Several years ago, as the hundredth anniversary of the First World War came around, I began reading several histories of that conflict. Most of the better histories center around the pre-war diplomacy and the experiences of the British, French, and German soldiers on the Western Front (I recommend Barbara Tuchman and Max Hastings, in particular). For the American experience, I read fiction, starting with John Dos Passos’ two novels Three Soldiers and The 42nd Parallel. Other books I re-read included Dalton Trumbo’s excellent yet horrifying book Johnny Got His Gun, Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and William Faulkner’s A Fable. At the time, a friend told me that Stephen Harrigan wrote a novel about an American soldier killed in WWI. I was surprised to know this. I had read Harrigan’s masterful historical fiction work The Gates of the Alamo, and I knew he generally wrote fiction and non-fiction stories based in Texas. So, I took up his novel Remember Ben Clayton. As it turns out, the story actually does take place in Texas, but it also transpires in New York, Paris, and on the battlefields of eastern France, where the novel’s title character finds himself in the final months of the war.
Francis Gilheaney is a renowned sculpture and a widower who is on the backslope of his career, living in San Antonio with his adult daughter, Maureen. Maureen is also a talented artist, but she has taken on the role of an artist’s assistant and housekeeper to her father. This has created tension between them. Gilheaney receives a request from Lamar Clayton, a rancher in West Texas, who was kidnapped as a child by the Comanche and raised by them to adulthood. Clayton wishes for Gilheaney to make and place a sculpture of his son Ben Clayton, along with his favorite horse Poco, on an isolated mesa on his ranch, far from the public eye and appraisals of the art critics. Ben was killed on the Western front in France one month before the war’s end in October 1918. Clayton wants this statue as a tribute to his son. Gilheaney is initially reluctant but he agrees. He declares to the rancher that this sculpture will be his “masterpiece.”
In order to properly do the sculpture Gilheaney feels that he needs to know his subject better, so he and his daughter Maureen travel to the Clayton ranch. Clayton, like Gilheaney, is a widower. At the ranch they are introduced to the housekeeper George’s Mary, who practically raised Ben like a mother. Lamar Clayton is a taciturn man and it becomes clear that his relationship with his son was troubled. This sculpture is perhaps an atonement in the father’s eyes. After a studio accident Gilheaney decides to abandon the project, and he returns the money to Clayton. But after Maureen begins a correspondence with one of Ben’s war comrades—fellow Texan Arthur Fry—she and her father decide to visit the battlefield where Ben was killed. Arthur was horribly disfigured in the same battle and he has chosen to remain in France. In a letter to Maureen, Arthur alludes to the contentious relationship between Ben and his father. The Gilheaneys are determined to get to the bottom of the discord in order to better understand Ben. Arthur and Maureen form a bond, and he opens up to her and her father about the cause of Ben’s resentment toward his father. All these years the rancher has hidden a terrible secret. After visiting Ben’s grave, the Gilheaneys return to Texas and finish the sculpture.
Through the sculpture and what will be perhaps his last work, Gilheaney is able to come to peace with his daughter and give her her release. In the last scene he and Clayton ride out to see the installation of the sculpture. There, they both ponder their “separate burdens of silence and solitude.”
Harrigan’s novel is a beautiful tribute to the young Americans who went to France one hundred years ago to fight a war most knew nothing about. And his descriptions of the carnage of trench warfare are visceral. But the real genius of this work is the examination of what are often the most difficult and complex relationships we have in our lives: those with the people we love and who are closest to us.