The Farther Shore

Thoughts on Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore

Novels, indeed any entertainment media, about war tend to fall into one of two categories:  the action-packed hoorah kind or the thought-provoking, realistic kind.  There is a place for both.  The first category is infinitely more entertaining and fulfills the glory-in-war fantasy so many of us have.  The second category is not at all fun to read but is necessary to bring us back down to Earth and remind us that the lives of real people are lost in war.  Matthew Eck’s debut The Farther Shore falls wholly into the second category.

This is not to say I did not enjoy the experience of reading The Farther Shore, but I am saying it is not a fun book to read, nor do I believe Eck intends for it to be so.  There is a tremendous amount of honesty crammed into this short book.  Eck is a veteran of the United States Army and so I suspect some of the chaos and doubt expressed by the characters come from experience rather than imagination.  The story reminds us that combat is a truly terrible thing, often inglorious.  Death is sudden and sometimes accidental.  The hoorah kind of war story puts the hero in a situation where they are mowing down scores of enemies and high-fiving their squad mates.  In reality, a single incident can weigh heavily on the mind of a soldier who is put in the position of taking a life, often with devastating life-long psychological effects.  Eck doesn’t sugar-coat it.

I would recommend this as mandatory reading for any person on their way to the recruiting office with a glory-in-war fantasy in their head.  If after finishing the novel, they still want to sign up, I will thank them for their sacrifice and service, but I will not criticize any person who reads this book and second-guesses their decision to enlist.  When I was nineteen years old, I had glory fantasies, too.  Through my university’s Army ROTC program, I attended Camp Challenge at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  For six weeks, I and my fellow cadets went through a truncated officer training program learning military tradition, drill, and ceremony, weapons training, field tactics, communication and leadership.  During that time, I was trained to use a variety of weapons and I realized that while firing at pop-up targets is one thing, the thought of putting another human being in my sights and pulling the trigger was something I would not want to do.  Camp Challenge was a no-obligation program so when I returned home, I turned in my boots and thanked Captain Wiersma for the experience.  Had I read The Farther Shore first, I might found something else to do with those six weeks in the summer of 1996.

photo by Katie Cramer Eck

photo by Katie Cramer Eck

From his author bio:

Matthew Eck enlisted in the Army in 1992 and served in Somalia and Haiti.  He has a BA in English Literature from Wichita State University and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana.

He won the 2007 Milkweed National Fiction Prize for The Farther Shore.

And thank you Matthew Eck, for your service to your country.