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Thursday, November 24, 2011

World War II Fiction Praised by Author/Reviewer

A Spent Bullet: Louisiana 1941
Author: Curt Iles
Publisher: WestBow Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4497-2234-0
Author's website:
Genre: Mainstream Fiction

Reviewed by Jan Rider Newman for The New Book Review

A Spent Bullet: Louisiana 1941, like the eight books preceding it, tells a tale of the Louisiana Piney Woods. This is a section of the state little written about. It isn’t anywhere near the glamorous big city of New Orleans. The Piney Woods borders Texas north of the Louisiana Gulf Coast. It’s called the Piney Woods for the obvious reason.

This area became familiar to lots of Army soldiers in the past and even today. Fort Polk used to be Camp Polk, and in the years leading up to the Second World War, there were other Army camps scattered through Louisiana. In the summer of 1941 many soldiers from all over the U.S. found themselves in Louisiana on maneuvers led by the likes of Eisenhower and Patton.

A Spent Bullet tells the story of Harry Miller, a private from Milwaukee. Harry hates Louisiana—the bugs, the heat, the dust that so quickly turns to impassable mud during the rainy seasons. Harry’s past holds a painful secret involving the death of his sister and alienation from his parents. He’s so bitter, he even thinks he hates Louisiana girls until his buddies play a trick on him and prove him wrong.

One day, Elizabeth Reed, a pretty young school teacher with her own painful past, stands alongside a dusty road waiting for a convoy of soldiers to drive past. In those days soldiers used to write their names, addresses, and "Write to me" on scraps of paper and stuff them into spent cartridges. These were tossed to girls they saw along the roads. One such cartridge lands at Elizabeth’s feet. She ignores it, but her little brother Ben picks it up and takes it to their grandmother. What happens after that is some gentle conniving and serendipity.

Iles has a good ear for dialogue and old-fashioned country sayings. His descriptions evoke not only 1941 Louisiana, but the nation as it spoke and thought and lived at that time. Although his work is based on a lively faith, he isn’t afraid to take on issues such as racial prejudice, alcohol abuse and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. His characters are earthy but spirit-filled. They are generally a pleasure to get to know.

Those readers who enjoy an abundance of local color will revel in A Spent Bullet. I found it a very pleasant and interesting read and enjoyed the development of Elizabeth’s and Harry’s characters and their relationship. I did get impatient with the local color aspect. In my opinion, a little goes a long way. “Every tub sits on its own bottom” got a few too many mentions in A Spent Bullet. But Iles’s books are very popular, so obviously there’s room for disagreement on that point.

I also thought the scene in which Elizabeth discusses her past with Harry fell a little flat. For its time, hers was a big secret. After exploring how Elizabeth dealt with her mistakes and her grief, I’d have liked to see more of Harry’s reaction and how he worked through the news—not that I wanted him to react in any other way than he did. But could he really not struggle even a little?

I recommend this novel of faith, love, forgiveness and redemption, especially to those who also like historical fiction and fiction set during or around the time of World War II. The era, which saw many changes in every way of life, lends itself to drama and soul-searching.

~Reviewer Jan Rider Newman has published short stories, poetry, nonfiction, and book reviews in Louisiana Literature, the New Orleans Review, Oasis Journal, LitStack, and others. She edits Swamp Lily Review: An Online Journal of Louisiana Literature & Arts (

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