I’ve always been a sucker for the naive narrator. It’s what I love best about Huckleberry Finn and Red
Scarf Girl; it creates a buffer for me when I’m reading about injustice or tragedy, so that I’m not crushed by the awfulness of it all. (It also makes for some beautifully funny moments in literature.) What I hadn’t thought much about until reading When the Sergeant Came Marching Home, however, is the possibility of certain variations on the idea of “naive.”
When the Sergeant Came Marching Home is told from 10-year-old Donald’s point of view. His father has recently returned from WWII and buys a farm shortly thereafter; Donald’s mother is excited, his younger brother Pat is looking forward to seeing ducks, and Donald himself is furious. He was perfectly happy with his life in their apartment, his school, his friends, and his daily activities, whereas the farm is boring and awful and life-ruining (so much so that he’s saving up money so that he can run away to California). In the meantime, however, life continues, and we see that life through Donald’s eyes.
The thing about Donald is that he’s not really naive; one of his jobs as Pat’s older brother is to explain things that Pat doesn’t understand. What makes the novel so amusing, however, is Donald’s capacity for self-deception. Time and again throughout the novel, he assures us of his feelings, motives, and thoughts in a way that suggests he’s convinced himself that he’s telling the absolute truth, and yet there is quite often more to the story or a deliberately ignored point of view. I’m not sure if this aspect of the novel would have attracted me nearly as much when I was a child, but any parent who’s heard a 3-year-old assure her that “he’s not tired!” when he’s hyper from exhaustion knows that there is much humor to be found in a child’s point of view.
Ultimately, Donald’s view of the world meant that I found far more humor in the book than I had expected; in fact, it pleasantly surprised me in almost every way. My only issue was that the wrap-up and ending felt slightly awkward to me–I get the impression that Don Lemna found it easier to write the story than to finish it. The ending wasn’t bad, mind you (unlike the original ending of “Sweet Home Alabama,” which was so terrible one wonders how they got as far as filming it without realizing how awful it was); it just didn’t necessarily feel like an ending. It came on a little suddenly and ended a little suddenly, and I was left thinking that another chapter or two bookending the ending wouldn’t have gone amiss.
The slight awkwardness of the ending, however, wasn’t nearly enough to dampen my enjoyment of the book as a whole. It was funny and touching and thoroughly enjoyable, and once I finished it I put the sequel on hold at the library. In short, When the Sergeant Came Marching Home is well worth your time.