“If the living are to be of any use in the world, they must always break faith with the dead.”
An exerpt from The Ways of Mud and Bone
Meryl Goodson disliked wearing black, though the color suited her well enough. Too well, perhaps. Putting on a black dress meant putting on a mood, and the more often one wore a mood the harder it was to take off.
Over a hundred people crowded the church, their heads bowed in prayer or sufferance. White roses decorated each pew and overflowed from urns flanking either side of the altar. Their perfume grew stronger in the cloistered space, as if they drew power from the priest’s Latin intonations. In a framed photograph propped on an easel, a dark-haired young man in a tuxedo stood in front of a grand piano, his hands clasped behind his back. He gazed to his left with a lazy, almost indolent grin. Meryl’s cousin Nora had been on the receiving end of that smile. It had been taken the evening of the couple’s engagement party nine months before. October 15, 1917. What now remained of Theodore Pauling Jr. rested in a U.S. Army cemetery twenty miles outside of Paris.
After Teddy’s memorial service, the mourners gathered at the Pauling home, a sixteen-room Victorian on River View Drive. The house sat on five manicured acres with flower gardens and croquet lawn. Meryl had never felt at ease with the place. As she walked up the drive leading to the house, the atmosphere seemed to shift. The mild summer air turned thick, stifling, even in the shade of the great oaks and elms presiding over the approach like an honor guard.
A maid let the visitors into the foyer, a closed-in space made dimmer by heavy wood paneling. Meryl entered the main parlor with her father and her sister Claire. Doc Goodson at once went over to Teddy’s father Theo. The two women hung back.
“I’ll pass out before the end of this, you wait and see.” Claire fanned herself with one of her gloves.
“We’re not staying long.” Meryl walked to a set of French doors and opened them a crack. The drapes to left of the doors trembled. She pushed the fabric aside, revealing a small, tear-stained face. “Millie? What are you doing?”
Thirteen-year-old Millie Pauling stood with the stiff resignation of a child determined not to act like a child. It worked until Meryl threw her arms around the girl. Millie fell against her, her thin-boned frame convulsing. Across the room, a door opened. Ida Pauling emerged from the smaller back parlor. Seeing her mother, Millie let go of Meryl and retreated to the sofa, her tears condensing into short, painful breaths.
Ida drifted toward them in yards of black silk, the ruffle at her neck ornamented with an oval of polished jet. “Only two Goodson girls? I take it Nora’s still unwell.”
“Nora didn’t really have a breakdown, did she?” Millie asked.
Claire stroked the child’s shoulder. “She’ll be all right.”
In the summer of 1918, as the Great War rages in Europe, nineteen-year-old Meryl Goodson’s
small-town life is shattered when her cousin Nora’s fiancé is killed in France. The tragedy causes a rift in the community between those for the war and those against it. As local tensions rise, Meryl begins her service with an overseas relief unit. Caught up in her own brutal day-to-day struggle in war-weary France, she is unaware of how far matters have deteriorated at home. The truth leaves her broken and grieving. Is the world she once knew gone forever? Or can the friendships she’s made help Meryl find the strength to begin again?
A bit like LITTLE WOMEN meets ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, THE WAYS OF MUD AND BONE is a uniquely American book about the war to end all wars.