A compelling tale of the final days of the most catastrophic even in all of recorded history.
New York Post
"Robbins renders his real people superbly ... a notable accomplishment. ... Brilliant storytelling by an author ... in absolute control of his material."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Don't miss David L. Robbins's first stunning novel of WWII:
War of the Rats
Available now from Bantam Books
- Bantam Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.49(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.36(d)
Read an Excerpt
December 31, 1944, 11:50 p.m. Bandy farm Big Laurel, Tennessee
Above his head, in the cold, dark, wind-creaked rafters of the tobacco barn, Charley Bandy sees withered souls.
Clustered five stalks to a stick, stepped several rows deep, they are hung upside down as though in punishment. The ten thousand leaves fill this lower reach of heaven. The air reeks of tar, thick, like the times Bandy has smelled blood.
Brown and drying, crowded and alike, these are not the souls of soldiers, Bandy thinks. No. The spirits of the battle-torn shine and are upright in a much higher neighborhood. There's room among war heroes where they are; what they earned for eternity with their courage and their deaths is space, distinction. Bandy is having a melancholy moment, he knows; he's being drawn back. He shakes his noggin to rattle the pull away. But the tobacco leaves drip their sticky scent and the odor is so much like gun smoke and gauze and the morning mists of Europe.
He lowers his gaze to the dirt floor of the barn. Several empty tobacco baskets lie about, waiting for another moist day to put the tobacco in case, that condition where the humidity is high to make the leaves supple enough to be handled. But this has been a dry winter, and the burley tobacco leaves, though sufficiently air-cured now dangling on their sticks overhead, can't be touched without breaking like ancient parchment. This Christmas came and went with little gift money. The family is edgy, waiting for the weather to cooperate and put the tobacco in case long enough to bundle it into hands, arrange the hands into the big woven baskets, then truck itall to the auction hall down in Marshall. The family needs to make some money, get school clothes, fix some machinery, buy next season's seed. Only a third of the leaves have been stripped and separated. The lowest leaves, called "lugs," and the paltry tips at the top all get tossed on a pile outside the barn to be used as ground cover and fertilizer. The broad middle leaves, the "smokers," get sold for bulk tobacco. The best leaves make it as far as cigar wrappers. A good, heavy harvest of smokers pays some bills.
Inside the house, Bandy's mom and dad, wife, sister and brother-in-law, dozen or so uncles and aunts and cousins and their kin wait for 1945 to arrive in another ten minutes. Every one of them lives nearby, a dog wouldn't get tired jogging between all their houses, either in Big Laurel, Little Laurel, Shelton Laurel, or on a rural road associated with no town. They are tobacco farmers up here in the Appalachian hollers. The clefts between the high slopes are narrow, and arable land comes only in slim patches, always beside the roads. Nothing makes a buck better on so little land as tobacco. The Bandys, the Ketchums, the Wallins are woven together by marriages and births like the tobacco baskets, broad and firm and white, hundred-year-old clans of soil and nicotine, pocket knives, and Saturday nights at the Masonic dance hall.
The clamor of his family's revelry--generational, those kids still awake squeal, the adults clink glasses and toast what they're going to do next year, the old folks cackle, the oldest ones cough--skim like sounds over a lake, tinkling and clear to Charles Bandy through the crisp, frostless mountain night. The mountain doesn't know it's New Year's Eve. The war doesn't know it's New Year's Eve.
Bandy opens his palms to the kerosene lantern he brought to the barn. He washes his hands in the little heat above the vent and thinks of the GIs freezing right now in foxholes and slit trenches in France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and Germany. Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes are dangling from beard-shrouded soldiers' lips right now. Surely some Tennessee tobacco is glowing over there.
The barn door slides open. Leaves in the rafters rustle their wrinkles; the barn takes on the feel of a cave coated in restless bats. This eerie sense disappears in just a moment, because it is her and no room she enters is a cave. She shuts the door. She has another lantern with her.
"What're you doing out here? Everyone's inside. It's almost time."
Bandy hears the piney woods in his wife's voice. Her accent is sugary, with rounded corners, not the serrated Appalachian tongue, not the mountain laurel. She comes from the flatlands, from Hendersonville, North Carolina. Her people farm tobacco down there too. Flue cured, where they keep a fire stoked in the barns day and night. They've got big plots of land, not the sloped slivers Bandy's tribe makes pay. The two met at Vanderbilt when he was a senior and she was a freshman. He graduated in journalism, then she got her teaching degree. They married and stayed in Memphis four more years. She taught third grade, he took photos for any rag that would buy them. Then eleven years ago he carried her up here to the mountains and everyone, kids, parents, family, farmers, fell over themselves for her. She could be mayor if there was a mayor; they have a postmaster and a sheriff, that's the extent of the government in these hills.
"You all right?" she asks.
"I'm fine, Vic."
"Well, come inside. Everyone's missing you. Your mama asked me to come get you."
"I'll be along directly."
"Charley, I'm not going to celebrate the New Year with you out here in the barn. I have spent enough time without you already." He thinks Victoria is referring to their war-time, years gouged out of the last decade, years of fear for her, and that she wants to make him sorry for it right now, again. But she steps up close and says something different, sweetly.
"You have been working way too hard since you got back. Your daddy's roof. Alvin's fence. Jane and Edgar's tractor. What about our house?"
She sets the lantern on the dirt floor. She slips her arms around his waist. "What about me?"
Bandy takes in her brown hair nestled under his nose. She's only five feet five, he's a good six-footer. She's got that teacher scent, squeaky clean, a role model for the kids, for sixteen years of marriage now. She's still cute, the cheerleader she used to be in college keeps dancing and doing splits in her eyes and smiles. Except for the difference in height, they look very much alike. Both have mousy hair, both are lean-faced with brown eyes. Perhaps that's why they took to each other with such speed when they met sixteen years ago, they recognized they were cut from the same tobacco-stained cloth. Bandy breathes her in. For a moment he can't smell the leaves in their firmament, or the war in its new year.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >