Saturday, May 26, 2012

Frank G. Slaughter, Sword and Scalpel


Opening Passage:

Larry Kirk was having trouble with his lead. For the first time in years the ace television commentator faced his typewriter with a mind empty as a cave whence even the bats had fled.

Summary: It turns out that Larry Kirk is not very interesting or important; he's just there as a place to start. Sword and Scalpel is a Korean War story told in a format alternating between a military trial and flashbacks to the events in question. The actual characters of importance are Dr. Paul Scott, a military surgeon who is on trial; Kay Storey, a USO entertainer on her way up in the world; Father Timothy O'Fallon, who died in Korea; and Hilary Saunders (usually referred to as Hi), who is Scott's now-civilian attorney and who was saved by Scott in the war. The basic problem raised by the trial is this: Scott, Storey, and O'Fallon, along with a number of others, were captured and made prisoners of war by the North Koreans. Dr. Scott is accused of aiding the enemy and of freely signing a false confession stating that United Nations troops were using biological, charges that were brought forward by Scott's commanding officer in Korea, Colonel Hardin. There is a plot twist, but it is visible from miles away; this is not a plot-driven book. Rather, the interest of the work is found in the characters. What would make a man like Scott cooperate with the North Koreans and sign a false confession? What is the relationship between Scott and Storey and O'Fallon. Seen in this light, the story is about a man on the edge of suicide who is pulled back by a love for others and out of that love for others develops the strength of chracter to save them even knowing the potential costs to himself. Or, to put it in other words, it is the story of how a man who almost kills himself because he has lost everything becomes a man who is willing to lose everything simply for the sake of those he loves.

Favorite Passage:

The silent prayer had helped; so had his familiar communion with the past. He was glad that he had gone back to the beginning with Kay--and happier still that he could face that beginning with no regrets. Until their meeting he had not quite realized that he was a member (in reasonable standing) of the family of man. The lesson had taken a deal of learning; he had passed his last exam in the hell of the prison camp at Pyongyang. But he had learned to forget the demands of self with Kay. For the first time he had discovered that being in love is only a short cut to the admission that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Recommendation: The book has grim parts -- over half the book occurs in Korea in the middle of the Korean War, and there are detailed descriptions both of surgery (Slaughter was a physician, remember) and of North Korean tortures. The tortures actually aren't very grisly, but they are still squirm-inducing; the description of the bamboo splinter torture is the most squirm-inducing of these. And there's a lot of human hardship. However, the book was less grim than I had thought it would be from descriptions of the book. The book is really about hope, and hope shines brightest against a dark background. The book is not high literature, but it would make a very good movie; and if you like war stories, this is a very touching one. Recommended.

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