When All the World Was Young came to me via JB, and I think know why. It’s exactly the kind of book he likes – kind of a meandering, character-driven novel that doesn’t really have a story, per se, but is more about the human experience.
This is the third installment from Ferrol Sams in a loose trilogy, although it’s not necessary to have read the first two (Run with the Horseman and The Whisper of the River). Porter Longstreet Osborne, Jr. is the first of his family to have gone to college and is just about to start medical school at Emory University. It’s 1942, and World War II has broken out, so like many colleges and universities across the country, Emory has accelerated its curriculum, and Porter is starting medical school at 19, destined to become a doctor by 22. He survives his first year, but is frustrated at being stuck at home while the war rages on without him. Porter deliberately throws a final exam, failing, and by getting kicked out of the medical program, he’s able to join the army, where he is sure that he will be scooped up and put to use immediately in the European theatre.
Porter is stuck stateside for far longer than he anticipated, but eventually makes it overseas, coming ashore at Normandy in the weeks after the famous June 6th invasion. From there he criss-crosses Europe, running in to old medical school friends and basic training buddies, half falling in love with army nurses and French women, playing pranks on commanding officers. There’s one running prank in the book about an invented soldier that plays out many times over several hundred pages, and it’s a testament to Sams’ gifted writing that the threads of that prank were woven so neatly in to the story, coming back up when least expected.
Sams tackles some fairly big topics: racism (both of the small Southern town variety and the veiled xenophobia of the era), feminism, classism, family relationships, the transition from boyhood to adulthood, the idea of family and home. But he does it deftly, so that the ideas that he explores are part of the story and not necessarily Topics To Discuss. Porter struggles with all these, and more, and yet manages to keep his sense of humor, his sense of childlike fun, and his sense of self and home and family. Post reading research reveals an awful lot of similarities between Porter and Sams, who himself was a small town Georgia boy, a country doctor who dropped out of medical school to join the army. If real life Sams was anything like what I think Porter eventually became, I’ll bet he was quite a guy.