BeWrite Books, 2006
Reviewed by Joy
Young Dr Darren Johnston is taking up his first job as a hospital resident. It is not the glory he expected.
Instead of the dramatic saving of lives, Darren is giving permission for Tylenol and being assigned special study by the Attending Physician. He is obsessed with the sleep that his schedule doesn't leave room for. Nurses treat him as if he knows nothing, and they are often right. There is the experience of explaining to Kurt Doering and his wife that Kurt has a fatal cancer. Darren's own wife and mother are both angry that he isn't spending time with them. It seems the only pleasant association in Darren's exhausted life is another terminal patient, Bill Cunningham, who can make even his doctor feel happy for a little while.
Kurt Doering and Bill Cunningham both fought in World War II, Kurt in the German forces and Bill with the Canadians. Here again we find the unexpected as we follow the flashback accounts of their war. How did Kurt and Bill evolve from the men we meet in war torn France, to the men Darren is treating? This question provides the suspense of OLD SOLDIERS.
OLD SOLDIERS is more character study than plot. Three men are under a pressure they've never known before in their lives. They each handle it differently. What awarenesses do they block out, and what do they learn? Author Robert M. Penner is a doctor, so Darren's experiences are the most clearly conveyed and the most involving for readers. It takes time for us to become caught up in the lives of Kurt and Bill, and neither ever lives in such a sharp focus for us as Darren does. One big omission is an explanation of how one of the soldiers evolved into the man he has become by the time of his hospitalization.
We are seeing the Canadian hospital culture from one who knows it. Probably not only Canadian hospitals, but that's all Penner is describing. When you read this you will ask yourself why physician residents work twenty-nine hour shifts every three days on top of normal hours the other days. It is rather unnerving to learn that we are being treated in life and death situations by doctors suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. From a layman's point of view, it seems that whoever made that policy must have been sleep-deprived themselves, to be so illogical. Penner doesn't ask that question, he just describes Darren's condition as he makes his rounds and leaves it to us. It sounds rather like a cry for help.
The momentum of OLD SOLDIERS is strong. I found myself anxious to get back to it whenever I had to put it down. There were places where the author could have trimmed down his general statements ("show don't tell," as the writing maxim goes), but these were not severe enough to damage my reading pleasure. If that one loose end of character development were tied up, OLD SOLDIERS would be an excellent book.
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