It’s too bad they were fighting a war in Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, because all the hills and valleys Helprin wrote about make me want to call a travel agent, so I too can take “shortcuts . . . over ridges and through defiles of whitened rock” and see “the towns of Italy, glittering below . . . in the warm summer air, . . . places in a children’s book or a fairy tale. Even the sea, a band of navy blue at night or turquoise at noon,
That’s the kind of writing you get with Helprin.
Soldier opens when a young man, Nicolo, misses a bus (the driver hates to stop for passengers). An old professor, Alessandro, takes pity on him and deboards. When the breathless Nicolo catches up, Alessandro offers to walk with him to his destination. Which is seventy kilometers away, mind you.
Their banter is endearing. The professor loses patience now and then with youthful foolishness. Asking Nicolo to name the countries of Europe, the youth comes up with Spain, Germany, Ireland and Mahogany. When informed that Alessandro fought in a war, Nicolo thinks he fought the English and the Americans.
“That was the Second World War,” says Alessandro.
“There was another war?”
“Yes, why do think it was called the Second World War?”
The seventy-kilometer walk serves as the entree act to Alessandro’s war memories, a colorful tale wherein he finds himself mingling with strangers in a trench. In their idle moments, , the soldiers pass along rumors about how many perished in the battle just over the hill and which rule infractions can get you placed in front of a firing squad.
Alessandro scales sheer-faced rocks, jumps from moving trains and rescues comrades until he’s bloody and muddy. He’s not above going AWOL from camp, especially when Venice lays just across the lagoon.
Along the way, Helprin toys with the reader by sprinkling in a few impossibly crazy-pants characters, one of them an aggrieved law-office scribe, his penmanship put out to pasture by the advent of the typewriter.
If you can endure frequent flights of speechiness and philosophizing, you will be rewarded with a story full of adventure and humor.
I think Alessandro and Nicolo stopped now and then for a picnic. And when I book my vacation to Italy and set out on my walks through Helprin’s scenery, I’ll take a break somewhere “with palms rising now and then from masses of walls and roofs that [look] like lakes of ochre and gold,” and I’ll pull out a couple of these Chicken Salad Sandwiches and have myself a Moment.
- 2 cups cubed cooked chicken
- 2 celery ribs, chopped
- 1/2 cup chopped green pepper
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
- 1/4 cup sweet pickle relish
- 1/4 cup chopped stuffed olive
- 1 TB dried minced onion
- 2 tsp.prepared mustard
- 3/4 to 1 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. pepper
- 12 English muffins, split and toasted
- 12 lettuce leaves
- 12 thin tomato slices
In a bowl, combine the first 11 ingredients; mix well. Top 12 muffin halves with lettuce leaves; spread with chicken salad. top with tomato slices and remaining muffin halves.
This recipe appeared in Quick Cooking Magazine, but is not available on its parent magazine’s website, Taste of Home. You can, however, find enough chicken salad recipes over there to eat a new one every week from now until Halloween or so.