The Secret of Raven Point
Jennifer Vanderbes’ novel, The Secret of Raven Point is a World War II saga among areas of Italy that I know well. Both are subjects in which I have an unquenchable interest. It is also the story of a deep love between a brother and sister, Tuck and Juliet, who lost their mother early in their youth.
We read about the stories they told one another, the code words they used, their secret, and relationship with their physician father, who served in World War I. At the outset of the second War, Tuck joins the Army in order to rid the world of Nazi evil, as he puts it.
His father tells him: “…grenades have no sense of justice. That bullets and bayonets care nothing for morality. Being right doesn’t protect you from having your brain blow to bits.”
Tuck writes letters home and, then one day, his last, enigmatic one arrives. Yes, he has enlisted to rid the world from evil. But he didn’t expect what it turned out to be like, “the mud and shit and freeze your asses off while you watch your friends bleed to death. Expect frostbite, crappy food, bad attitudes, no sleep, shitty maps, old weapons and lousy leadership, all while a psychotic enemy pursues you night and day.”
Soon after, Tuck is reported missing in action. Juliet lies about her age, enlists in the Army nursing program, undergoes training and is sent to Italy. She is assigned to a hospital near the front.
The Italian campaign is less well known than the one in France and Germany. But in many respects it was far more difficult with German solders hiding in their bunkers, high in the mountains up the “boot.” One by one, ever so slowly, the hills were taken with heavy loss of young lives, morale, desertions and damaged futures for the men who somehow managed to survive.
A patient, Barnaby, arrives at the hospital, severely damaged, appears to have shot himself, one eye hanging out of the socket. He is accused of cowardice, desertion, and will be tried and eventually sentenced to death. But he is comatose, can’t speak and appears in a semi-coma. And he also served in the same unit as Tuck and may have information about what happened to him.
Willard, a doctor, arrives to assess Barnaby’s condition, tries to get him ready to stand trial. He decides to give him treatments of sodium pentobarbital. We learn that Barnaby and Tuck became separated from their company, that Tuck did everything he could to save him. After leaving to seek help, Tuck was never seen again.
Juliet gives up all hope. “At first I loved the hope, the possibility that he’d come home. Now I hate it. I want to smash it out of me. I can’t bear the endless disappointment.”
In time, Barnaby recovers, realizes he will likely be sentenced to death, and escapes one night with the hospital chaplain. Willard and Juliet are sent on a mission to find them. The War drags on and the case against Barnaby is dropped as the truth about his experience is learned.
The Secret of Raven Point became two mysteries—the disappearance of Tuck and the motive for Barnaby’s attempted suicide. Their solution took hold of me. If there is any greater truth is this tale it is oft-repeated story of war, how it is always worse than expected, always worse than the one before, with inevitable disillusionment, regardless of the outcome.
“How do you save the world from evil? No idea. You take out an ad in the classifieds. Wanted: brave young men to defeat the forces of evil in the world. Every boy in every high school across the country is going to sign right up. What you don’t say in the ad? Expect to live in the mud and shit and freeze your asses off while you watch your friends bleed to death. Expect frostbite, crappy food, bad attitudes, no sleep, shitty maps, old weapons and lousy leadership, all while a psychotic enemy pursues you night and day. If you manage to survive, you get the honor of knowing you helped save the world from Nazi maniacs. But you think that anyone fifty years from now will bat an eyelash over it.”