Welcome to the first installment of TBC: Turtle Book Club. It’s short for Father/Daughter, and while not really a club (considering I’m it’s only member) I needed a name and an inside joke between my Dad and I is what I decided on. Ask me about it sometime. And, if you’re curious about some insight on my dad, you can see what I wrote about him for Father’s Day. He’s one of a kind.

Turtles! And me in 2008.

The History of Turtle Book Club

Two years ago, my parents were given the extraordinarily crazy opportunity to become expatriates in Shanghai, China. Which they accepted and have, for the most part, greatly enjoyed. If anything, they are gathering an arsenal of stories and adventures. But, I digress.

The point is, that this trans-Pacific move led to a family-wide effort two summers ago to consolidate our collected stuff, which of course included books. We owned a lot of books. One evening that summer, my dad walked into my room and handed me a small stack of books he thought I should read sometime in my life. That’s all I got. No explanation why or the meaning behind these books. Just a stack of used, worn titles I for the most part didn’t even recognize, with the single endorsement to read them from my dad.

I was curious to say the least. I have carried these books around with me since they’ve moved away. I took them back to school with me and my various apartments after, always looking at them and feeling my curiosity grow. Why had my dad chosen these books in particular?

Well, my friends. Turtle Book Club was finally born. That’s right. I picked up (in no particular order) and finished Book #1, A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

Make believe is not just for kids

This is, at the surface, a book about friendship between two 16-year old boys, Gene and Phineas (aka Finny). But I would argue that by the end of the book this is a coming of age story for Gene. He is our narrator and guide through this tumultuous year away at private school. The entire book is a reflection as he returns to school years later as an adult and thinks back on everything that happened that year between him and Phineas.

The setting is at Devon School, a private all boy’s school located in New Hampshire. In the midst of World War II. These boys were on the cusp of draft age in a war that had turned the whole world on its head. The war was so all-encompassing that these boys were able to create a fantasy that separated them from the reality of the war. It was so big, that it didn’t exist. If that makes any sense at all. They were able to create stories, games, and jokes for the world happening around them. They were able to live out a separate peace.

Anyway, perception is a big theme of this book. Gene is our guide, and an unreliable one at that, as we come to understand as the story plays out. He sees things in a situation that aren’t there. He reacts in ways that don’t make sense. He doubts his place among his class, among his friends. And, ultimately, he projects that insecurity on Finny- his dynamic foil and best friend.

Our first reaction is to balk at Gene’s thoughts. They’re unthinkable and make him unlikable. How could he think such awful things about his friends? How could he question his supposedly best friend? How could he react so strongly against Finny’s friendship?

I ask this in response. How could he not?

Gene is just like any one of us. He doubts and questions his place in the world. How many of you have spent time questioning your friendships, or more importantly your place in those friendships? If your hand is not up, you’re lying. We all have moments of loneliness and times we second guess ourselves, especially against the people who are closest to us.

Now, exacerbate that feeling and imagine the time period Gene and Finny are living in. They are living in the age of World War II. The US is heading toward Japan with huge battles leaving heavy casualties. These boys are very aware that after growing up being told they are going to be somebody, they very soon may end up a nobody. Simply another number in a casualty of war. Nothing is certain and they are in that vulnerable draft age where they will soon be going off to join the war. A war they don’t fully understand, despite it being everywhere.

Of course, you would question your place in this world. At this school. Against the people  you surround yourself with. You may not like Gene, I didn’t. But, I can understand him. He is the worst in all of us. He is the fear we all hold inside of us. That loneliness we combat against.

The tragedy of this story, is that Gene fails to see the loyalty in the people who surround him. He fails to see those friendships, and as a result, questions them. He is impulsive and strikes out against those friends with varying results. Gene is serious, flawed, and at the end of the day, just a sixteen year old boy trying to figure himself out. Which, ultimately is where this story leads.

Finny, the ever energetic, ever enigmatic

Finny is the direct opposite to Gene. He is carefree, athletic, and a friend to everyone. He is the facilitator and leader in all sorts of made-up, on-the-spot clubs, games, and other antics. He convinces Gene to let loose and show some spontaneity. He is almost too good to be true, and Gene picks up on that. Finny operates outside of reality and chooses to live outside of the war. He lives in the now, and insists everyone else does the same. Gene resists that and questions those notions. Thus, the second guessing, the lashing out, the comparison. Is Finny who Gene should be like? Or is Gene who Finny should be like? The answer is ultimately up to debate.

He may not be the narrator of the story, but his character is just as important as Gene’s. He presents a foil to Gene. The realist and the optimist. Finny lived a life of carefree peace, and still could not escape the threat of war, because it permeated the people around him. He tried to find an escape, and failed. Which creates another character just as flawed as Gene’s, just in a different context.

Did I like Finny better? Of course I did. I align myself with the optimist, if only because that’s who I wish I would be in this story. I want to see the good in everything.  But, I also question myself and the people who surround me. Finny and Gene. Two sides of the same coin, or however the saying goes.

The Ghost War

World War II was a very real war as history tells us. But, it’s very easy to forget it was so real in the midst of this book. It clouds everything and becomes so real it’s unreal. Myths arise and stories get told. The war is everywhere they say, yet Devon School is left in some sort of peace. There is a solitude here that allows these boys to forget about the war and instead create silly games, festivals, and clubs. They are left to imagine in the midst of the ghost war that surrounds them.

They are left to imagine what their role may be in the war and the roles of their classmates. Will they be the difference between war and peace? Will they even matter? At sixteen, you’re told you can  conquer the world and you expect that. However, World War II took that away from these boys. The world was already being conquered and left their purpose in a state of uncertainty. It stripped their agency and feeling of power. It was a ghost war that haunted their every action and every decision. It is as much a character of this book as Gene and Finny.

Should I read this book?

This book is odd. I’ll admit it. I’ll even go so far to say my dad would admit it. But, yes I think this book is one worth reading. It is unique and an experiment into the mindset of these boys.

Gene is our narrator, where he simply shares and observes his world to us. We are not told what to think and are rather left to make up our own opinions. This can be confusing at times, and liberating at others.

We are left to our own devices as readers and I think that can be frightening at times. A Separate Peace is an experiment into the human experience manifest in Gene and Finny. We are not blatantly told anything, but rather shown a beautiful, tragic portrait in this tumultuous time period. We learn through memories, conversations and actions taken by the boys at Devon School. The writing is well done and the characters are memorable.

I think what makes this book so unique, however, is that what we take away from it will change over time. Right now, as a twenty-something single adult, I picked up something that my dad may have missed, or that I myself may miss if I were to read this book again in a different time of my life. History is different. Culture is different. My perspective is different. You may read this and takeaway something totally different than I did, and I think there’s something magical to that.

This book forced me to question my own internal, judgmental perspective, to consider who I was as an adolescent, the meaning of not just my life but our lives collectively, and the consequences of the most arbitrary moments. If A Separate Peace taught me anything, it’s that those moments matter. Perhaps in more ways than we would like to think.

Bottomline: Read it and let me know your thoughts. This book left me contemplative: a little bit confused, a little bit sad, and a little bit at peace.

So there you have it. Be on the look out for the next installment of Turtle Book Club, TBC. To be continued… (see what I did there? Unintentional, but I’m liking the double meaning).