1946. He certainly knew what he was writing about. But in doing a little research about him for this post, I came across something that surprised me. At the same time he was putting together a long and distinguished military career, Chamberlain was also a prolific pulp author, breaking in during the late Twenties with Western, war, and adventure yarns in a variety of pulps. He continued contributing to the pulps into the 1950s, when he made the transition to the slicks and published a steady stream of war and military-oriented stories, primarily in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. I may well have read some of them while visiting one of my aunts in the Sixties, because she always had stacks of old issues of the SEP around. Chamberlain also wrote paperback Westerns and hardcover war novels (COMBAT GENERAL was originally published by the John Day Company, as were several more of Chamberlain’s novels).


Chamberlain’s background as a pulp writer is easy to see in COMBAT GENERAL. It’s especially evident in the masterful pacing. Late in the book, when General Boone and his driver get involved in an adventure when they’re separated from the rest of the command, the story maybe gets a little too pulpish, considering the realism of the rest of the book (an encounter with an SS officer results in the trading of insults like “American swine!” and “Nazi dog!”), but that really doesn’t detract much from the novel’s overall impact.


COMBAT GENERAL is a fine book, one of the best I’ve read this year. Bear in mind, though, that as a middle-aged guy who grew up watching COMBAT! on TV, along with a bunch of war movies, I’m a prime example of the target audience for this sort of yarn. But I really enjoyed it. Some of those SEP stories of Chamberlain’s have been collected in several different volumes. I may have to order them. I also discovered that he was the author of MATT QUARTERHILL, RIFLEMAN, a novel about a young Marine rifleman in the South Pacific campaign. I checked that one out from the bookmobile many, many years ago and read it, and liked it enough that I’ve always remembered the title even though I didn’t recall that Chamberlain wrote it. I may have to get my hands on a copy of that one, too, for a reread. I’m glad I stumbled across COMBAT GENERAL. It proves that my instincts were right when I ordered it all those years ago at Walnut Creek Elementary, even though I didn’t read it until now.

15 comments:

Juri said...

I've read some of Chamberlain's short stories (in Finnish translation) and I thought they were pretty good. Some of his Western stories were also war-related, i.e. set in the Civil War.

August West said...

Wow, I never expected to see a review on this book. I own a copy myself, it was mixed in with a box of war paperbacks that I bought for $4. I never even open it, you stirred my interest and I'll dig out this book tonight!

George said...

Like you, I ordered bunches of those Scholastic Books when I was a kid, too. Never saw COMBAT GENERAL so I'll have to seek it out after your fine review.

Chris said...

I loved those Scholastic Books. Probably a big part of why I love the smell of new books today!

Richard R. said...

Hmm. I kind of remember something about Scholastic Books, but nothing about ordering them at school and getting them there, only that they were in the school's very small library.I do recall the teachers had many books we could pick from for doing book reports, including a series of heavily abridged biographies.

This looks like a kick, I'd love to read it.

Randy Johnson said...

I, too, ordered books from Scolastic way back when. Don't remember this one, though I'm not a big fan of war novels.

I di watch Combat, though, and Garrison's Guerillas.

Todd Mason said...

And some of Scholastic's other books could be kind of rugged, such as ESCAPE FROM WARSAW, which they thought a better title for Ian Serralier's THE SILVER SWORD, or some of Robb White's books they did editions of...to say nothing of THE LONER, my favorite YA novel back when and a Newbery runner-up, with its horrific first chapter (the protagonist's only friend among sharecroppers gets her long hair caught in thresher, which kills her). Yes, indeed, I was ordering all I could get in the '70s, from Scholastic (The Arrow Book Club for most of those years) and some competitors as well...so, does Half Price actually sell things at half the printed prices of 35c on some of those older items?

Evan Lewis said...

As a COMBAT fan, I'm pretty sure I had that Scholastic version too. Nice to see it again.

James Reasoner said...

Todd,
I read ESCAPE FROM WARSAW and all those Robb White books, too. Don't recall THE LONER. I think I paid three bucks for COMBAT GENERAL at Half Price. It was in their Nostalgia section. You never know what you're going to find at Half Price. A few weeks ago I walked out of there with seven or eight SF digests from the Fifties, including some issues of ASTOUNDING, for a dollar apiece. Obviously there were more in the back but someone else priced them, because when I went in there this week there were a lot more digests, only now they were $7.00 each. I didn't buy them . . . but I thought about it.

Jay said...

I think I read this in The Saturday Evening Post, which ran many of Chamberlain's short stories, etc. And then there was the movie with Glenn Ford, I believe.
Jay

James Reasoner said...

The Glenn Ford movie Jay mentions is IMITATION GENERAL, a film I'd never even heard of until I looked up Chamberlain on IMDB just now. The movie isn't an adaptation of COMBAT GENERAL, but it is based on one of Chamberlain's stories.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I went to many schools but none of them offered Scholastic Books. I not only watched COMBAT, I was watching it one night when a friend came over and said he was going to join the Army and would I like to go along. That was a roger, White Rook.

Bob said...

Thanks greatly for the book review and author background. you've unearthed fond, buried memories of Scholastic Book Services and my very similar experiences. One book I hrad of his as a kid was "Trumpets of Company K". i highly recommedn it for you. good read and good story. thanks again !

Pat said...

After watching the movie Patton, I looked for a book I had read as a boy, Combat General, about the Battle of the Bulge. I remember loving the book, but could not remember if it was history, about Gen. McAuliffe, or fiction. Thanks for the summary, and freshening a 50 year old memory.

Unknown said...

His westerns are the following:
Trumpets of Company K, Ballantine N. 76, 1954
Forced March To Loon Creek, Ballantine, 1964
Last Ride to Los Lobos, Gold Medal S-1460, 1964
The Man from Gunsight, Monarch N. 560, 1965